July 2006
Featured Articles

"Finding Faith in a Garden?"

A unique project of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System
to establish gardens in AL

by Jerry A. Chenault

  Jerry Chenault, right, looking at Biblical plants with Kevin Zachary of the Committee for Biblical Gardens in Warsaw, Indiana.
How many different kinds of gardens can you name? Let’s see … there are water gardens, herb gardens, children’s gardens, pizza gardens, butterfly gardens, and even beer gardens (in Germany); but have you ever heard of a "faith garden"? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t, because it’s a pretty new concept to most folks in Alabama. In fact, surveys show that most ministers aren’t even familiar with these gardens. So what are faith gardens anyway? Let’s see.

"Faith gardens" is a not-so-narrow category of gardens that incorporate gardening, aesthetics, and faith into one project. They’re normally places for prayer and meditation (as well as other uses like weddings, classes, etc.). Kind of a place to go when the world begins to weigh heavily on a person … or a place for "introspection." But these gardens often have an even more specific or specialized purpose.

Depending on the type of the faith garden, that purpose may be to inspire, remind, teach, motivate, calm, etc. For instance, in a "Mary’s garden" the plants are all reminiscent of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the traditions surrounding her. An example of the plants therein might include Rosemary. It has the tradition of having changed its blooms from white to blue when Mary laid her cloak upon one to dry as she traveled to Egypt while fleeing from Herod.

Jerry Chenault with Myrtle Bush at Innis Wood Metro Park Gardens in Columbus, Ohio.  
And there are other types of faith gardens as well. Like Zen gardens and Labyrinth gardens. But my favorite is a Biblical garden. Sometimes called an "Ecumenical garden," these gardens combine all the benefits of people/plant interactions with an element of faith and an educational component to boot! Often the plants are the 128 or so plants mentioned in scripture (or some part of them). That’s where the learning really begins!

Educational opportunities surrounding these plants are enormous, besides the personal benefits that they can bring to those who have the element of faith that they help to inspire. They help to make scriptures come alive and also help in understanding scriptural contexts. These educational opportunities, as well as the research-proven benefits to people from interaction with plants and gardens, have made these gardens a unique project of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. They are specifically one of the initiatives of the Saving Towns at Risk (S.T.A.R.) project of the Urban Affairs and New Nontraditional Programs division of Extension, headquartered at Alabama A&M University.

  Jerry Chenault, left, with Rev. Art Hadley at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Worthington, OH.

This project, a brain-child of S.T.A.R. director Marilyn Simpson Johnson, seeks to educate the people of Alabama about the benefits of these gardens and then to help them establish gardens in our state. An exhaustive "Resource Manual" is currently in the printing process, and educational training meetings are being conducted. In short, we’ve found a really good thing for churches, communities, and a good thing just to help people – and we’re trying to get the word out on it.

As Marilyn S. Johnson says, "When you find something good that can help people you – what? That’s right … you let people know! You don’t keep it just for yourself. You’ve got to let the people know!" And that’s what we’re doing!

Jerry A. Chenault is the Urban Regional Extension Agent, New & Nontraditional Programs