Shoppers talk loudly as bags of goods dangle from their arms. Children squeal while playing in the fountain. An ambulance wails on its way to an emergency. But amidst all of this hustle and bustle of Downtown San Luis Obispo is a peaceful oasis known as the Growing Grounds Downtown Garden Center and Gift Shop. Time seems to stop at this one-of-a-kind garden shop owned and operated by the nonprofit Transitions-Mental Health Association (TMHA).
One of the many arms of TMHA, Growing Grounds Downtown is one of a few places where the public can directly buy products grown at one of the organization’s two farms.
These wholesale nurseries offer therapeutic horticulture programs to people with mental illnesses in the community. The San Luis Obispo location grows drought-tolerant native plants and succulents, and Santa Maria’s produces vegetable starters, herbs and fresh flowers.
Linda Neugent, job coach and assistant manager at Growing Grounds Downtown, first discovered the tranquility of Growing Grounds Downtown while passing by on Palm Street. A gardener herself, Neugent immediately knew she wanted to work there. Five years later, she still enjoys the time she spends at the store because of the atmosphere and the good cause of giving back to the community.
“It’s been very therapeutic for me just to dig in the dirt,” Neugent said. “You are doing something, giving back, watching something grow, and it makes you feel good. You are participating in something that is doing someone some good.”
The shop sells all kinds of plants, including specialty varieties such as terrarium and air plants that only need light, water and air to survive — no dirt necessary. The staff knows all there is to know about plants and gardening techniques.
“I think most people love the store not only for its plants and ambience, but because they are so overwhelmed by how beautiful it is,” Neugent said. “I also think our customer service is really good in the respect that we do go out of our way to answer questions and help people find the right plants for their situation.”
Some staff members know the answers, like Neugent, they have been gardening for years. Others are learning through their work at the therapeutic horticulture program at the Growing Grounds farms. In that program, they learn how to propagate, plant, weed and pot plants, but often they want even more experience.
“A lot of times they want to see what the next step is,” Neugent said, “so they will come here and do a work experience with us (at the store),”
Growing Grounds store coordinator Christine Story helps place and train these workers to work shifts at the store. It is part of a larger THMA effort called the Support Employment Program, which helps job seekers discover their strengths and find jobs that fit them.
“We have this great partnership with the farms.” story said. “We all have the common goal of providing work experience for folks, so it has been efficient for all of us to work together like this.”
Beyond plants, the store offers locally handcrafted artwork, jewelry and free trade products, including the work of well-known ceramic artist Charles Varni. Varni, a succulent enthusiast, creates organic, flowing planters in a studio on his large property in Oceano.
“I am looking to make pots that enhance the wonderful, architectural geometric beauty of succulents in terms of their shape and their color,” Varni said.
He uses clay that, when fired, takes on the color and texture of natural rock and colors seen in geological forms.
Varni especially enjoys the personal connection that comes with having his work showcased in a locally focused store. He often comes to San Luis Obispo for Growing Grounds Downtown events to meet with the people who buy his products.
“I think that there is a consciousness in San Luis Obispo of living locally, buying locally and supporting people locally,” Varni said. “There is a lot of pride in terms of where we live and a lot of appreciation for it.”
Growing Grounds Downtown is located at 956 Chorro. All proceeds made at the shop toward TMHA programs that support mental health causes. An open house will be held on Nov. 21 and 22.