Meet the Green Radicals: “Why not aim for the stars?”

Up The Garden Bath

Occasionally in life, you come across people who do things a little bit differently. Disruptors who propel change. Individuals with the sense of purpose to make a shift. One such person is Dave Poulton, co-founder of the community interest company Up The Garden Bath. With a team of hard-working volunteers, the organisation takes unwanted materials and upcycles them into garden planters. These are then installed in schools, community centres and residential care homes across Peterborough. The Moment sat down with him to talk about the environment, community cohesion, education and... bathtubs, of course.

Up The Garden BathCan you tell us more about what Up The Garden Bath does?
We’re an award-winning environmental and educational community project based in Peterborough. We work with local businesses to reduce waste and landfill. We take unwanted items, such as bathtubs, and we upcycle them into garden accessories.

We can tell you’ve answered that one before! What kind of services do you offer?
Up The Garden Bath provides volunteer opportunities to get involved with local community projects that boost social cohesion. We donate our upcycled bathtub planters to local educational facilities. Then we go in and deliver fun workshops that are tailored to the age and learning abilities of the participants. The project benefits not only those directly participating in the sessions, but also everyone who has access to the shared spaces.

Why did you decide to launch the scheme in the first place?
That’s an easy one to answer! Up The Garden Bath was launched after I found it hard to get back into employment after illness. We had upcycled an old bathtub into a herb garden in our back garden. A neighbour just flippantly said, ‘Oh, people would buy them, you know?’ And that was how we began.

From the initial idea, how did it progress into a fully-formed business?
We piloted the scheme for nine months, just to see if there was going to be a demand for it. We decided there was and that we could actually turn it into a business. So we officially formed in February 2020, which was the best time in the world to have created a community project, obviously…

Up The Garden BathOf course! A pandemic is ideal, isn’t it?
When I did the business plan, I didn’t factor in a worldwide pandemic that would shut us down within the first six weeks of our existence. Who could have seen that coming? But we persevered and we overcame. At the end of the day, we were encouraging everyone to get outside into the garden to upcycle and grow food. Then the government basically locked everyone in their gardens for six months, where they started upcycling and growing food. I wasn’t responsible for the pandemic, but I have been accused of that as part of a marketing ploy just to launch the business!

Sadly, we lost £18,000 worth of funding within the first two weeks of our business being registered because people who had agreed to be funders suddenly went, hang on, you’re not going to be able to do anything. And they switched their support to companies making scrubs or facemasks or delivering food. It was a tough first six weeks for our business.

Nobody could have predicted the arrival of a global pandemic…
I had to shield, and all of our plans just went up in smoke. But we persevered. We probably came out of lockdown stronger because people did start thinking about what happens in the future if we can’t rely on food systems? They started taking more of an interest in nature and growing their own food.

Did you have any kind of a background in gardening before this project?
No, not really! I’ve been a sales manager and marketing manager, and I’ve worked in media and been a journalist. But the good thing is that throughout all the jobs I’ve ever done, I’ve accrued skills that have helped Up The Garden Bath navigate the perilous trenches of hatred and hope that we’ve battled over the last few years. And we’re still doing it.

Up The Garden BathThere are a couple of different focuses to Up The Garden Bath: the environment and gardening. Do these matter to you personally?
Yes, but I would say there’s a third thing that is also very important and that’s education. Knowing how to grow your own food should be a life skill we all have. Let’s be honest, everything tastes better when you grow it yourself. It’s a skill that’s been passed down century to century to century. And, I mean, we all eat and we all need food, but people need to be taught how to grow that food, how to tend that food, and how to cook that food.

What pushes you to want to do these things?
I want to inspire others and bring people together. We always see Up The Garden Bath as more of a movement – not a cult – but a movement that brings together people with a like-minded ethos who all want to achieve the same thing. Working together in collaboration is the best way to do this.

You mention ‘we’, who is the other co-founder?
Absolutely, Kez [Hayes-Palmer] can’t be missed out. At the moment Kez runs our Queensgate Unity shop while I run around like a blue-arsed fly trying to deliver community projects. We’re very much a dynamic duo. She’s my rock – personally and professionally. Together, we’re very much focused on what we can deliver in this city.

Tell us more about the Unity shop…
During the lockdowns, we found access to our key markets of schools, community centres and residential homes blocked for obvious reasons. We invented a fabric pot (called the FabRE Pot), made from upcycled material that folds into an envelope as a way of continuing our business. We’ve sold about 20,000 of them since we launched. We then needed a little place to sell our fabric pots, and that led us into the world of retail. A couple of pop-ups later, and hey presto, we’re now in our permanent shop in Queensgate called Unity.

It is a collaborative retail project. It gives a space and a platform for around 50 small, local businesses to sell their wares. A lot of the products are sustainable. For example, we have someone who upcycles old beer cans into amazing butterfly artwork, and another who turns old books into beautiful jewellery.

Through the shop, we’ve generated £200,000 in sales for local businesses. We’ve basically turned the whole community project model on its head. We generate our own income by the revenue we get from the shop, and it enables us to do much, much more. It means we’re self-sustaining and it allows us to deliver more community projects across Peterborough.

Up The Garden BathIt’s amazing that, at a time when lots of small retail businesses are struggling, you’re managing to increase footfall and spend…
We knew that just our fabric plant pots on their own weren’t going to be enough. And it’s expensive to get a shop nowadays, so let’s all share the cost and the benefits. The response has been amazing. We were named runner-up Retailer of the Year in Queensgate, despite only having been officially opened as a store since November 2023.

Have you got anything else in the pipeline that you’re planning?
Most people, when they create a business, have just one focus. Not us! We’ve recently secured seven and a half acres of land to create Peterborough’s largest community garden on the old East of England Showground site. That’s going to be a massive project. I care about making a difference to the surrounding areas, which are very fragmented, have a high level of youth crime, and have had their community centres closed down.

The project is called the Oracle, which stands for ‘Outdoor Regional Agricultural Cultural Community Learning Experience’. That’s why we renamed it the Oracle, because I’m not saying that every day! Oracles are associated with wisdom and learning, and we want to create a real educational space where people can learn about recycling, growing, and – more importantly – make friends and come together in a shared project.

Up The Garden BathAnything else?
The next one you’re going to love: Gardening Angels. And the idea is that if you see a neighbour struggling to maintain their garden for whatever reason (such as age or disability) you nominate your neighbour. Then our gardening angels crew swoops in and we help get that garden back to a manageable level. I’m not talking about landscaping or the Chelsea Flower Show. It’s about cutting the grass and just getting it back to an easy level for that person to maintain.

We did a pilot a few years ago for someone who said he hadn’t opened his curtains for five years, because of the height of the grass in the back garden. Honestly, you could have lost me in it. Then we did it, and for the first time in over five years, he sat in his back garden in the sun and he started to cry. That was enough for me to go, okay, we can impact people really positively here.

You manage to mobilise people and get things happening. What is it about your personality that enables you to do that?
Charisma? Certainly not my looks! I don’t know, I’m very passionate. I remember one time giving a speech, and I felt a little like Jesus on the Mount! They were all just staring at me and when I finished they all clapped. Hang on, people actually listen to me? I’ve never had that before in my life. I seem to have found my voice and a way of reaching people.

You achieve so much. Do you ever get a chance to rest or have time off?
Most people would slow down. I, on the other hand, have accelerated because I have to. I want our projects to go on and inspire others. The template for what we’re doing could be rolled out anywhere in the UK. My aim is to get it to that stage. Every day we do something newsworthy.

This business has become mine and Kez’s life. It occupies everything we do. Most couples get home and chat to each other about how their days were. I know how Kez’s was because I was there beside her!

Up The Garden BathHave you always lived in Peterborough?
No, I moved here in 1994 from Luton. There are a lot of positives about Peterborough, but there needs to be more emphasis on social cohesion. For the last decade, the media has been
on a campaign to divide us. During Covid, one week they were asking us to clap for nurses and to make sure our neighbours were all right. And then the next week it was like, ‘and don’t forget to grass on your neighbours!’ Well, that’s not going to promote bloody community spirit, is it?

What’s been your biggest achievement so far?
Up The Garden Bath provides training opportunities for a network of individuals who have found their route into mainstream employment blocked for various reasons. In 2022, we took on one person who had been homeless for three years and suffered from PTSD. He volunteered initially and now he’s a permanent member of staff with us. And he’s about to be a father this summer. So for us to be able to take a human that was absolutely broken, and now see him getting in my van to go to work every single day, well that outstrips anything I’ve ever done. To see him be part of the world and not hiding away anymore has been amazing.

Will you ever have achieved your goal, or will you just keep going?
Definitely keep on going! I’d love to influence legislation so that any new build development of a certain size should, by law, incorporate community gardening spaces from the outset. And
as for Unity, again, it’s very applicable to other places. We’re planning to take Unity on tour, so we’re hiring venues in local counties. Gardening Angels again is something that could be rolled out across the UK. We’ve built this business in a way where hopefully it could continue to grow and expand without me.

So what you’re talking about here is world domination…
I think why not aim for the stars, and if you hit the clouds, well, it’s still worth it!

Up The Garden Bath

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