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Native plants transform church property

Curb appeal gives way to saving the environment

By Eugenia Johnson-Smith | Presbyterians Today

Members of Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church and the Severna Park, Maryland community plant shrubs and flowers that are not only native to the area, but that also have deep roots to curtail stormwater runoff. Courtesy of Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church

Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, Maryland, is also known as “The Church on the Hill.” Hilltop views can be lovely when the sun is out, but when it rains a large volume of runoff runs down the hill and into the storm drains. The stormwater runoff then flows into Cypress Creek and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. While there are underground cisterns collecting water from the church’s roof, the congregation felt they could do more to lessen the environmental impact the runoff was having on the bay.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, which was formed in 1983 to protect the bay, stormwater runoff can push excess nutrients from fertilizers, pet waste and other sources into rivers and streams. Nutrients can fuel the growth of algae blooms that create low-oxygen dead zones that suffocate marine life.

As an Earth Care Congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Woods Memorial Presbyterian has always been committed to protecting the land and being good stewards of their own piece of paradise. That’s what moved the 2,100-member congregation to reach out to Baywise, an organization dedicated to protecting the Chesapeake Bay. During a rainstorm, Baywise representatives came to the church and walked the property, observing areas of concern that included not just water running from the roof, but also from the parking lot and driveway. The solution to curtailing runoff was to plant native plants with deep roots.

Woods Memorial’s garden team partnered with volunteer Alison Milligan, a Maryland master gardener and retired engineer, who suggested not only a design for the property but a list of plants that would be perfect based on the soil. With a dedicated team of volunteers, more than 200 native trees and over 500 native plants were added to the church property. Part of that property includes an acre of woods. The goals of the garden team were to have 70% native plants in the woods and to remove invasive English ivy and other nonnative plants. Having the right plants has not only helped with rain runoff, but it has turned the church’s property into a magnet for birds, butterflies and other creatures that have always called this part of Maryland home.

“Once we start, we can’t stop,” said Karen Royer, a member of the church’s garden team. “There is no such thing as a bare space.”

The pastoral garden was turned into a formal native garden, which now has flowers, plants and trees that provide color in spring, summer and fall. Evergreen trees were planted to ensure the garden never looked dead in winter.

Most of the work was completed by 15 volunteer gardeners with each assigned an area of the garden to care for. The Scouts; Maryland Master Gardeners; the Rehabbers, a group of retired handymen; and members of a local high school Honor Society and Environmental Club also came to help Woods Memorial Presbyterian.

The transformation of the property didn’t happen overnight. Woods Memorial broke the project into stages, which began in the summer of 2018. The completion of each stage gave the volunteers increased energy to keep moving forward to the next stage. Seeing butterflies and other native creatures return also proved that they were making progress.

The work was initially funded through a series of local grants from 2018-19, totaling $5,000. According to Royer, “Peggy Newman was our ace in the hole. She serves on the church’s property management board and was able to include funding in the budget.”

The impact of the transformation of the property surrounding “The Church on the Hill” goes deeper than the roots of the native plants. Its reach has flowed to those in the community who now tour the gardens. Touching the lives of others is the footprint they wish to leave.

As a Matthew 25 congregation, Woods Memorial has partnered with St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, a historically African American congregation in Annapolis, to share what they’ve learned.

Like Woods Memorial, St. Philip’s sits on a hill. It, too, wants to do something to curtail runoff that can hurt the Chesapeake Bay. Recently, members of Woods Memorial spent a day helping members of St. Philip’s plant native shrubs and trees on their own church’s property.

Woods Memorial is living out Genesis 2:15 — “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” — and they now have their own “garden of Eden” to prove it. Just this year, the church received national recognition for its work and dedication. Woods Memorial Presbyterian was one of only five congregations in the U.S. to win the 2021 Cool Congregations Challenge awarded by Interfaith Power & Light.

Eugenia Johnson-Smith is a freelance writer, author and motivational speaker in Lexington, Kentucky.


How to plant with Creation in mind

Research plants that are native to the area.

  • Take note of what invasive plants and non-native flowers should be removed from church property.
  • Consider local environmental concerns (like runoff in a bay) that can be helped by planting a certain shrub or grass.
  • Rather than approaching the property with an eye toward what would look “pretty,” think about the birds, bees and butterflies that would be able to feast on what is planted.
  • Research grants that are available to help fund the planting of native specimens.
  • Visit local nurseries and garden centers, but steer clear of flowers from the big box stores, which tend to be treated with chemicals.
  • Enlist the help of a local master gardener, a gardening club or a high school or college horticulture program.

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