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Growing Grounds celebrates four decades of providing purpose 

About 90 percent of U.S. adults with serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, anxiety, and major depression, are unemployed, according to a Rutgers study from 2020.

"A lot of times, because of anxiety and depression, the idea of even applying for a job is so daunting," Transitions-Mental Health Association (TMHA) Community Engagement Director Michael Kaplan said. "At Growing Grounds what you have is this incredibly supportive environment."

Through therapeutic horticulture, Growing Grounds Farm and Nursery has provided vocational training, paid employment, socialization opportunities, and soft skills to adults living with severe and persistent mental illness since 1984. The nonprofit program operated by TMHA is celebrating its 40th anniversary on April 20 from noon to 5 p.m. at its San Luis Obispo nursery with live music, food trucks, plants sales, terracotta pot decorating, and ice cream.

click to enlarge SOCIAL ENTERPRISE Growing Grounds employees help native plants thrive at the nursery in San Luis Obispo, which will be open for a community party on April 20 to celebrate the organization's 40-year anniversary. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL KAPLAN
  • Photo Courtesy Of Michael Kaplan
  • SOCIAL ENTERPRISE Growing Grounds employees help native plants thrive at the nursery in San Luis Obispo, which will be open for a community party on April 20 to celebrate the organization's 40-year anniversary.

Kaplan said about 150 client employees (often referred by the SLO County Department of Behavioral Health or Santa Barbara County Behavioral Wellness) go through the Growing Grounds programs annually, either working at the nursery and farm in San Luis Obispo, the farm in Santa Maria, or at the shop in downtown SLO.

"I think that Growing Grounds has this absolutely unique combination of No. 1, introducing our clients to the therapeutic aspects of horticulture and working outside and just the experience of planting something and seeing it grow," Kaplan said. "There is a reason that so many millions of people are devoted to gardening."

The nursery began its journey by growing lettuce for local restaurants, but TMHA realized it wasn't necessarily a stable market and Growing Grounds was battling against other growers and bagged, pre-washed products. So, the nonprofit decided to take a different tack, changing the nursery to focus on providing drought tolerant, Mediterranean plants to the community, local landscapers, and places like Miner's Ace Hardware.

Employees "are involved in every aspect of production from propagating and seed cleaning, to planting, weeding, watering, pruning, selecting, and preparing orders for delivery and helping on deliveries to customers," according to a Growing Grounds fact sheet. They also work with and for people who understand what they're going through, Kaplan said.

The employment provides a sense of purpose and is a huge piece of the puzzle for their clients, who often participate in TMHA's other programs, such as the Supportive Employment Program, which works regularly with the three Growing Grounds businesses. In collaboration with the California Department of Rehabilitation, clients are trained on résumé building and job interviews and work with job coaches.

"A lot of people want to work and feel like people aren't willing to take a chance on them," Kaplan said. "Having a sense of purpose ... it can be just so important, so great for the soul."

Although, it's primarily a wholesale operation, the nursery at 3740 Orcutt Road in San Luis Obispo is open to the public every Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Look for the bright yellow tag in the pot with Growing Grounds flower logo at nurseries around the county. For more information, visit

Fast facts

SLO County Library branches in Cambria, Los Osos, and Nipomo are showcasing Awareness Galleries dedicated to mental wellness and substance abuse. The free exhibits are a collaboration with the SLO County Behavioral Health Department and will run through the end of April. Available in English and Spanish, they're designed to educate the public on stress management techniques and provide information about alcohol, cannabis, and opioid use with a focus on overdose prevention, according to a press release. For more information, visit

• The sixth annual Love SLO community-wide day of service will be held on April 13 as part of the national Love Our Cities movement, which aims to meet the needs of the community, demonstrate kindness, and impact lives, according to a press release. More than 1,000 volunteers sign up for more than 50 service projects annually through Love SLO. The event will kick off in Mission Plaza at 8 a.m. with breakfast, coffee, and activities for kids. Service projects run from 9 a.m. to noon. To volunteer for any of the 2024 projects, sign up by visiting Δ

Reach Editor Camillia Lanham at [email protected].

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