FROM little acorns, mighty oak trees grow, the saying goes.

And a small project started just under 20 years ago that involved gardening has blossomed into a big success.

It was set up within Lennox Castle Hospital, near Milton of Campsie, Dunbartonshire, a residential hospital for adults with learning disabilities.

The project allowed some of the more able-bodied residents to get physical exercise and gain valuable work experience, through gardening.

After the announcement that the hospital would close, the independent charity Silver Birch was set up in 1996 to continue the project's work.

Since then, the charity has moved from various sites, before finally settling in its current, 11-acre home in Milton of Campsie, near the Campsie Fells.

But the premises were not always the most welcoming, and it was only after a £300,000 refurbishment last year that the charity felt it could extend its services to the wider community.

Mark McCrorie, Silver Birch's business and development manager, said: "We were working out of portable cabins and there was no central heating.

"Now we have a canteen that can seat up to 60 for lunch, a purpose-built kitchen, changing facilities, new toilets and full central heating.

"When we did not have these facilities, we were very limited in the number of people we could have here for health and safety reasons.

"But now we are opening the doors and trying to highlight the service to the wider community as much as possible."

Currently, 61 people attend between one and five days a week to develop their skills and get work experience through "therapeutic horticulture".

Through their work they produce a large range of gardening products, including mushroom compost, multi-purpose compost, bark, shrubs and plants that can then be sold to customers.

This, in turn, raises about 8% of the charity's annual income.

Last December, the charity was also the most recent recipient of a £10,000 grant from the Gannett Foundation, parent company of Newsquest, which owns the Evening Times.

Every year charities are encouraged to submit applications for one of the many grants Gannett makes available across the UK.

Mr McCrorie said: "The Gannett cash went towards a mini-bus, a larger one that allows more individuals to attend the service, so that has made a big difference to us.

"Because we are in a rural location, it is important we try to encourage as many different people from as many areas to come to our service, and the mini-bus is an important part of that."

Peter McMahon has clocked up nearly 10 years' work experience with the charity.Last year he completed an SVQ in Horticulture, at Langside College, and helps in the sales area. The 48-year-old said: "This is a great service – I love it.

"If you could have seen where this project originated, in Kirkintilloch, you would not have wanted to come. It was in an old milk shed. These premises are a king compared to what we had.

"I come here 4½days a week. When I start in the morning I set everything out nice and straight, so it is eye-catching for the customers.

"Lining up the plants is good to help keep me right when I am watering them.

"I have made a lot of friends, they're all good."

Mr McMahon, who lives in Easterhouse, appeared in the Evening Times last year when we reported how he made an award-winning film after being bullied by a groups of girls on a local bus.

He will also be at Silver Birch's Spring Open Weekend, which starts on Saturday, and will show off the charity's new stock.

Mr McCrorie added: "Any profits from the sales are reinvested in the charity, so that is also promoting the charitable side of the organisation.

"If people are thinking of doing their garden, and the weather is getting better, then people who buy products at Silver Birch know they are helping people a bit more vulnerable than themselves.

"So you are also giving something else back."

The Spring Open Weekend runs 10am-4pm on Saturday and Sunday and will include a tombola and barbecue. It is at: 6a Lochmill Holdings, Antermony Road, Milton of Campsie. If you want to use your car satnav to find it, the postcode is G66 8AE.

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WHEN a project to help people with learning difficulties was established 20 years ago it was hoped it would create a link to the workplace. As FIONA McKAY discovered, with a helping hand from the Evening Times, Silver Birch is going from strength to strength