[Ed. note: This article is part of our weekly series of church activities, called Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays.]
What is so refreshing about sitting on a front porch? It can be the company you’re sitting with, a gentle breeze, or an impromptu jam session. But a lot of the time, it’s encouraging just to have a physical space in which to enjoy creation in the company of others.
Most American churches do not have a physical front porch where folks can gather to enjoy God’s fresh air. But the lack of a front porch shouldn’t inhibit the development of a front porch culture. An alternative outdoor space that is often easier for churches to construct than an actual front porch is a garden. Much like a front porch, a garden welcomes us into a relaxed, fresh air setting and encourages curiosity among passersby, strengthening community ties.
But is your church ready for a garden? If so, there’s a lot to consider before breaking ground: Do you want a flowerbed with a curbside bench for weary walkers? Or is your church up for establishing a full-blown vegetable garden to feed the neighborhood?
If dreams of ecclesial-based produce are floating through your head, lead your church in responding to this questionnaire to get started:
Church Gardening Questionnaire
1. Is there support in your church for a garden? You will likely need to share a report on a potential garden with your church’s governing body to gain that support. Addressing the following questions in that report will help you make your case.
2. Would your larger community benefit from having a community garden in its midst?
3. Does your church have a clear understanding of its goals for the garden?
- Will the garden space be open to church members only, or to the wider community?
- Will the garden be primarily a place for rest and meditation? If this is the case, you may want to be sure you include seating and perhaps a prayer walk in the garden.
- Will the garden provide a space for gathering, holding events, or building community in groups? If so, you may want to factor picnic benches, shelters, and waste receptacles into your plan.
- Will the garden produce food for church members? For the wider community (either directly or in partnership with another entity)?
- Will the garden provide a place for groups to learn and volunteer?
4. Does your church know what type of garden it would like to establish? (Note: these garden themes are not exclusive of one another, and can overlap. However, it’s helpful to know the main thrust of your garden before you begin planning it.
- A flower garden: Amenable to variable levels of light, moisture, and soil pH, a flower garden helps your church bring creation into the sanctuary by providing a treasure trove of cut flowers for decoration. It can provide a beautiful respite for souls in need of restoration, and a volunteer site for students, seniors, and individuals in rehabilitation programs. It also provides instant, free floral arrangements for church members experiencing illness, grief, or celebration
- A prayer garden: Like the flower garden, a prayer garden is adaptable to geographic and climatic variations. The amount of upkeep it will require can be determined by those who plan it, as the goal of this garden isn’t to produce a harvest or even cut flowers. Planning a prayer garden allows for a creative use of space and garden elements: prayer walks or labyrinths to encourage walking and meditation; nooks and crannies where folks can read and pray; benches, gazebos, and tables to rest on; water features to soothe with their gentle sounds; and signs with quotations on them to encourage those in prayer. A prayer garden can provide peace and rest for those undergoing illness or rehabilitation.
- A vegetable garden: Requiring the most work and specific conditions, this garden also produces the most visible harvest. Sun, healthy soil, access to water, and a lot of sweat goes into a vegetable garden. But the requirement of physical labor may open opportunities to work with other groups and partners in your church’s community, and provide volunteer opportunities to anyone from school children to individuals on probation. Provided it is large enough, a vegetable garden can also produce healthy food to feed the neediest.
- A container garden: A container garden allows your church to produce a harvest of fruits and vegetables even without
access to a vast swath of land or eight hours of sunlight. This garden takes some ingenuity, but it can help a church locked in a sea of concrete to add some green. It is also a terrific learning tool for children. Classes can work container gardens and learn about healthy eating, natural life cycles, and our connections to creation. Seniors and members of your congregation with special needs can also find joy in gardening in a space that is limited and accessible.
- A wildlife garden: Establishing a wildlife garden is a conservation tool that provides food and safety for local creatures, especially in suburban or urban areas. It also creates a great learning opportunity for schools and other educational groups to discover more about their local ecosystems. This kind of garden will require less regular maintenance than a vegetable or flower garden, but it may be difficult to establish if your municipality understands the wildlife you’re trying to attract to be pests.
- A native garden: Much like a wildlife garden, a native plant garden works in a symbiotic relationship with the land and the creatures living on it. Requiring less maintenance because it is perfectly suited to your area, a native garden can provide a valuable learning space for school and community groups. It is also beneficial to the land on which it is placed, nourishing the soil, taking in only the water naturally available to it, and providing food for local wildlife. It will not, however, provide you with cut flowers or a human food harvest to the extent that other garden types will.
5. Does your church have (or have access to) the physical and financial capacity to start a garden? This community gardening site can help you brainstorm the amount of space and money you may need to get a garden together, but here are some general financial factors to take into consideration:
- land: Does your church own property that would support a garden? If not, is it feasible to buy or rent land for this purpose? What sort of financial partnerships could be made with other institutions to make this possible?
- soil and mulch: Establishing a compost bin in your garden will reduce your need to buy soil, but to start your garden you want to ensure a healthy source of nutrients for your plants.
- gardening tools: shovels, trowels, rototillers, wheelbarrows, buckets, wood (especially for raised beds), rakes, hoes, hoses, rain barrels
- plants: seeds, seedlings, transplants, cuttings, etc. Also consider what you will be feeding your plants, and how much that plant food will cost you.
- larger garden elements: a toolshed, compost bin, picnic tables, bird feeders, bird baths, benches, gazebos, fences, stones or gravel for paths, a water source, lighting, trash and recycling receptacles
6. Are there people who live close enough to your church to tend the garden?
7. Are there people in your church with basic, proven gardening skills?
8. Is there ample physical space, exposed to at least six hours of sunlight, available for your church to establish a garden? How much space is accessible to you will help you determine what kind of garden would be appropriate for your church.
9. Are there potential institutions and non-profits in your community (a grocery co-op, a food pantry, a shelter, or a school) that might benefit from your garden and be able to provide you with volunteer support?
10. Are there community members or institutions that could provide your garden with donations or funding to get it started and keep it going? These might include members of the local business community, hardware stores, nurseries, florists, sister churches, etc.
Taking these questions into consideration as you plan a church garden will set your community on its way to establishing a hospitable, outdoor space in which to share the refreshment of God’s love (and maybe his juiciest peaches or sweetest strawberries) with your neighbors!
American Community Gardening Association – To help you get started establishing a church garden
RebelTomato – Start getting some dirt under your fingernails with these in-depth, start-to-finish gardening instructions