“When I first came here I found new visitors rarely understood that they were in an organic garden at all,” says James Campbell.
“I want to attract visitors who want to come here to learn about organic gardening rather than just to visit a pretty garden to sit in with gran and have a cup of tea afterwards.
“I want people to leave clutching a pot full of compost which a child has planted a seed in, thinking ‘When I get home I can do something new’.”
Garden Organic, in Coventry, the UK’s biggest charity devoted to organic gardening, has a new captain at the helm.
James Campbell left his job as acting chief development officer with the Earthwatch Institute to become chief executive with Garden Organic last October.
He took over from Myles Bremner, who left to become director of the School Food Plan, a new Government initiative to increase the quality of school dinners and teach children how to grow their own food.
Over the last year Garden Organic has seen changes to staffing, to the visitor attraction and to the charity’s partnerships and James is now promising a new focus to keep things strictly organic.
He says: “It’s almost that we’ve been embarrassed to say that we’re organic. I don’t feel embarrassed – I feel proud. I want to get out there and say we are an organic garden.”
The 54-year-old father-of-three from Oxford, first visited Ryton 25 years ago as an enthusiastic beginner gardener.
He says: “I didn’t come from a gardening background at all. But I just wanted the satisfaction of being able to eat something I’d grown myself. Back then they (Garden Organic) were pioneers, fighting a battle against the horticultural mainstream.
“It was quite radical at the time. It was a genuinely inspiring place and I went away clutching a lot of fact sheets and signed up as a member.
“Growing organic was seen as very alternative and Prince Charles was a bonkers royal who talked to his plants and was heading for the loony asylum.
“I think people just forget how far we’ve come. It’s no longer about convincing people it’s good, it’s about making it more accessible.”
Some visitors to Ryton were concerned when the charity teamed up with non-organic garden centre Webbs, to run its on-site shop and cafe.
James describes the two as “uncomfortable bed fellows” and says they finally “mutually agreed” to part ways. Where visitors were once welcomed into a shop area next to a cafe, the entrance to Garden Organic now takes you straight into an open plan office. As part of the separation terms Garden Organic agreed not to run a shop or cafe at Ryton for several months and in the interim period it has been supplying visitors with free tea and coffee.
But next month it will be launching a new cafe in the former restaurant building, run as the first permanent catering space for Fresh Rootz, a vegetarian and vegan street food catering enterprise from Leamington.
Produce from the gardens will be on the menu and it is hoped the cafe will become a destination, opening in the evenings and catering for weddings and other events.
From next month the site will also be stocking a limited range of products but, as with the venue’s events, James is adamant they will be organic products only, including seeds and compost, that can’t easily be found elsewhere. There is also talk of a weekly organic market on a Saturday.
This year’s potato day, which had become the most popular annual event on the charity’s calendar with visitors flocking to buy unusual varieties of seed potatoes, was axed because it included non-organic potatoes.
James says: “It’s a bit like taking a huge roast to the Vegetarian Society. That’s something I was very uncomfortable with.
“We as a charity shouldn’t be promoting activities involving non-organic things.”
For future events he hopes to team up with local groups but is adamant that what’s offered on site must be 100 per cent organic.
And he’s changing the focus of Garden Organic’s work to concentrate more on national and international research, proudly stating that the charity is the lead partner in the Food Growing Schools project.
He says: “I want to position Garden Organic as the national, if not international charity for growing and gardening.
“Research with our members found we were spending a disproportionate amount of time and research on this site rather than on our national aims.”
In a recent re-organisation, six gardeners at Ryton, filling five full-time equivalent roles, have been reduced to three full-time equivalents.
“We have had to make some reductions, like most charities,” explains James.
“When I came here in the autumn we were running at a deficit and no organisation can afford to do that.
“We’ve had to do some scaling back but we’ve done that in a very fair way with consultations and discussions with our staff, and whilst we’ve lost a handful of people there are only two people who have been made redundant.
‘‘All others either chose to take voluntary redundancy or transferred into another position.”
The charity is now actively recruiting two people in marketing and social media and one person to manage volunteers.
While Garden Organic membership (one of the charity’s main revenue streams alongside donations and public sector funded programmes) has gone down from 39,000 to 28,000 since the start of the recession, membership income hasn’t seen such a dramatic dip, as the loyal members sticking with the charity are either agreeing to pay more or donating in addition. And James says public-funded projects have seen a boost over the last three years.
To freshen up the visitor attraction, the former indoor area The Vegetable Kingdom has been dismantled and will be replaced by The Organic Way with a stronger focus on organic growing and giving visitors an introduction to what they are going to see outdoors.
The gardens will continue to give visitors some insight into basic organic growing, from soil care, composting and how to deal with pests, to how to grow exotic crops, how to create microclimates and how to keep a productive allotment plot all year round. And from next month the gardens will be open to visitors on Sundays free of charge.
James says: “The rumour mill is always going but no, we are not in financial difficulties and no we are not going bust.
“Myles inherited a deficit which he had to deal with from his predecessor.
“And the funding environment now is looking a lot more positive than it was a couple of years ago.
“In 2013 we ended the year at just about breaking even, within £10,000. This year we should make a modest surplus.
“That will give us the financial security we need to plan ahead.
“Yes, there’s going to be change and I think it’s going to be beneficial.
“Things won’t be as they always were and clearly there are some people who find any change challenging and would like things to be always as they were. But no charity or organisation should stand still. We should always be changing and moving forward.”