Volume 26 Issue 1, Winter 2021
by Anne Owen, Audubon at Home Program Coordinator
When Linda Colucci, a congregant of Ashburn’s Crossroads United Methodist Church, saw an advertisement for Audubon Society of Virginia’s Burke Grant program on the Plant NOVA Natives website in the spring of 2018, she was excited about the possibility of creating a wildlife garden at the entrance to the church. With the enthusiastic support of the church leadership, Kathy MacKrell, Mission and Serve Coordinator, assisted by Nan McCarry, longtime Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy volunteer and native plant advocate, wrote and submitted an application. They were delighted to be selected as one of six faith communities in Northern Virginia awarded a grant to create a native plant habitat at the church.
Another congregant, BJ Lecrone, a Virginia Master Naturalist and Audubon at Home Ambassador, took over the next phases of the project, which meant developing a detailed planting plan and making sure that everything would be planted before the Burke Grant deadline of fall 2019. Said BJ, “As an AAH Ambassador, I am familiar with the key guiding principles to support wildlife — get native plants from specialist nurseries who can guarantee they are neonicotinoid-free, make sure that there is something blooming throughout the spring, summer and fall, and put in a variety of native plants to support both generalist and specialist pollinators.”
To design a garden that would enhance the entrance to the church as well as support wildlife, BJ spent a couple of months researching and planning the garden while taking into account soil and light conditions, plant height and spread, and working out exactly where each plant needed to go to make best use of the available space. She also had to stay within the Burke Grant budget, which covered only the plants themselves.
The garden installation itself was a big job, but a Dominion Energy Community Service Volunteer team of twelve volunteers pitched in alongside eight Crossroads volunteers, and the whole project — stripping out lawn grass, amending the compacted clay soil beneath with leaf mulch, planting a total of 160 plants and further mulching — was completed in a day!
Getting the garden designed and planted are really only the initial phases of the project, though, says BJ. The new garden needed to be watered daily for the first week, and then weekly until its first winter. Other maintenance continues to be done, at least monthly. Weeds need to be pulled until the native plants can fill out the space, and the young plants need water occasionally if the weather is very dry. A few plants didn’t make it through the winter and had to be replaced, while one or two others are spreading very quickly and have to be trimmed back to maintain the overall balance and diversity of the planting. It takes a small team of volunteers to do all this, and special thanks go to Mo Colbert at Crossroads Church.
In the spring of 2019, with the new garden emerging from winter dormancy, another important aspect of the project got underway: engaging the wider congregation. As a first step, signs were installed explaining the importance of the garden and how it is beginning to provide food, water, and shelter, the most basic requirements to support wildlife. BJ partnered with others to market the plans and educate the community. Nan and BJ presented to the congregation about the garden and followed that up with a talk to the Vacation Serve camp on how native plants act as hosts for the early stages of the pollinator life cycle. BJ wrote a Plant-of-the-Week feature for the electronic newsletter Hope in Action, supported with handouts at weekly church services. In the fall, about 60 people attended two 90-minute presentations developed from the “Landscape for Life” curriculum to continue to spread the word about native plants and wildlife habitat.
Of course, events in 2020 made it hard to maintain momentum, but the garden continues to thrive and is already giving back. It has been so productive that in June, over 100 plants were dug up and offered free of charge to community members for their own gardens, and in November more plants went home with the 3rd Grade Bible Class families. Kathy also continued to list the plant of the week in the Hope in Action newsletter.
This project has required effort to transition from standard lawn. Has it been worth it? Please judge for yourself — here’s what Crossroads United Methodist has to say: “In the short time since we planted the native plant garden and added the bird bath at Crossroads United Methodist Church, we have already seen more pollinators and birds visiting the area than when it was just lawn and non-native plants. The grant provided the resources that allowed us to be better stewards of God’s Creation (at least the portion that Crossroads is responsible for). The garden has also enhanced the beauty of the church’s main entrance, making it more inviting and welcoming. Because of the variety of plant species selected, something is always in bloom from spring through the fall.”
Plant NOVA Natives: https://www.plantnovanatives.org/