Severna Park, Maryland
Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church, located near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, won this year’s Cool Congregations Sacred Grounds Award for their collaborative effort to restore the four-acre habitat their church campus is built on.
The recent warnings from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation about the health of the Bay and the increasing development pressures in the Bay watershed concerned the congregation. With a large 4-acre campus, they wanted to be responsible to the call to be good stewards of the earth starting with their own property.
Their large buildings, sidewalks, and parking lots contributed significant stormwater runoff that ended up in the local river leading to the Bay. The existing lawns and gardens contained primarily non-native plants that provided no ecological benefits or stormwater mitigation and required large amounts of chemical fertilizer and irrigation.
Members of their garden team attended a talk by Doug Tallamy, the author of Bringing Nature Home, and were inspired to improve their church grounds using native plants to reduce runoff and the costs associated with irrigation and lawn treatment chemicals.
The congregation turned to “Bay-wise” – an organization based at the University of Maryland that offers assistance in managing landscapes to improve the quality of the water that flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
Bay-Wise offered to evaluate the management of the church grounds and a volunteer county Master Watershed Steward drew up a plan to transform the property to a habitat that would support pollinators and wildlife, sequester carbon, and mitigate stormwater.
The plan suggested diminishing the size of the lawn, greatly reducing the use of fertilizer and water, and planting native plants and trees.
The congregation began implementing these plans using two grants from the Unity Gardens organization to plant 360 native plants in the fall of 2018 and the spring of 2019 using all volunteer labor. In the fall of 2019 they received a Chesapeake Bay Trust grant to reforest the area of woods on our campus with 175 native trees and shrubs, which were again planted using church and community volunteers. In the spring and summer of 2020 they continued the project with an erosion control effort using 150 native plants along a driveway, with socially distanced volunteers from the church and community planting 150 new plants where there previously had been an eroding slope of mowed lawn. The last leg of the project was the planting of 20 native trees in November 2020 through the county Tree Trooper program.
The new landscape was a huge success enjoyed by the congregation, the families of the church preschool, and the many community groups who use their facilities. They have seen butterflies and native bees on the flowering shrubs in the spring, toads, skinks and pollinators all summer long, and migrating birds and butterflies at nectar sources and berry producing shrubs in the fall.
The congregation put up signage to identify the plants and to tell about native gardens, and both the church congregation and the greater community noticed. The preschool requested a handout to tell their families about the value of native plants, and the Cub Scout troop hosted by the church asked for a tour of the native plant gardens.
The reduction in water (estimated at a savings of 5000 gallons per year) and fertilizer use on the lawns was also appreciated by the church maintenance crew for a reduced workload and by the finance team for its cost savings.
The stormwater runoff was reduced to almost zero from the woods area and slope along the driveway, even during the recent extremely heavy rainfall events. The County now uses Woods’ grounds as a training site for their Watershed Stewards class to show the benefits of native plants in controlling stormwater.
The biggest success has been the involvement of so many groups of church and community members working together for habitat restoration. The volunteers on the five legs of the projects included Bay-wise staff and volunteers, Maryland Master Gardeners who taught our volunteers proper planting techniques, the Retired Handypersons (REHABBERS) who pre-dug 175 holes the day before one of our main planting days, the local high school Environmental Club and Honor Society who gave up a Saturday to plant, and the church members from 4 to 84 years old who volunteered to set up, serve lunch and clean up as well as plant the hundreds of plants.
Woods Memorial is joining with other congregations across Anne Arundel County to care for the watersheds they share through the One Water Partnership, a program of Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, with Watershed Stewards Academy and Interfaith Power & Light (DC.MD.NoVA).
Plants and trees act as a sink for carbon dioxide, so the new landscape is a valuable addition to the carbon storage of our property that will increase as the plants grow and thrive. The church is proud to be a good steward of their land and contribute to healing the earth for all future generations.
“Our congregation is honored to be acknowledged for our environmental work,” said the Rev. Susan DeWyngaert, the senior pastor at Woods. “As a Presbyterian Church (USA) Earth Care Congregation, we have made a commitment to work toward sustainability by providing worship, education, prayer and service opportunities in our church and community. Receiving the Cool Congregations Challenge Award is thrilling for us. We hope it will model and inspire more emphasis on sustainability as a faith practice.”
For more information contact Karen at karenroyer55 at gmail.com