Using gardening for therapy is the cornerstone of Kevin Heinze GROW (KHG), a social enterprise operating in the Doncaster and Coburg suburbs of Melbourne.  The interrelationship between people, the environment and climate is obvious when people are working with and in nature throughout the week.  This organisation is definitely a Sustainability Champion.

How does KHG use gardening for therapy?

KHG delivers high quality training and development to a range of participants through the lens of gardening activities. Participants are in their school years through to senior years, with diverse learning needs, including autism, dementia, ABI (acquired brain injury) or stroke or may be trauma-impacted or have some other disability.

Staff use the framework of therapeutic horticulture[1] to deliver, currently, over 750 hours of individual service to over 70 individual participants. Participants come from all  over Melbourne and many find it is the only place that really works for them.

Training programs incorporate therapeutic horticulture to great success and to an extent unseen elsewhere in Australia. As KHG’s CEO, Dr. Josh Fergeus puts it:

“…..a lot of the work going on with therapeutic horticulture is really around design and there’s some groups being run but nothing like KHG which is, you know, (running) week-round, in a couple of locations, with the number of participants that we have.  It’s probably the UK, for example, that has some examples of sort of what we are doing at a similar scale. But I think, we’re fairly unique in a lot of ways.”

 “….. I think (there needs to be growth) in understanding how it (therapeutic horticulture) can be utilised and harnessed….

Both Melbourne sites offer a training nursery. One site has a café with associated hospitality training and has future plans to bring this to the other site, including a coffee servery. Participants tend to be involved for many years enabling the organisation to have a long-lasting impact on how participants live the rest of their lives. This fact is not lost on those at the organisation who see it as a great privilege but also a great responsibility.

“ We work with participants at a range of skill levels and who have a range of capacity for involving themselves in you know, various meaningful ways in society for the rest of their lives and those that are just on the cusp of job readiness or with a planned period of time for them to enter mainstream workforce we’d hope that they take some of those values with them.”

This includes a strong message of sustainability.  An example is encouraging participants to minimize external packaging when they bring lunches from outside.

 “ Participants with us for longer get an understanding of how they can do things in a more sustainable way.”

How is sustainability woven through daily operations?

Accessible toilet

A key concern for KHG is water use so they aim to use as little potable water as possible. This is facilitated through the installation of large water tanks and use of the overland flow which runs into the local council retarding basin.

Additionally, grey water management is being explored. They have a new accessible toilet being installed that will link in very closely with the nursery’s water cycling. These strategies consider how to make the most of the natural resources available.

KHG’s philosophy is to reuse what is out there in the community so it doesn’t end up in landfill. Recycling nursery pots, mostly donated, is one example of this and the practice of pot brushing ahead of reuse is a constant activity carried out by participants. Upcycling of furniture and use of everyday items in gardening are some other strong sustainability examples.

Smart plant choice and water retention approaches in the garden and nursery are further examples. Native Australian plants are prioritised as are plants that offer rich sensory experiences for participants. Plants are sourced from sustainable and ethical providers such as Scotsburn Nursery. KHG also provides gardening workshops to educate their participants and the local community.

When it comes to their hospitality program KHG have partnered with a sustainable coffee provider, the Cornerstore Network and alongside using sustainable coffee and operating as a no-to-low-waste hospitality provider, they will begin a food preserving project in 2022 with the local community, leading to a community food hub and preservery.

Coffee grounds from the café are used in the gardens, chickens produce eggs and provide a mobile composting service to build rich soil. In the café there are no takeaway cups, just mugs that people can borrow and bring back and no plastic

Peppertree Cafe

packaging is permitted. At the Coburg site many vegetables and garden greens for the hospitality program actually come from onsite and there is minimal purchase at the local market.

How does KHG find the best staff to promote sustainability?

Josh thinks they are very lucky with staff because people seem to come to KHG because they want to work in that sort of environment, they are already passionate about nature and passionate about sustainability. He believes that there are plenty of places where they they could work in disability or mental health but they choose KHG, because it is the perfect blend of their passion for people and for the natural environment.

Their staff need to be convinced that KHG is:

leading in delivering experiential learning and positive personal development through the use of therapeutic horticulture principles and our natural environment”.

Are there hidden costs of operating sustainably?

 It can be relatively expensive, especially for a not-for-profit where resources are tight, to implement approaches to having minimal impact.  Installing water-saving measures and a solar system complete with battery require initial capital investment in order to yield cheaper ongoing running costs and it has been through government grants and other support that KHG has been able to make the challenging transition to greater energy efficiency.

Where to from here?

“ We try and work at a pace that is sustainable for us with our energy and participant capacity but we’re always looking at the next thing.”

These are some sustainability areas Josh has identified as needing some improvement.  These include food miles, meaning KHG will continue to buy and source sustainable food supplies. KHG would also like to explore what the best plants are to help them adjust to a warming climate, while still providing sensory plants for programs. They will look for greener options, for example, they may transition to coloured pots to enable easier recycling and consider greener choices such as cowpots (made from cow manure) or planting seedlings into empty toilet rolls.

KHG is committed to being sustainable into the future because they understand the importance of meeting the challenges of a warming climate. They even think that, at some times of the year, KHG may not be able to offer their services as they do now.  As Josh puts it, “ I do think assisting people to learn ways of living that are low use, low impact are going to set them up really well for the future because we know what’s going to need to happen in the future and that’s that we all consume less.”


  1.  Therapeutic horticulture is the use of garden environments as a therapeutic intervention. This can include the growth, care and maintenance of these environments as well as the simple act of spending time in gardens.