I first saw the Saint Albans Church gardens in Glen Williams and met the good people of the congregation back in2011. I noticed right away how warm and welcoming the people were, and how little the disheveled gardens reflected on their extraordinary volunteer efforts. Two years passed. I watched sadly as the plants struggled through the seasons, and weeds had their evil way with every bare spot and crevice. in 2013 I cracked, and spent the next 4 years rehabilitating the gardens. The steps were:
- Restoring the health of the soil
- Conquering noxious weeds
- Pruning shrubs to their natural forms
- Providing shelter for creatures beneficial to the garden
- Introducing pollinator-friendly plants.
It was a labour of love. Scroll down for Before and After photos.
Don’t get me wrong. Every member of that congregation puts in a tremendous amount of time volunteering and fundraising to keep the buildings in good shape and to fund and host outreach activities. Many of them are elderly, many have large properties of their own to maintain, and several have young families or eldercare to deal with. All have busy lives and little spare time, so naturally the gardens were down on the list of priorities. The grass was mowed regularly and shrubs sheared to keep the grounds as neat as possible. The small garden in front of the church itself was beautifully tended, but by necessity most of Saint Albans church gardens had to fend for themselves.
Few Winners in the Battle for Survival
The gardens on the church property are old, and in the battle for survival of the fittest over the years only daisies, siberian iris, a few shrubs, purple flocks, peonies, and big tough weeds persisted. None of the perennials had been divided for a long time and large patches of siberian iris formed empty donuts in the middle of the bed. They would bloom for a short period then collapse into a heap.
As for the shrubs – if not for a few blooms in spring it would have been difficult to identify them. They were all green balls. Their thin cover of leaves hid what was mostly tangled and dead wood underneath. With so few leaves to sustain them and such denuded soil, they looked like goners. The euonymus were covered in scale. Soil along pathways was dead due to heavy applications of rock salt in winter, although bomb-proof weeds managed to thrive.
At that point it was clear to me that the gardens needed help and honestly I couldn’t bear it any longer. Members of the congregation kindly (and happily) stepped aside to let me take over. A member who had been equally distressed by the state of the gardens, but was tapped out by her own volunteer work for the church, generously provided me with the resources to start the rehabilitating the gardens.
The Rehabilitation of Saint Albans Church Gardens
The first challenge was to sort out the mess of vegetation, get rid of weeds of impressive size, and nuke large patches of wild parsnip. I then cut out all the old and dead wood from the deciduous shrubs to help rejuvenate them. This marked the end of plant-torture-by-shearing under my watch!
Next, I covered the garden beds with a deep layer of mulch to suppress weeds and regenerate the soil. The dirt was as hard as concrete and devoid of the organisms and mycorrhizae that give life to a garden. Luckily, my benefactor had connections and was able to get several loads of chunky wood chips delivered for free. After many weeks we eventually were able to lay down a 6-8 inch layer of woodchips everywhere I wanted something to eventually grow.
Over the next two years I attended to the soil. In the fall I shred every fallen leaf I could get my hands on and threw them over the gardens. I refreshed the wood chips in the spring. I let nature do her magic, and in 2 years the wood chips and leaf layers decomposed into healthy, friable, life-giving soil. Perennial weeds came out easily – like butter.
It was time to go to work on the perennials.
I divided, I brought in plants from my own gardens, and I did some volunteer work in a nursery and was rewarded with some great plants. I sourced out native plants that can live co-operatively in an ornamental garden to attract pollinators, butterflies, and the insect life needed to support birds and beneficial insects. I put down logs to shelter toads, snakes, and beetles which are great helpers the garden. My goal for Saint Albans Church gardens was to create beautiful, low maintenance gardens that provided healthy, balanced habitat for wildlife. Four years later, I’m happy with the results!