At St. Luke's in Bethesda, Parishioners Plant Seeds of Compassion, Learning

By Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009

From a church rector's vision sprouts a garden, which, in turn,

yields opportunities for teachable moments for neighbors in need.

One day last summer, the Rev. Stephanie Nagley noticed that the vast, green lawn in front of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Bethesda had potential.

She imagined a lush garden, ripe with vegetables, where members of the church could have an outdoor sanctuary to gather, work and give to the needy.

This spring, her idea grew into the LOVE Garden, or Luke's Organic Vegetable Enterprise, by way of loving hands (and a tiller, fertilizer and lots of volunteers working hard to make arid ground arable).

Although Nagley, the church's rector, said she wasn't heavily involved in the production process, a few of her parishioners took the garden from a notion in her mind through the first harvest.

"I'm more the tree-shaker than the jelly-maker," Nagley said.

It was no small task to turn the plot of sod and bad soil into a bountiful garden, the parishioners said.

"I have to tell you the truth," Bob Lewis said earlier this week, as he repaired a grass trimmer in the middle of a sweltering day. "It's a lot of work."

The volunteers started work in March, tilling the ground, mixing in fertilizer and building a fence around the garden. In May, they began planting tomatoes and lettuce, peas and squash, among other vegetables.

"We wanted, especially in a recession, to do something for those in need to give them some good food," said Phil Rider, who once owned an organic farm in Maine.

The church has partnered with St. Luke's House, an adjacent mental health rehabilitation center and residential facility founded by church members. The church donates much of the harvest to the house for healthful-cooking classes.

Jackie Shipp, manager of administration at St. Luke's House, said the vegetables not only help provide meals but also supply no-cost learning opportunities for the residents.

Elaine Byergo, manager of life-skills programs at St. Luke's House, said the garden has served as encouragement for those who live in the house because of the "spirit of planting, then harvesting, and teaching people."

Pesto and zucchini bread are the favorites among the nutritious items the students have learned to cook, Byergo said. "It's been a wonderful development, and it will grow a little each year," she said of the garden.

The plot is 30-by-30 feet, and the gardeners said they hope to plow more of the church lawn next year. They have also taken note of what worked and what didn't: Lettuce loved the rain; peas, not so much.

Gardeners also said they should have gotten rid of more grass, and the weeds have been horrendous.

The garden's organizer, Anne Elsbree, said that when it's time to start next year's planting, growth should gravitate toward the shade.

Nagley said that the garden has become a source of pride for her congregation and that she hopes that St. Luke's will become known as "the church with that garden."

There's more of a bounty to share, she said.

Rider, a longtime gardener who lives in a wooded area not suitable for raising vegetables, said he has a selfish reason for working so hard in the church's agricultural space:

"I can have my fingers in a vegetable garden."

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