By Kathleen Moore
When Holy Trinity, Bowie junior warden Thomas Sykes first read an article about church gardens, he knew right away this ministry would be a good fit for his parish.
“I just thought ‘wow, our parish already has land and a kitchen—two things other parishes would almost die for,’” says Sykes, who envisioned the parish garden as a way to reach out to the community and as a bridge between the parish and the Holy Trinity Episcopal Day School.
“Over the years, the school and the church communities have become distanced,” Sykes explains. “It’s a common story—there are no longer many parishioners who have kids enrolled at the school, and many students’ families don’t realize there is a connection—that the school is our parish’s largest mission.”
Sykes got to work immediately. “I talked to the rector and senior warden about the feasibility of doing this, and they were both on board,” he recalls. “Then, I did a lot of homework. I researched materials and costs, and more importantly, I started thinking about the reasons for building this garden.”
In February, Sykes presented the idea to the vestry. Bishop Mariann Budde happened to be present for the meeting, and heard the presentation as well. “I look at that as a Holy Spirit moment,” Sykes says. “Bishop Mariann came up with the tagline ‘Come grow our church as we grow our garden.’” The parish had a sign made up with Bishop Budde’s tagline that now sits in the garden.
The next step was forming a steering committee to get started on the work of realizing the vision. “I was hoping to get four volunteers, but we got ten right away,” Sykes says. “Once again, the Holy Spirit was saying, ‘it’s just a fit.’”
The outpouring of volunteers from the parish has continued through the planning, building and maintaining of the garden. “It’s not always the same volunteers,” Sykes says, “but collectively we always have people eager to help.” The parish reached out to businesses around the area, receiving discounts and donations of many of the necessary materials.
Holy Trinity’s rector, the Rev. Leslie M. St. Louis, credits strong lay leadership with the successful garden project. “Holy Trinity is a parish that is deeply in transition,” St. Louis says. “It’s a 305-year-old parish that is really facing the reality that the way we’ve been doing things—five, 10, 15, 20 years ago—no longer works and hasn’t been working for a long time. Our lay leadership is really taking hold of the question of how we connect to the world the way we are now, and is willing to experiment with a lot of different things, and I think the garden is an expression of that.”
The completed garden is 20 feet by 25 feet with eight raised beds and a four-foot path down the middle. “It was important the garden be accessible to any visitor in a wheelchair,” Sykes says. “We made sure these guests can get through the gate and into the garden.”
In its first season, the parish crops included peppers, cantaloupes, watermelon, honeydew, squash, and eggplant as well as sunflowers and gladiolas. Volunteers bring fresh produce from the garden to the narthex where community members can help themselves. The parish also makes clear that members and neighbors are welcome to harvest food for themselves. The remaining crops are brought to the local foodbank, the Bowie Interfaith Pantry and Emergency Aid Fund. Between its own garden and the donations from Holy Trinity, the foodbank was able to keep two eight-foot tables filled with fresh produce all summer long.
The opportunity to volunteer in the garden has helped to foster relationships between the parish and its neighbors. “We have one woman who attended a funeral of a family member who had been a member of the parish 20 years ago,” Sykes says. “And I was talking to her about the garden, and now she shows up regularly.” While volunteers describe working in the garden as therapeutic, others “simply sit in the garden and watch what’s going on,” Sykes says. “That’s therapeutic as well. It really is.”
“The garden is a way to reach out into the community and be active with the community in a way that’s really healthy,” St. Louis says. “It’s brought another avenue to authentically talk to people about God, that isn’t just, ‘hello I’m going to talk to you about Jesus Christ.’”
The garden is also playing the role Sykes had hoped in strengthening the connection between the parish and its school by becoming an outdoor classroom for students in grades one through four.
“Last Friday we spent the morning in the garden with three science classes—they came out one class after another,” Sykes says. “That’s when all the hard work of building that garden just goes away. They come out with questions and clipboards. They ask questions like, ‘Why did you decide to build a garden?’ One class was learning about bacteria, so wanted to know all about bacteria in the garden. It is really higher level learning.”
When students asked how tall the tallest sunflower is, Sykes simply pulled it out, roots and all (it was the end of the season) to show not only the height that was visible above ground, but the 8-inch root system below. “That all started from one little seed,” Sykes explained to the students. “Nurturing little things is so important in a garden. And then, they become big things.”
The garden has become a way for students to learn about science, math, food and nutrition, and the importance of creation care. Students have participated in planning, planting, harvesting, and composting. Later this year, students will bring worms they have been watching grow and learning about in their science classroom out to the garden.
“Every time we have a class, the time runs out before questions stop,” Sykes says. “It has fulfilled and exceeded our expectations. It’s so rewarding when the teacher emails to say, ‘They are so looking forward to spending a day with you in the garden.’ And when the new crops start coming in, those students will be able to say, ‘I did that.’