A little bit of Eden grows in South Richmond. That’s the name members of the Second Baptist Church have given to the community garden they started last spring beside their building.
That quarter-acre patch of ground has yielded a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables through summer and fall that’s nourished church members and neighbors alike: tomatoes, peppers, beans, snow peas, melons, mustard greens, berries, garlic, herbs and much more.
Eden’s Community Garden is the highlight of an environmental transformation of Second Baptist’s grounds that’s taken place over the past year with help from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others.
Call it serendipity. Call it providence. Whether by happenstance, divine guidance — or just people of goodwill coming together — the 800-member congregation has curtailed the stormwater running off its church grounds by nearly a third while creating an oasis of fresh produce amid what Pastor Ralph Hodge calls a food desert in South Richmond.
“I never thought it would be this,” Hodge marveled one day this fall as he surveyed the two green plots, the culmination of two years of talk, planning and effort.
The church’s greening began, prosaically enough, over money. The Bay Foundation’s staff had been canvassing the Broad Rock community to talk with residents about what they could do to reduce street and ditch flooding. In addition to being a nuisance, the flashy rainfall runoff was degrading area creeks that flow into the James River. During one home visit, recalled Ann Jurczyk, the foundation’s Virginia outreach and advocacy manager, the residents said, “You should go talk to the church. They have a huge stormwater utility fee, and the pastor is not happy.”
That’s putting it mildly. Hodge said he refused to pay the $7,900 annual fee for several years because he believed it was unfair to dun nonprofits like the church. He also doubted, he said, that the city of Richmond would spend the money it was collecting on his side of the river, which has a lot of aging commercial corridors in need of upgrading, like Broad Rock Boulevard.
But stormwater is a significant source of pollution in Richmond, just as it is in older cities elsewhere in the Bay watershed that were built up before runoff controls were required. The foundation staff offered to help the church reduce its fee by curbing its runoff. The nonprofit had gotten a $150,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to be used to restore the local watershed by increasing green infrastructure in the Broad Rock neighborhood, an impoverished and underserved area of South Richmond. Jurczyk said that much of the grant, with matching local funds, went to offering an adult education class, working with a middle school, doing multiple stream buffer plantings and creating five residential rain gardens.
Jurczyk and Hodge aren’t sure now whose idea it was, but one thing led to another when they met at the church to talk about installing a rain garden. Second Baptist, founded 136 years ago, outgrew its original home and now occupies a sprawling one-story building that used to be a Winn-Dixie supermarket. Hodge told Jurczyk how the congregation was working to upgrade the old grocery store’s kitchen. Before long, they were talking about creating a community garden beside the church, just beyond the kitchen door.
Work began a year ago on the rain garden. Eighteen parking spaces were sacrificed to carve out a narrow strip of shrubs and flowers on one side of the lot. With two inlets, it’s capable of absorbing runoff from the expanse of pavement in all but the heaviest of downpours.
Other improvements also do double duty — reducing runoff while raising food. The church installed a 10,000-gallon cistern to collect the rain that falls on the old supermarket’s one-acre roof. In dry times, the water in the big white tank is used to irrigate the community garden. And when the cistern fills up in wet times, the overflow is piped into 6-foot-deep trenches that were excavated beneath the community garden and filled with gravel and topsoil.
“It’s a beautiful thing to be here on a day of heavy rain, and watch this system work,” Hodge said. “It does exactly what it’s supposed to do,” he added, soaking up the water “and all the runoff nutrients that the Bay doesn’t need. But these plants love it, our garden loves it.”
To Hodge, the gardens fit with the scriptural invocation to be good stewards of God’s creation. “Psalm 24:1 says the earth is the Lord’s,” he noted.
But they also earned the church a break on its stormwater fee.
The community garden, meanwhile, has engaged the congregation in other ways, and brought together people to help with it and learn from it. Virginia First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe turned out for the inauguration ceremony in March, and the church hosted a series of “feeding the mind, body and spirit” gardening workshops in June that were organized by one of its partners in the project, Virginia State University.
A dedicated cadre of church members has seen to the planting, watering, weeding and harvesting. Much of the produce is grown in 21 raised beds, the rest is cultivated in open ground.
Bay Foundation staff have helped with everything from planning plantings to weeding. Jurczyk, who said she’s been vegetable gardening for decades, called the church project a labor of love.
“It has been an interesting journey, one I never thought I’d be on,” said Pat Harris, the church member who managed the garden this year. A retired information tech professional, she said, “I’m learning as I go along.”
The produce is picked, prepared and sold to church members every Sunday, Harris said. And when there were leftovers, she said, she took some to the neighborhood fire house to share.
Some church members may have been skeptical at first about the venture, she recalled. But that changed when things started ripening as summer began. Members would crowd around the table, money in hand.
“I wanted to get people excited about fresh food,” Harris said. And she was among them, she acknowledged: “We made basil pesto, which I put on all my food. I am loving basil. I never knew basil could be so good.”
There’s a fellowship aspect to the gardening work as well, Harris noted, particularly as they prepare the week’s harvest for sale on Sunday.
“It’s kind of fun,” she said. “On Saturdays, we have a big roundtable and the ladies, we all get together, standing there packaging and take inventory, and we’re telling stories.”
As fall began, the berries, lettuce and corn of summer gave way to crops like garlic, onions, carrots and beets, among others.
“We’re going to keep growing things until winter hits,” Harris said. Meanwhile, she added, they’re talking about opening up the garden to the community beyond the church next year, by renting out the raised beds for others to grow their own fresh food.
Blair Blanchette, the foundation’s Virginia grassroots coordinator, called the Second Baptist gardens a “once in a lifetime project” in the way it seemed to engage and energize the church community.
“It just seems it was connecting the dots…of so many things the church was doing,” she said.
But it may be inspiring others to act, if not quite as ambitiously. Blanchette said she’d been contacted by a neighboring church wanting the foundation to come inspect its property for a possible rain garden installation.