Gardens Connecting Churches and Community

Gardens Connecting Churches and Community


Raised beds are filled with soil for the first season of planting in Bloomville, N.Y., in the Catskills.
Editor, The Vision

If you ask Rev. David Collins about his Port Washington flock, he might mention how they love to run around the church lawn when he lets them loose, but that they always come home to roost. Earlier this year, Collins, who leads the UMC of Port Washington, N.Y., with his wife, Romana Abelova, decided to supplement the vegetables that would grow in the church’s community garden with eggs. And the flock of seven Golden Comet hens were glad to oblige as they started laying eggs just as the garden was beginning to see its first fruit.
Rev. David Collins shows one of the Golden Comet hens to the Sunday School children in Port Washington.

This is the second time that Collins and Abelova have helped create a community garden, an idea that has been taking root all around the New York Conference in the past few years with the reasons and results as varied as the gardens themselves. Part food supply, part learning experience, and part exercise in caring for God’s creation, the gardens feed body and soul, and help connect church with community.

When Collins brought up the garden idea to the Port Washington congregation they were willing to give it try. After a pair of grants to fund the project fell through, the church raised $2,300 to get started. There was also a business donation of organic soil and discounts on lumber for the raised beds. Church members and the scout troop chartered by the church handled building and filling the beds.

In its first season last year, the garden in Port Washington prompted a lot of curiosity from the neighbors of the eight-acre property on Long Island’s North Shore. Some applauded the effort and even dropped off plants for the beds. The garden also increased the interaction with the nursery school whose children, parents and teachers often help tend the beds.

“It’s a great opportunity to get to teach kids about where their food comes from . . . how chickens lay eggs,” said Collins, who has two young daughters of his own. He turned the church office into a greenhouse-incubator for the first few weeks for both the vegetable seedlings and the chicks.

A regular crew works every other day during the growing season to harvest the produce that is delivered to the food pantry at a nearby Catholic church. The Sunday School kids pick every week; last year there were hundreds of cucumbers, yellow and green squash, green beans, eggplants and bushels of tomatoes. And it looks like this year’s harvest will be even more plentiful.
Children and youth are recruited to help in the community garden at Kaaterskill UMC in the Catskills.

At the other end of the conference, the organic garden at the Kaaterskill UMC in Tannersville, N.Y., offered up its first crop in 2011 under the guidance of lay leader Christie Pierce. But it took a joint effort to build the garden in the mountaintop community in the Catskills. A couple of local contractors contributed time, energy, and equipment to excavate the sod, and then dig and rototill the beds. Pierce’s daughter, landscape architect Jamie Vanucchi, designed a 1,300-square-foot space that included six in-ground and two raised beds.

Michelle Yost, a member of the Kaaterskill church, said that the garden has had a unique and individual impact on the church and community.

“There are those who rely on it to supplement their food expenses . . . and there are those who use it because it provides a healthier option than store produce,” she said.

The garden is tended by members of the congregation and any community members who volunteer. Youth and teens have been drawn to learn about and work in the garden through events at the church like the annual blessing of the backpacks, and community service days. Cultivating more student involvement is one the church’s main goals.

Yost said that it’s hard to tell just how many people use the garden each year.

“Sometimes there is leftover harvest, other times certain beds are depleted,” she said. “It is open to anyone, not just food insecure people; you never know who you are going to encounter in the garden – from the rich to the economically challenged, the old and the young, local resident or visitor, and other faith-based guests, each with their own life story.”

This summer finds the garden – with its row of cheerful sunflowers – in a bit of a transition as a rain catchment system is installed to capture runoff from the church roof for use in watering the crops.
A sign welcomes all visitors to the Faith UMC garden in North Haven, Conn.

Faith UMC in North Haven, Conn., is also looking for a way to harness natural resources to keep their garden growing. The church is raising funds to install a solar-powered well so that water hoses don’t have to be run from the church to the garden.

But Rev. Dr. Wayne Lavender, pastor of the church, said that their “Garden of Eatin” has “just taken off this year . . . it’s really flourishing.”

The garden, which is in its third year, rents out 15 x 20-foot plots for the summer season. Twenty-one of the 24 plots are actively planted this year, mostly by congregation members. Produce from five of the plots gets donated to the Loaves and Fishes food pantry in New Haven. Last summer that amounted to thousands of tomatoes, cucumbers and squash, Lavender said.

One of the plots is used by the junior garden club of North Haven. Every Saturday of the growing season some 10 children and their leader can be found weeding the plot or picking beans, cucumbers and corn. Some 30 students from nearby Quinnipiac University helped prepare the planting beds and added mulch to the garden paths this spring.

Lavender said he’s most inspired by the developing sense of community among the gardeners. People who have been members of his congregation for years are really getting to know one another as they weed and water.

“There are lots of conversations in the garden, lots of ideas exchanged,” he said. Some of the gardeners in the community have also come to Sunday worship services.

Lavender, who freely shares his concerns about global climate change with his congregation, explained the that church is taking a “holistic” approach to tending it’s six-acre property.

“We’re “planting with a purpose,” he said.

A new orchard just 50 yards from the garden is already bearing fruit on its six apple and six pear trees. A bee hive is providing pollinators (and honey) and a compost pile supplies nutrient-rich amendments for the soil. There are no chemicals used in the garden.

Elsewhere on the grounds, a peace path through the woods provides a 1/3-mile trail complete with a bench for quiet contemplation and prayer. Walkers may also come across some of the resident deer, foxes, rabbits, and snapping turtles.

“I love having people on the property who love the earth and want to care for it . . . and even reverse some of the harm that’s been done,” Lavender said. The church hopes to add a labyrinth and a gazebo one day.
A 1/3-mile path offers a peaceful place for contemplation and enjoying nature on the property at Faith UMC.

When Collins and Abelova were serving the Delaware Headwaters Cooperative Parish in the Catskills, the gardens they helped create there have brought together local schools, churches, youth groups, and scouts from at least six communities to build, plant, nurture, and harvest the beds.

Collins said that the impetus for the gardens came from a new couple who came to the Hobart UMC. Diane and Larry Frances had bought a farm outside of town and were looking for ways to promote healthy eating and nutrition in their new community. Collins and Abelova thought it would be a great way to connect the churches in the cooperative parish and with the Catholic church in town. The co-op included the United Methodist churches of Hobart, Bloomville, Stamford and Township. Team Moses, a youth group based in the Harpersfield UMC have also offered their time and energy to the project.

“Diane Frances did all the ground work, and got the local sawmill to give us lumber at cost,” Collins said. “She figured out exactly what would be needed.”

The first raised beds were constructed in 2015 in Hobart, Bloomville, Stamford, and Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Hobart. There’s also been an herb garden planted in Stamford, and a “pizza garden” in Harpersfield. A community group, Growing Abundance Together, has taken over care of the gardens and expanded the garden beds to Harpersfield and Kortright. The gardens provide produce for the local food pantries and for a community meal, “Soup’s On,” that began at the Hobart UMC with about 20 people and eventually grew to feed 60 to 70 people each month.

Pastor Paul Moeller and Rev. Dee Stevens have helped to continue the efforts during their appointments to the parish.

“It’s been a great opportunity to teach kids about growing food and caring for the earth,”
 Moller said.
Volunteers gather Swiss chard in New Rochelle.

The volunteers at the New Rochelle UMC, N.Y., like to say that their garden “doesn’t just grow food, it grows healthy community.” A guiding premise is that no one works alone in the garden.

“Everyone works together,” said Pastor Angela Redman. “You always work with someone else so that relationships are nurtured.” The principle also serves as a reminder that disciples do not do God’s work alone, but that it is done in community.

One of the volunteers, Doris Clark-Magloire, did a lot of gardening at the former St. Luke’s UMC and provided produce for other members of that congregation. She kept up the practice after the merger that formed NRUMC where the gardens now produce enough vegetables for a couple of nearby soup kitchens and those who share in working the garden. The nursery school also uses one of the plots to teach the children about the interdependence of nature with seeds, and dirt, and worms and bees.

Former pastor, Rev. Michelle Lewis, brought a new interest in the gardens through her doctoral work that examined the intersectionality of food justice issues in the community. Her work included spirituality sessions that explored faith, food, and social justice from Christian and Jewish perspectives.

The congregation has also lent their expertise to the nearby Jewish temple and Baptist church who are tending gardens to add to the fresh produce available to the community. Lewis’ plans for the “Peace Garden Project” included a network of gardens that also would confront issues of food justice, racism, and other “isms” present in communities.

On harvest days, the church has provided recipe cards geared to the produce being shared; individuals and families choose only the produce they want so that none is wasted. They have continued to expand the garden beyond a dozen raised beds, and are planting directly into the ground with beets, carrots, swiss chard, collard greens, green beans, and tomatoes.

Clark-Magloire said that one of her favorite times in the garden is harvest day.
When people are reaping the produce “I love the delight it brings them, people can’t believe it’s free,” she said. “We’re just doing it out of love; so many people come week after week.”

“It’s a lot of work though. You’ve got to love gardening to do this,” she said. “The work is intensive – weeding, watering and fighting with the critters. Even though there is a fence, the deer will jump over.”

Clark-Magloire said that the church’s work with the gardens and food justice issues have allowed the community to see them in a new way. 

“Maybe people saw us for the first time, people harvesting and working,” she said. “Neighbors wanted to know what we were doing. It was free advertising.”

Rev. David Collins is willing to share his knowledge and experiences in starting a community garden; contact him via email.
Veronika and Viktoria Collins had quite a few cucumbers and yellow squash to count after a day's harvest in the Port Washington UMC garden.