Mission to the Earth. Creating Biodiversity at One’s Place of Worship

In the spring of 2020, we were in the first stages of the pandemic and religious services at my church had been suspended. Entry to the church was limited, making any effort to do interior maintenance impossible.

One of two rain gardens on the church property. The expansive property is slowly being planted out with regionally native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers.

One day I received an email from the church asking for volunteers to assist with planting two rain gardens. At the time, I did not know what a rain garden was, but since I often volunteered for projects at the church, I signed up. A local environmental group brought in enough volunteers to do the ground prep and plantings, but there was a need to water the new plantings to assure their survival the first year. In spite of near-record heat that summer, a team of us from the church created a schedule for watering and the gardens not only survived, they thrived.

During that summer, I had a meeting with two of the environmental community volunteers and we turned our attention to a property line we shared with a condominium development. We guessed that the property line had once been demarcated by an old farm hedgerow based on the vegetation that was growing in this particular area. A broken-down fence divided the properties and many non-native trees and shrubs—including buckthorn—had sprouted, grown, and in some cases, had lived out their lives unbothered by the church members or the condominium association next door. But within the invasive tangle were some unexpected surprises: native Solomon’s seal, a few black walnut trees, and black cherry. As we did our initial walk-through of this area, I emerged with hundreds of stickers on my clothing!

Buckthorn removal begins.

Under the guidance of our enviro-volunteers, we gathered other volunteers that included a boy scout seeking a project to achieve an award, a 4-H group that met at our church, our church youth group, and several other church member volunteers. Collectively, we set about re-naturing the property. First, we did general weed control using a weed whip to allow entry into the area under renovation. We then used chainsaws and hand saws to remove diseased native trees, as well as the vast majority of the non-native brush. We hired a tree service to remove two large non-native trees. We then gathered cardboard boxes, flattened them, and laid them as a weed barrier.

This curb-cut rain garden was installed during city road reconstruction. The catch basin infiltrates stormwater runoff. Church volunteers clean out accumulated debris from the basin several times a season, bag it, and throw it in landfill trash. The city installs these important green infrastructure rain gardens, at no cost to the property owner, during road reconstruction projects. In exchange, property owners must commit to stewarding and maintaining these beautiful gardens.

In all, we laid down cardboard and mulched an area that averaged 15 feet in width and about 300 feet in length. We then planted native tree saplings and shrubs in that area. Additionally, we planted a dozen native trees on other parts of the property. The city, at our suggestion, removed a diseased tree from the right-of-way and replaced it with four native trees. Along with those efforts, another group of church volunteers repaired our sprinkler system so that now we have water to support the new plantings. To date, we have planted a combination of over 50 native tree seedlings, saplings, and larger potted trees in soil, on church property.

Buckthorn and other invasives were removed from an old hedgerow separating two properties. The area has been replanted with oaks, redbuds, pagoda dogwoods, wildflowers, and more.

In our church denomination, one of our more recent initiatives has been to focus on our “mission to the earth”; groups have

formed within some congregations that are called Earth Keepers. Within Christian theology there is much to support this type of mission even though, in our case, we had neglected our own property. I have been thankful to our community environmental volunteers who have inspired us to take a look at how we manage our property. In turn, I too am inspired to assist our condominium neighbors to restore their property to more reflect its natural glory and to provide a home for native birds and other animals. I believe there are many places of worship and other non-profit entities that have ignored the potential to re-nature their properties. Hopefully, the experience that we have had is one that other churches, condo associations, and non-profits may find inspiring.

—Story by John Grinager

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