How a parish garden grows

by
23 March 2011

Jamie Cable, a professional gardener, tells the story of a new garden for his church in south-west London

“WILDLIFE”, “Stillness”, “Fresh vegetables”, and, simply, “People”. These were typical answers from the congregation at a family service at St Andrew’s, Earlsfield, in south-west Lon­don, in June 2005. They had been asked: “What would you like to see more of in the outdoor space around the church?”

St Andrew’s parish is bordered by a main train-line into Waterloo. The church is on a traffic route that is busy with commuters in the morn­ing and evening, but quieter during the day.

In statistics for the neighbour­hood, the area scored 18 out of 20 for “living environment” (20 being the most deprived), and it was rated in the worst ten per cent for air pollution. The last Census showed that the area had a high proportion of 25-to-35-year-olds who were edu­cated to degree level or above, but, when the garden was conceived, this group was scarcely represented ­in the congregation.

In 2005, under the leadership of our Vicar, the Revd Jonathan Brown, a “Dreams and Visions” consultation pro­cess began to develop plans for the future.

The PCC recognised that the green space surrounding the church could be an important bridge be­tween the church and the commun­ity. The consensus was that it should be welcoming, and should blur the boundary between the church and the neighbourhood.

Up to that point, the garden had been used for: a summer fair; an out­side service on Good Friday; a sum­mer toddler-group; and, oc­casion­ally, by workers in their lunch break. There was a sense that it could be used better, and it was this that led to the family-service consul­tation.

In due course, this process gen­erated a brief for the new garden. It needed to be a place of beauty that communicated something of the Christian faith, provided a haven for wildlife, and offered:

• a quiet space

• focal points

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• a play area

• a vegetable/children’s garden

• a worship space

The scheme needed to be low-main­tenance, and managed by vol­un­teers. The old garden had been maintained by a core of volunteers, and the hope was that they would continue, and grow in number, with better facilities and more varied horticultural challenges.

The scheme needed to be low-main­tenance, and managed by vol­un­teers. The old garden had been maintained by a core of volunteers, and the hope was that they would continue, and grow in number, with better facilities and more varied horticultural challenges.

ST ANDREW’s was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with diploma students from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who adopted the garden for their third-year design-module. Thirteen stu­dents met some members of the congre­gation to explore the brief.

In the spring of 2007, the students displayed their 13 completed designs in the church. Residents in the area were also able to appraise the plans. One design, by Emily Waters, which centred on a labyrinth, was the clear winner.

“I was trying to create a versatile space that could be used for relaxa­tion, contemplation, play activities, church fêtes, and so on,” Ms Waters said. “I included a prayer labyrinth be­cause not only is it an attractive pav­ing detail, it adds a spiritual dimen­sion to the garden, as it can be used as an aid to prayer and medi­tation.”

At about this time, a sub-com­mittee of the PCC, set up to man­age the project, sought partner­ships in the community. Four groups became involved and have helped to shape the garden: a school for children with autism, the toddler group, the Guides and Brownies, and the Earlsfield Friary (an example of “new monasticism”, see feature here).

The first three groups wanted scope for their activities with young people, while the Friary wanted to grow vegetables to distribute to households in the area.

After a long period of fund-raising and planning applications, everything was in place by the autumn of 2010. The landscape de­signers Sallis Chandler were selected, after a tendering process, to con­struct the garden.

After a long period of fund-raising and planning applications, everything was in place by the autumn of 2010. The landscape de­signers Sallis Chandler were selected, after a tendering process, to con­struct the garden.

THE railings from the west end of the church have been re­moved; so the space now links seamlessly with the busy street, while still enclosing the garden areas. Further along, the railings now sweep grace­fully in to a pair of gates.

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The hope is that these adjust­ments, achieved by recycling and re­shaping the existing ironwork, will encourage more people to enjoy the space within.

Visitors will enter a landscape that, though very new, may remind them of a country churchyard. The sloping and curving path leads to the south porch, and the church plans to use this as its main entrance.

There is a swath of lawn bordering a deep band of wildlife-friendly planting that shelters the garden from neighbouring roads. The perimeter hedge is beech, which encloses hazel, hawthorn, holly, elder, and Viburnum lantana (Way­faring tree). In the sheltered alcove on the south face of the church, two olive trees stand next to the laby­rinth, which is underplanted with catmint, sage, oregano, lavender, thyme, and rock rose.

The labyrinth — an ancient sym­bol of the journey of life — is at the heart of the new south garden. The design of concentric circles with a cross superimposed is based on the famous labyrinth in the cathedral at Chartres. The journey involves a series of side routes and unexpected turns. It takes you tantalisingly close to your goal, but then you appear to be travelling away from the centre.

Bruno Sertin, aged five, attends St Andrew’s with his parents. His grand­mother died recently, but he did not go to her funeral. He spon­taneously walked the labyrinth, and, in the centre, prayed for his Nanna Hilda. His father reported that he went home cheerful: “I think this may have been the in­augural prayer in the garden. If so, what a great start to what, I am sure, will become a communal story of prayers, from all walks of life and ages.”

However you view the labyrinth, it makes a strong focal point. It offers a quiet space, an outdoor location for worship and teaching, and a safely defined play area.

However you view the labyrinth, it makes a strong focal point. It offers a quiet space, an outdoor location for worship and teaching, and a safely defined play area.

BEYOND the labyrinth there are three raised beds, which are suitable for children and wheel­chair-users. The way leads on through a lockable gate to the “service” part of the gar­den, with a secure shed for storing tools and a large composting area.

The north garden is separate, and is accessed through another, smaller gate from the main road. Here, much of the free space is retained to allow for market-style events.

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The sunniest wall is planted with vines and a fig, and there are four mini-allotments for adults. Members of the Earlsfield Friary, building on their horticultural success in the old churchyard, are beginning to sow seeds here. But there is also room for residents who have no growing space at home.

These allotments have their own com­posting facilities near by. A water butt collects rainwater from the church roof.

IN A quiet way, it seems that the new garden is attracting those people in their 20s and 30s who were previously conspicuous by their absence. They can use the labyrinth in different ways — to rest after volunteering in the garden, perhaps, or for outdoor worship.

“When God created the world, he started with a garden,” Mr Brown says. “We hope that the thousands who pass by our garden each day will catch a glimpse of the beauty of God’s creation, and that some of those who spend time in it will find themselves being drawn closer to God.”

The garden, which in the end cost £105,000, was officially opened on 4 December last year by the local MP, Sadiq Khan, who, addressing the large crowd gathered at the gates, described it as a hub for the community, for use by people of any faith or none.

Denise Mumford, who had chaired the garden committee since its formation, said: “The level of local interest has been striking. The garden has provided another way of saying to our parishioners: ‘We are here for you.’”

Denise Mumford, who had chaired the garden committee since its formation, said: “The level of local interest has been striking. The garden has provided another way of saying to our parishioners: ‘We are here for you.’”

The Dos and Don’ts for creating a church garden

The Dos and Don’ts for creating a church garden

Have your drains checked and cleaned by professionals. Excava­tions for the St Andrew’s garden revealed damaged and blocked drains that failed to carry water from the church roof to the sewage system. This meant that work was halted, but, if it had not been dealt with, it could have meant significant disturbance to the new garden later on.

Consider rain­water run-off from hard sur­faces. Paths and paving must slope, and it may be necessary to install a “soakaway” box (right).

For hard landscaping, you will need a substantially higher level of funding than for replanting.

Divide your project costs into different categories — biodiversity, children’s areas, and recycling, for instance. Then apply to different trusts according to their selection criteria.

If you are approaching trusts for funds, it is worth noting that many of them have demanding levels of monitoring. These are time-consuming, and require a high level of professionalism. For instance, one funder insisted on a “lead professional” to sign off the contractor’s work at recognised points throughout the build.

Think about a secure area to store tools. At St Andrew’s, there is a metal shed in a separate gated enclosure.

Keep the planting simple. Less is definitely more when it comes to the number of plant species that are to be represented.

Trees with protection orders will need special care during the building of the garden, and may govern what can be changed. The planned radius of the St Andrew’s labyrinth was reduced to avoid root disturbance to a stand of lime trees.

A faculty may be needed for elements of your garden such as sheds, noticeboards, and changes to railings.

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