University of Florida

The Neighborhood Gardener –
A Church's Sandy Soil Becomes a Sacred Garden

Yellow flowers in the church gardenMolly Griner has been a Polk County Master Gardener for 13 years. Before she became a Master Gardener though, Molly got involved in expanding the garden at her church, Hope Presbyterian, in Winter Haven, and she's been working on it ever since. 

Molly began working in the Gardens of Hope in 1998 with a desire to create a low-maintenance garden and areas for shaded relaxation and contemplation. After meeting with Anne Yasalonis, the Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Coordinator for Polk County, Molly got inspired to go Florida-friendly with the landscape.

The church grounds, located on the site of a former orange grove, consist of very sandy soils. Grass formerly dominated the garden area, but mulched planting beds have since replaced the turf. The use of organic mulches in these garden areas has created planting beds that are now rich with earthworms—a sign of good soil health.

An effort has been made to create a spiritual place. There are 18 benches located in the gardens for church-goers and community visitors to stop and meditate or pray surrounded by nature. The improved landscape has brought birds to the area, whose songs now fill the air of the previously quiet church gardens.

A bench amongst the pine trees Plant beds contain a mix of native Florida species, as well as non-native, Florida-Friendly plants. Trees include slash and long-leaf pines, red cedar, yaupon hollies (both male and female for berry production), redbud, flatwoods plum, and several varieties of crapemyrtle. Shade is provided by weeping yaupon hollies and large, tree-form ligustrums.

Shrubs have been added to the gardens, such as American beautyberry, Simpson's stopper, Indian hawthorn, and coonties, all of which can grow freely and not require pruning. In addition, Florida native wildflowers and blooming perennials offer color during most seasons of the year. 

Not only has the new landscape provided visitors with a beautiful and relaxing space, it has provided an opportunity to educate all who visit about Florida-Friendly gardening. The design and practices of the gardens incorporate the nine principles of Florida-Friendly Landscaping™, and Molly enjoys relaying these principles to others.   

Molly explains, "The awareness among our church members about the Florida-Friendly approach to gardening has been evident, as people ask questions about gardening a lot." In addition, Hope Presbyterian's preschool children and youth group are able to meet in the gardens for nature-related activities and to appreciate nature in an up-close setting.

The 7-acre property is still a work in progress. Thirty slash pine, long-leaf pine, and red-cedar trees were added to the landscape to replace a large area of turfgrass eight years ago. Microsprinklers were used to irrigate the area while the trees became established; after a year and a half, the irrigation was turned off and the area is now sustained by rainfall.  Molly has spearheaded efforts to remove additional turfgrass in order to reduce irrigation needs.

A view of the Hope Presbyterian Church's gardenIn her commitment to keep irrigation to a minimum, Molly even drives to the church to manually shut off the system when there has been rain. "We do have a rain sensor, but it only works if it is actively raining," she said.

The effort to transform the church gardens has been a passion project for Molly.

"I have always felt that the sacred areas around churches are especially suited for the healing nature of gardens, and to reflect a stewardship of God's natural beauty," she said. "In Florida, with the loss of our natural habitat due to development, it is even more important to provide places for people to learn about and appreciate our natural resources and enjoy the peace that nature provides."

Hope Presbyterian's gardens have been generously funded through memorials and donations from members of the church.


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