Muddy Jo and the quest to save the world!
- Credit: Archant
We all know that being outside, growing fresh fruit and veg and helping nature, is better than being stuck inside, breathing re-circulated air and eating processed food. 'Greener Growth' is striving to change the balance ? and winning
I first met Joannah Metcalfe in prison. (That didn't come out right. Start again.) I first met Joannah Metcalfe in the grounds of an open prison where soon-to-be-released inmates and her organisation Greener Growth were reviving a walled garden. The bountiful borders and plots of flowers and vegetables were firm evidence of the principle of 'Recovery Through Nature' – for land and man.
That was the summer of 2014 – the year after Jo started spreading the message about the sense of purpose and achievement gained from growing things and helping wildlife. Today, the figures trip off her tongue.
'Greener Growth has planted over 1,000 Heritage fruit trees since we last met, been involved in the lives of just under 12,000 children, worked with about 2,500 prisoners, put up about 200 birdboxes, 200 batboxes and 30-ish hedgehog boxes.'
Jo definitely doesn't let the grass grow under her feet. Well, actually, she does – if she can.
Basically, it's all about people making the world a better place and feeling happier and healthier, in body and soul, through growing food and transforming underused land. Outside spaces are 're-greened' and become great habitats for wildlife.
The focus is on 'permaculture' – a chemical-free, self-sustaining, low-impact philosophy – and building a sense of togetherness through shared activity.
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Greener Growth is working in three main areas: prisons, schools, and communities.
An example: Wayland jail near Thetford. Work there has turned old buildings and aviary into a potting shed and greenhouse. There are nine large timber-framed raised beds, along with four wildlife ponds, willow boundary fences, arbours, a memorial garden, and more.
Food, nutrition and budgeting courses have helped inmates learn how to prepare and cook the produce they grow.
At Southwold, Greener Growth has worked with The Millennium Foundation to reinvigorate part of a meadow off the main road into town. Forty fruit trees went in – shielding views of a car park and giving local people a crop of fruit.
The blueprint for this ongoing work then envisages a stage area with raised beds and pergolas for an outdoor teaching area, plays and concerts, and for growing food and helping biodiversity.
The vision features wildlife viewing platforms, walkways, a Southwold history site in a Second World War bunker, bird-, bat- and hedgehog-boxes, and loos.
The genesis of Greener Growth was in the years when Jo was a single mum, supplementing food for herself and her daughter by keeping chickens and tending a vegetable patch. She'd also been working as a natural health therapist for about 25 years.
'I noticed that if I'd had a really tough clinic day, treating very depressed people, even after half an hour outside, doing a bit of weeding or turning the compost heap, I would come inside grounded and calm again. It was like a switch had been flipped.'
Jo spent about 18 months volunteering at Blundeston prison, working with inmates and psychotherapists and 'just testing out the theories of what I thought might work'.
And then Greener Growth was born.
She explains: 'The fundamental ethos is getting people outside, reconnecting with nature and food, and having a healthier lifestyle, because it seems to me that many of the ills we suffer from as a society are at least in part due to that disconnect with nature and the natural rhythms of life.'
So far, so green. If all goes to plan, the community interest company should become a charity later this year. That should allow it to expand its work (so far concentrated largely in East Anglia) further afield. Work in prisons would probably be the first sign of that, as it's relatively easier to get funding for rehabilitation.
Jo (her Muddy Jo nickname, by the way, reflects her love of getting stuck in outside) is optimistic about the future, as long as society recognises we need to nurture wildlife and reconnect ourselves with nature, outdoors activity and healthy food.
A project finished in 2016 at George White Junior School shows what can be done.
The school is in a very built-up part of Norwich and had a barren schoolyard covered in asphalt. A science lesson 'bug hunt' apparently found only ants! Where were birds, bees, butterflies?
A package of improvements – including wildlife pond, raised beds, tyre islands (with things planted in them), a mini-orchard to grow food, piles of logs in the corners to create habitats – worked wonders.
'This is an absolutely fundamental driver for me: If you build it, they (wildlife) will come,' says Jo. 'Within weeks the children were finding frogs, and insects they'd never seen before. A tiny addition can make a profound difference to wildlife. And if you make a profound difference to the wildlife, the impact on the children is also an absolute joy to behold.'