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  • Writer's pictureMarnie Birch

Inspiring Growth and Generosity

Nicole Stokes’ grassroots gardening network in the Burpengary community is unlike most small business initiatives, as Nicole is not out to make money.

Nicole Stokes’ grassroots gardening network in the Burpengary community is unlike most small business initiatives, as Nicole is not out to make money. Instead, she aims to share her expertise and exchange homemade produce, knowledge, and skills with a network of friends and colleagues. Using social media, she educates and inspires them to grow and share with the community.

It's rare that someone is more interested in fostering community than making money. Nicole Stokes is a modern-day gardener, qualified in horticulture and sustainability, who has set up a grassroots swap and share network in Burpengary. Like her homegrown veggies, Nicole’s group is growing fast, inspiring and educating others, in the broader community as they exchange and share homegrown produce, crafts, and skills.

“It is hard these days. A lot of people are struggling. It is nice to know that you are giving something to someone.

Formerly a member of a now-defunct swap and share community group, Nicole saw first-hand that people had little time to attend dedicated swap days. Undaunted, Nicole began her own community exchange operative with unlimited swap times two years ago, starting with a small greenhouse her partner had built from which she swapped plants and produce with other locals.

“People are busy, she acknowledges. They’re happy to drop something off and swap for something else as long as it’s in their own time.” To spread the word about her initiative, Nicole created a Facebook group and like her home garden, it has flourished, now boasting over 500 members.

“When I grew up, we’d swap sugar and flour [with neighbours]. We just don’t have that anymore. I’m trying to get that sense of community back,” Nicole says. Given the daily comings and goings at her home-based swap and share table, life is hectic, but she enjoys it, saying, “It’s hard for people these days. They are struggling. It’s nice to know that I’m giving something to someone.”

Although she has qualifications in horticulture and sustainability, Nicole has worked in childcare for 25 years and was often tasked with maintaining the gardens at her workplace.

“I love children and always loved gardening,” she says, explaining how she combines her two passions. Any spare moment she has, away from work, she propagates vegetables, mushrooms and ornamental plants, tends the aquaponic and hydroponic systems or makes her own potting mixes from the ‘army’ of compost bins and worm farms in her backyard.

Everything is grown naturally; worm juice is the only spray and fertiliser necessary and native bees pollinate the plants. Despite a few bugs, fruit flies and predators to contend with, Nicole’s small garden produces loads of organically grown food. The lemon tree overflows with fruit; she has star fruit and bananas galore, and there’s a healthy crop of mushrooms in the back shed.

Surprisingly, Nicole insists large spaces aren’t essential to growing food, “You can grow plants using foam boxes or buckets, at very little cost. That’s what I want to teach people. Even if you live in a unit, you can grow things.”

Nicole’s aquaponic and hydroponic system grows enough lettuce and herbs to supply a local café from time to time, perpetually renewing plants from the seeds she has collected.

“When they [plants] run to seed, I dry and re-plant them,” she says. “If you grow your own seed, you produce better. They’ve been grown in this soil, so I know they will grow well in this area. “

On any day, Nicole might swap fresh veggies, worm castings or quail eggs for rosemary cuttings or plants from another group member. Skills are shared and taught too. A friend teaches Nicole how to manage the native bees in the garden. In return, she sells his honey at a table at the front of her property, where you’ll also find plants, bottles of worm juice, gardening books and other swap items.

“We all make stuff,” she says of the group members.” Someone dropped off cream this morning, and we swap hand-made soaps. Everything is made from scratch. A mate picked up a box of veggies the other week and wanted to pay me, but usually, we swap and share. If we sell stuff, it’s to cover costs, not anything else.”

Most members are locals, but far-flung members swap plants and seeds via the post or share their skills online. Swapping composting tips, things to do with kaffir limes, how to make sourdough or DIY mosaics.

“I spoke to a lady from Cairns yesterday and she’s teaching me how to pollinate plants. It’s sharing with people and developing networks and friendships,” Nicole says, adding that the group is both supportive and reciprocal. “It is not just what I am giving to them; they’re teaching me as well. I’ve learnt a lot through study, and I learn a lot from others.”

One secret to her group’s success might be using video as a media posting tool, something she started doing for her family who live in Victoria. “People liked seeing the videos. They reach more people.” Of her future direction, Nicole says she’ll “keep growing the community and sharing.”

Facebook: Nicole’s Garden, Produce and Worm Farming Group


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