Interview - Linda Phillips, founder and director, Roots & Shoots

Roots & Shoots was founded in 1982 on a former civil defence site with the aim of helping young people in South London to prepare for work. Since then the site has been transformed and now includes an eco-training centre with environmental features such as a photovoltaic roof, a plant nursery, shop, Wildlife Study Centre and Wild Garden.

Linda Phillips, founder and director, Roots & Shoots - image: HW
Linda Phillips, founder and director, Roots & Shoots - image: HW

The charity provides vocational training for 16-24-year-olds, aiming to give them skills and improve their confidence. A recent Ofsted report said the charity makes outstanding provision for disadvantaged young people. Founder and director Linda Phillips was awarded an MBE for services to young people in the New Year Honours List.

Q: How did you get into gardening?

A: I had my first garden at three years old and I've been plant-obsessed since a young age. I used to buy Amateur Gardening with my pocket money. I got a Royal Parks apprenticeship when I was 18 at Hampton Court, at Stud Nursery in Home Park. Then I spent three years at Kew. It was a life-changing experience. Everyone there is plant-focused and I met many people who remain friends.

Q: What happens at Roots & Shoots?

A: We provide training programmes for young people in horticulture or retail, and in personal development. Trainees on the horticulture course do work experience with local parks. We do environmental education with schools and rent out rooms for charities. We are also home to the London Beekeepers Association. We have very good staff here - they are very committed. I deal with policies and strategies, but I still get my hands dirty and help with training.

Q: Why is horticulture well suited to helping young people?

A: You can do horticulture at any level and it's therapeutic. You can learn the basic skills and it can be the basis for a degree. There's space for everyone. We encourage people to take up horticulture as a practical skill. Not everyone is a manager - you need someone who can use a strimmer. They do work experience at places including Buckingham Palace and the Chelsea Physic Garden. It's important youngsters are doing something physical. They are often told they are rubbish at things, but everyone has got their niche. We had one trainee who was overweight and had been bullied. He used horticulture as therapy and went on to get a level 2 diploma at Capel Manor.

Q: Do many of the trainees stay in horticulture?

A: Quite a few go on to work in horticulture. It tends to be parks. From my class at Kew, everyone has done something different, all in horticulture. There is an amazingly wide spectrum. It is art and science. You can never know it all. I go round gardens and nurseries, talking to people on the way, and I pick up all sorts of tips. No-one is really a total expert. It doesn't have to be competitive - that exchange of information is vital.

Q: How do you involve people in the local area?

A: I give talks at local societies and we're committed to getting local people growing and being more sustainable. A lot of basic skills have skipped a generation. There are some young people whose only contact with the natural world is the Brixton allotments. We run a programme called Grow, Cook & Eat. They make apple juice, which teaches them the production process using natural ingredients.

Q: Where do you get your funding?

A: We've had a lot of financial ups and downs. Everything you see here I've fundraised for - the training is funded by the Government. Everyone is short at the moment. It goes in cycles. We were in the same predicament in the 1990s. In 1994 we were about to go under, but (Vauxhall MP) Kate Hoey got involved. She raised our plight in the House of Lords and put pressure on the civil servants.

Q: How did you raise the money for your eco building?

A: Before the building here now there was a Scout hut with an asbestos roof and mottled glass - it wasn't fit for training any more. We got planning permission for a new building and then we had to raise the money. We raised £1.3m from the Department for Education, the lottery and the London Development Agency, as well as cheques from local people that came to £10,000. Once you've got money it attracts more money. Prince Charles officially opened the building in 2007. We rely a lot on good publicity. The MBE, the Ofsted report and winning awards are all part of that. We have won the UNESCO UK Man & Biosphere Urban Wildlife Award for Excellence and the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association Silver Spade award. In this difficult economic climate you have got to shine above the others.


1971-75: Apprentice, Royal Parks

1978-81: Diploma, Kew

1982 to date: Director, Roots & Shoots

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