Skip to main content
Membership advertisement
Membership advertisement
People planting a garden near a tree
Courtesy Sacred Grounds

A National Garden Program Connects Faith With the Environment, in Detroit and Beyond

The National Wildlife Federation’s Sacred Grounds program helps houses of worship develop native plant gardens to preserve biodiversity and minimize pollution.
June 6, 2022
6 minute read
  • Share:

Two years ago, outside Christ the King Catholic Church, in northwest Detroit, a flurry of congregants’ hands were at work, digging, weeding, and watering. Slowly but surely, a special kind of garden was taking shape: one that centered around plant species native to the region. Located just a mile from the River Rouge, which flows from the Metro Detroit area into the Detroit River, the patch doubles as a rain garden, drinking up stormwater runoff from the church’s roof and downspouts. This orientation allows the water to percolate through the garden soil rather than into Detroit’s sewers, which, during particularly precipitous times of year, are known to overflow and pollute nearby waterways.

The 95-year-old church’s garden—which will be joined by another later this month—is part of an expanding network of sites participating in Sacred Grounds, a program run by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) that helps houses of worship transform a portion of their properties into outdoor oases for wildlife by growing native plants. This type of greenery plays an essential role in any locale: Since a given region’s flora and fauna develop together, certain species can only feed on plants they co-evolved with. Without them, gardens become ecological deserts for pollinating insects, which are essential for the survival of all terrestrial ecosystems. Native plants also provide vital food, shelter, and places to rear offspring for songbirds, and, thanks to their local roots, often thrive year-round.

First conceived a decade ago by Naomi Edelson, NWF’s senior director of wildlife partnerships, the program now has regional hubs in the Mid-Atlantic, Great Lakes, and South Central regions of the United States, with other gardens cropping up elsewhere nationwide. More than 100 congregations have joined the program to date, comprising a diverse membership spanning Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Indigenous faiths. By design, Sacred Grounds is a communal effort. To participate, churches must create some form of wildlife habitat with native plants, as well as educate and engage their congregation, and surrounding neighborhoods, in the practice. Once inducted as a Sacred Grounds member, a church can apply for grants to receive funding, a native plant starter kit, and—if its congregation is located in one of Sacred Grounds’ regional hubs—on-site guidance and assistance.

Houses of worship have turned out to be apt vehicles for getting the word out about safeguarding the environment, as most serve as beacons in their locales, exercise a wide reach, and are situated on large swathes of land. “Faith leaders are really passionate about community revitalization, community empowerment, and lifting people up,” says Tiffany Carey, NWF’s education and engagement manager. Edelson, the program’s partnerships director, says that the esteem that faith leaders often hold in their districts goes a long way, too. “They’re well respected,” she says. “So having them connect faith and the environment, as superior figures in their communities, is very powerful.”

More than just a way to revitalize a congregation’s surroundings, the program also prompts a turning inward, reinvigorating the spiritual identities of the congregants themselves. “The Sacred Grounds initiative is such a logical and appropriate idea because different faiths are united in their notion that God is creator, and that we, as one of the creations, need to band together to protect creation for the glory of the Creator,” says Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of the Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland. “We connect the sacred grounds, and we create islands of sustainability, because we are people of faith.”

When it comes to the planting itself, NWF helps congregations strategize to account for their community’s landscaping preferences, the needs of area pollinators and wildlife, and the demands of the local climate. In Detroit, for instance, plants with deep root systems are needed to protect against flooding. At the city’s Gesu Catholic Church, perennial flowers and grasses, including Black-eyed Susans, wild strawberries, and Indian grass fill the garden beds, while the plot at the nearby Pure in Heart Missionary Baptist Church brims with coneflower, ivory halo dogwood, crocuses, woodland sage, Allegheny serviceberry, and red tulips. Across the country, keystone plants—organisms specific to local food webs within ecoregions—known to attract caterpillars, take priority. (Caterpillars, in turn, draw nesting birds, such as chickadees, which act as key pollinators.)

Ultimately, Sacred Grounds’s impact transcends the fragrant flowers, the habitat creation, and even the community building. The relationship between faith and the environment is one that has long been entangled with controversy and political beliefs—a straddle of sorts across party lines. By working hand in hand with houses of worship that encompass multiple belief systems, and by guiding them through education and expertise, Sacred Grounds takes environmentalism back to its uncomplicated roots: an effort to take care of our shared home, and to treat the earth with the reverence it deserves.

Subscribe to get exclusive access to our stories, newsletters, events, and more.
Already a subscriber? Sign in
Membership advertisement
Membership advertisement

Keep Reading

Lindsey Bro. (Photo: Laura Austin)
Lindsey Bro on the Cathartic, Humanizing Effect of Bathing Rituals
14 minute read
Dr. Gary Cooper, founder of the re-commerce company Rheaply, speaking at the fair. (Courtesy Emerson Collective)
At New York’s Climate Week, a “Climate Science Fair” Cultivates Optimism and Future-Forward Thinking
7 minute read
David W. Orr. (Photo: John Seyfried)
David W. Orr on the Inextricable Links Between Climate and Democracy
30 minute read
William Hanley. (Photo: Brian W. Ferry. Courtesy Dwell)
William Hanley on Media That Adds a Bit of Whimsy to the Everyday
16 minute read
Aerial view of Tom Lee Park. (Photo: Connor Ryan. Courtesy Memphis River Parks Partnership)
A Dynamic, City-Defining Riverfront Park Grows in Memphis
8 minute read
Christopher John Rogers. (Photo: Robin Kitchin. Courtesy Farrow & Ball)
The Vibrant, Kaleidoscopic Color Theory of Christopher John Rogers
26 minute read
Cover of “The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Essays on Desire and Consumption” by Katy Kelleher. (Courtesy Simon and Schuster)
Desiring Beauty, Even If It Kills Us
8 minute read
Courtesy Eddie Stern
Eddie Stern on the Physiological and Spiritual Power of Pranayama
29 minute read
vanessa german. (Photo: AJ Mitchell Photography. Courtesy Kasmin, New York)
vanessa german on Art as a Way of Life and Love as a “Human Technology”
43 minute read
Courtesy Daphne Javitch
The Go-To Routines and Rituals of Daphne Javitch
11 minute read
Beverly Nguyen. (Photo: Sean Davidson)
Beverly Nguyen’s Highly Tactile Taste in Media
19 minute read
Cover of “Look: How to Pay Attention in a Distracted World” by Christian Madsbjerg. (Courtesy Riverhead Books)
In “Look,” Christian Madsbjerg Celebrates the Slow, Patient Act of Observation
8 minute read
Courtesy Sara Auster
Sara Auster on Fine-Tuning Your Life Through Sound Therapy
19 minute read
Installation view of the Herzog & de Meuron exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London (14 July – 15 October 2023). Photo © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry. © Herzog & de Meuron
A Herzog & de Meuron Exhibition Emphasizes Architecture as Collective, Not Egocentric
5 minute read
Priya Khanchandani. (Photo: Prarthna Singh)
Priya Khanchandani on the Media That Inspires Her Curatorial Work
10 minute read
Vivian Rosenthal. (Courtesy Frequency Breathwork)
Vivian Rosenthal on the Profound Power of Holotropic Breathwork
12 minute read
Pedro Gadanho. (Courtesy Actar Publishers)
Pedro Gadanho on How Architecture Must Adapt to Our Ecological Emergency
24 minute read
Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In “Ordinary Notes,” Christina Sharpe Weaves a Profound Portrait of Black Life
7 minute read
David Adjaye (Photo: Anoush Abrar. Courtesy Adjaye Associates)
The Alchemy of David Adjaye’s Architecture
32 minute read
(Courtesy Millana Snow)
Millana Snow’s New Well-Being Plan
12 minute read
Installation view of “Thaddeus Mosley: Forest” at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. (Photo: Kevin Todora. Courtesy Nasher Sculpture Center)
5 Exhibitions You Must See This Summer
8 minute read
Jaé Joseph.
Jaé Joseph on Broadening Notions of Luxury and Well-Being
11 minute read
Lina Ghotmeh. (Photo: Harry Richards. Courtesy Serpentine Galleries)
The Poetic, Humanistic Architecture of Lina Ghotmeh
29 minute read
Cover of “Worlds Without End” (2023) by Chris Impey. (Courtesy MIT Press)
Chris Impey on the New Space Race and Exoplanet Habitation
17 minute read
Norman Teague. (Photo: Ross Floyd. Courtesy Norman Teague Studios)
Norman Teague on How He Keeps His Finger on the Pulse
16 minute read
View of Thomas J Price’s “Beyond Measure” exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s Downtown Los Angeles gallery. (Photo: Keith Lubow. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth)
With His Monumental Bronze Sculptures, Thomas J Price Honors the Everyday Features of Black Life
6 minute read
The cover of “Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility” (2023). (Courtesy Haymarket Books)
In “Not Too Late,” a Vital, Kaleidoscopic View on the Climate Crisis
6 minute read
Courtesy Leonard Koren
From “WET” to “Wabi-Sabi”: Leonard Koren’s Adventurous Aesthetic Journey
31 minute read
Rachelle Robinett. (Courtesy Pharmakon Supernatural)
Rachelle Robinett’s Science-Backed Approach to Herbalism
9 minute read
The “Kwaeε” timber pavilion by Adjaye Associates. (Photo: Michelle Äärlaht. Courtesy Adjaye Associates)
An Intellectual African Revolution Comes to the Venice Architecture Biennale
8 minute read
Jasmine Marie. (Photo: Gerald R. Carter Jr.)
A Breathwork Practitioner Making Space for Black Women to Feel Free
16 minute read
Object No. 118, a set of white ceramic bowls, in the New York City home of Kate Berry, chief creative officer of Domino magazine.
Paola Navone’s “Take It or Leave It” Objects, as Seen in Their New Homes
5 minute read
Tom Delevan with his new Archival rug collection for Beni Rugs. (Courtesy Beni Rugs)
Tom Delavan on What He Watches to Laugh, Relax, and Unwind
11 minute read
John Pawson. (Photo: Gilbert McCarragher. Courtesy Phaidon)
John Pawson’s Approach to Making Life Simpler
23 minute read
Daniel Humm. (Photo: Craic McDean)
Daniel Humm’s Giant, Thought-Provoking, Plant-Based Pivot
15 minute read
GUBI’s presentation at Bagni Misteriosi for Milan Design Week. (Courtesy GUBI)
15 Standouts From Milan Design Week
13 minute read
View of the “Take It or Leave It” exhibition. (Photo: Antonio Campanella)
Our Milan Design Week Exhibition as a Celebration of Paola Navone’s Prolific Practice and Generous Spirit
8 minute read
Daniel Rozensztroch at the “Take It or Leave It” exhibition. (Photo: Antonio Campanella)
Daniel Rozensztroch on Curating “Take It or Leave It”
12 minute read
Photo: Antonio Campanella
Live From Our “Take It or Leave It” Exhibition
2 minute read
Frances Moore Lappé. (Photo: Mamadi Doumbouya)
Frances Moore Lappé on Fifty-Plus Years of Plant-Based Eating (and Living)
19 minute read