TreeMobile: Growing Community Resilience

TreeMobile logo, a hand-written script where the "T" is made into a shovel with gerenery on the top.


Welcome aboard the TreeMobile!

For over ten years, TreeMobile has been providing people with food-bearing plants at great prices. We offer a carefully selected list of everything from apples to asparagus for the home grower. We sell (mostly) bare root plants in spring, which is more affordable and is the best way to plant fruit. Garden centers sell potted plants which may or may not have been watered regularly, and are often varieties that are hard to grow without a lot of chemicals.

Our online store opens in early winter, and we deliver plants in spring for a nominal fee. We also have a popular self-pickup option at multiple locations – it’s free, and we have been able to forge new bonds with many green groups during the pickups. We have a real-life laboratory of sorts, the St. Saviour’s Urban Orchard, where we test out new varieties. Our fantastic selection of high-quality plants and the options of delivery and planting sets us apart.

The beauty of this project is the simplicity – it is self-funded by the buyers and run by volunteers.

Plants are paid for by customers in advance so we only buy what we need, though some plants such as asparagus are bought in bulk. (Extras go to grant recipients and volunteers so nothing is wasted). We apply a small markup for operating costs, and to cover the cost of our Edible Community Garden Grants. In addition to our online sales, we deliver bulk orders to other green groups such as the TRCA’s SNAP program, and have helped to create several permaculture orchards. Working with other groups also has the benefit of helping to spread the word about TreeMobile.

Many people want to grow some of their food, but don’t know where to start. TreeMobile makes it so simple: great selection of plants, good info, easy to order, and the delivery and planting options are great for those without a car or who need help with planting. Knowing that my order helps support the grants is a feel-good bonus.

Our Story

The TreeMobile idea sprouted in 2010 after attending a number of Local Food Security meetings in Guelph, Ontario. TreeMobile founder Virginie Gysel didn’t want to TALK about food security, she wanted to PLANT it! Surely others would be willing to help organize the selling and planting of food plants? Fruit trees and asparagus take several years to produce, so planting had to happen quickly.

The idea was proposed at a Transition Guelph gathering in the winter of 2010. Over a dozen people came to the first planning session, some of whom are still with the project. 150 plants were delivered and planted in the spring of 2011. In 2021 TreeMobile sold over 4,200 plants in Guelph, Erin Mills, the Toronto and Hamilton areas, Burlington, Newmarket, and Richmond Hill in Ontario.

A woman crouches down to plant a tree in the ground.

How does TreeMobile Work?

  • Plants are chosen carefully to ensure best results for home growers. Selections must be relatively easy to grow without pesticides, appropriate to our climate zone, and have a pollinator partner if required. Commercial orchardists prefer rock-hard bland fruit that ripens all at once, but home growers want great flavour and a prolonged ripening time
  • Stock is reserved in advance from a wholesale nursery to ensure availability; excess stock is returned to nursery inventory if unsold. This requires a good relationship with a local nursery, and a wholesale account.
  • Store inventory is entered on the website, with some spares are kept aside to award to grants, and as backup in case of shipping errors. Location and pickup information is entered as well, and the site pre-tested for accuracy. 
  • Meanwhile, we line up volunteers and drivers for the spring planting. This is also when we spread the word any way we can via press releases, social media, and word of mouth. TreeMobile has been featured on CTV, CBC, and in other media such as the Food Garden Life podcast.
  • Once the sales close and grants are awarded, the plants are purchased, sorted into orders, and delivered. This requires many hours of volunteer help, and space to make this happen. In pre-Covid Toronto, we took over the boulevard of the local school to sort; no one complained. 
  • A good website is crucial. At first we sold through green events, but it was hard to keep track of and the client base was limited to those who showed up. The website opened up the market, thanks to a tireless volunteer who built the site for us, and people who put us on social media. Also, the platform allows us to add new host site info easily, so it is easy to grow the project.
  • Respectful team dynamics are essential. Zoom meetings enable our team to forge strong connections in spite of distance. Our volunteers know they are making a measurable difference, and that they are heard. Use their time effectively, and provide healthy snacks for them if possible.


Keys to TreeMobile’s Success

The project funds itself. This is TreeMobile’s greatest power. We have applied for funding to improve our website but don’t seem to fit into any of the available grant profiles. Applying for funding is very time-consuming, and funding comes with many conditions; too much work for us, we’d rather be planting than doing accounting.

Volunteers have been the backbone of TreeMobile since its inception. Our core planning team, with some changes over the years, has kept the faith and continues to work together in harmony. Though delivering TreeMobile is a lot of work, it is a seasonal project, which minimizes volunteer burnout. Planting and sorting require a larger team and we have found Volunteer Toronto to be a great partner in recruiting the delivery-day help we need. The most helpful volunteers are those who are genuinely interested in the project.

A group of volunteers sorting.

Planting for TreeMobile is a beautiful way to engage with my city’s magnificent diversity. Meeting others committed to growing food in their gardens, back alleys, and balconies is a true gift. I feel part of a powerful movement that will only grow as climate change forces us to radically reorganize food production.

Training of new site leaders is really important, and helps to ensure we can continue to deliver the high quality of excellent service people have come to expect from our organization. Teams are trained by coming to a sorting event to learn the process, and have sometimes innovated more efficient ways of operating. Our partners in cities such as Hamilton and Guelph have really helped with the workload, especially important given the extra demands of a pandemic.

Community is a big part of our effectiveness. Many of our neighbours and friends have become stalwart helpers. They gift us their time, garages to store material, and show up for Sorting and Planting days, as well as helping us promote through their own channels.

Green connections have been a powerful contributor to our success. Organizations such as Orchard People, Transition groups, Seedy Saturdays, permaculture clubs, Not Far From the Tree, and Toronto Urban Growers, to name just a few, have helped us to expand to other communities.

Customer Service is a focus as we respond to buyer requests and remedy problems with orders. This will get more difficult as we grow, because many are plant questions which only a few can answer. Supporters often comment on how helpful our planters/deliverers are. As well, we make it easy to buy and grow: helpful guidance, a great selection of varieties that are easier for the home grower, one-stop shopping, and delivery/pickup options.

Great nurseries with whom we have a strong relationship supply us with quality stock. We are able to put a large amount of inventory on hold early in the winter to ensure that we can deliver what we sell. Once we place our orders, the nursery puts any excess back into their inventory.

Great pricing We buy wholesale which means we can pass on the savings to our supporters. Trees average $49, some smaller plants are under $10 which makes them affordable for most.

Branding Our distinctive name helps us to stand out, and our lovely logo was designed for us by a talented volunteer. Both have been trademarked to protect our brand identity.

Innovation is a constant at TreeMobile and has included:

  • finding new varieties, discarding those that don’t perform
  • annual team review of issues to improve the project
  • new ideas such as a high-rise package for balcony growers
  • making the website as simple yet informative as possible

People love the concept! There is not a single person to whom we have explained the project who hasn’t said it’s a great idea; many of them offer to help out. Children love picking from our public plantings. The project’s basis in volunteer labour, not-for-profit status, and connections to recognized community organizations let people know that TreeMobile is trustworthy and genuinely concerned with community improvement.

The Edible Community Garden Grant has enabled us to fulfill our mandate of helping the underprivileged and community gardeners grow more food. We have awarded plants to many gardens as well as an Aboriginal Medicine garden, a young women’s penitentiary, and an edible park. The grant also supplies training for new orchardists through Orchard People, and has also helped to increase awareness of TreeMobile by reaching new markets.

TreeMobile’s Mission

Local food resilience

Community engagement

Meet other growers

Food security

Reduced food miles

Food literacy

Helping disadvantaged communities

Carbon sequestration

Increased urban tree canopy

A child's drawing of an apple tree, with the text "I want to pick my own appl"

The Future

How can we make TreeMobile even more amazing?

Staffing the project as and expanding our team in order to handle growth of the project is a challenge. Though volunteer retention has been good, the pressure of delivering TreeMobile can be stressful. We are also critically dependent on specific individuals who are irreplaceable, and are taking steps to build in more team resilience. Though a lean team makes decision- making more efficient, we need more volunteers to whom we can delegate specific tasks. 

Limiting Growth We need to decide as a group what our optimal size should be to enable us to deliver the project efficiently without letting it become too big to handle.

Marketing has always been a challenge for TreeMobile; we are so busy making it happen we don’t have much time to promote. We do attend green events and network, but more could be done. Many of our supporters buy every spring, but some stop when their gardens reach capacity, so we need to reach new markets every year. TreeMobile has to continue to innovate its marketing to maintain growth or even status quo. This adds to our labour and strategic challenges, as it is difficult for such a lean project to know which marketing actions are most effective.

Reaching needy neighbourhoods is something we would like to expand on; though our grant program and the TRCA has allowed us to plant for some of these, we would like to do more for those who need local food the most.

IT infrastructure is TreeMobile’s main operating cost, and is only affordable due to the generous donation of time from volunteers. Website maintenance is another area where we need alternative volunteers for project resilience. Given the scale of sales TreeMobile is now achieving, a site with better data output to the site administrator is essential. It would simplify our work and reduce errors; we strive for perfect delivery. Our very high sales in 2021 will allow us to improve our website for 2022 season.

A marketing poster featuring a boy holding up cherries. It reads: "What to grow your own food? We're open & we deliver!"

Lessons Learned

Persistence pays off. The project would not have been this effective if our team hadn’t believed in TreeMobile and stayed with it. It takes time to build a network of relationships, and for word to spread.

Make partnerships with other projects and organizations your project operates in. Volunteer help, marketing help, and even some critical large sales in low-margin years have come from other organizations sympathetic to TreeMobile’s purpose. Partnerships with community organizations also increases community trust.

Social media marketing works if it is used frequently, content is varied and specific, and the content source is trusted. TreeMobile’s facebook posts were having little impact until Katie Fullerton began posting to approximately 30 well-chosen facebook groups every Friday. Katie is a leader of Seedy Saturday, so most people seeing the posts knew her. The sales boost every Saturday were impressive. Social media requires volume, intelligence, and targeting. It also benefits from a connection to a real-life relationship.

Make grants not donations. In the early years, TreeMobile would give trees away to community gardens only to find some had been neglected. TreeMobile developed the Edible Community Garden Grant which provides training and ensures that proper infrastructure is in place. This has greatly improved the success rate of the plants we award.

A strategy of continuous improvement focused on removing barriers to success each year doesn’t eliminate problems, but it allows the team to make smart choices about which problems to solve. The process allows the team to focus efforts on the important problems and get the best return for their effort. Without an intentional process of improving efficiency each year, the TreeMobile project would have failed by now.

Major process improvements have included professionally printed labels for each plant that show species names and pictures with our logo. Clarity in labeling has helped to avoid sorting errors which cost us valuable time to fix, and has the added bonus of advertising our service, as many people leave the tags on.

Be vocal about volunteer staffing. Reminding people that your project is volunteer-powered reduces the number of calls from people expecting more services than are offered. And if anything goes wrong, they tend to be more understanding and help to collaboratively work out the problem.

Use to recruit volunteers. It works and attracts high-quality volunteers.

As a first-time volunteer in 2021, I saw how this organization responds under pressure. There were supply and delivery issues, as well as Covid procedures to navigate in a year of record sales and increased public interest. Despite the stressors, this group responded with positivity and an inspiring commitment to Treemobile’s vision. This is definitely a cool and inspiring organization to be part of.

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