Church garden lifts community spirit
published on 2 May 2023
The Salvation Army in Lower Earley, Reading has transformed its overgrown outdoor space into a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) award-winning garden, dedicating part of its rose garden to mark the King’s upcoming Coronation, and its sensory garden which will be dedicated to the memory of Ian Stoakes.
The project began in June 2020 when the church’s outdoor space had become wildly overgrown and several church goers began the job of clearing the neglected church grounds of its mass of weeds and brambles, as well as cutting back small trees.
One of the leaders of the initiative and church secretary Margaret Mortlock said:
“This was quite a challenge as we were just coming out of lockdown and had to abide by the Government rules regarding social distancing, although we were allowed to be in open spaces. The grounds had become extremely overgrown and needed significant attention, brambles and ivy had outgrown everything else and shrubs had become trees”.
Armed with a small budget, power tools and good old-fashioned community spirit, the gardeners dug in. Local Wickes and Marks and Spencer stores donated materials and plants to the garden as the development continued to gather momentum. Different zones including a church flower garden, sensory garden, woodland area, rose garden and a Mediterranean space were created as well as planters, a bug hotel, bird boxes and feeding tables built out of recycled wood.
During the transformation, keen gardener and designer of the sensory garden, Ian Stoakes, suffered a heart attack. Ian was limited in what he could do while in recovery, but was ready to supply his fellow gardeners with hot drinks and became the voice for the garden - talking to local people about the exciting space and its developments. However, in 2022 Ian sadly died at the age of 67, but his legacy remains for the community to benefit, for years to come.
Set in the heart of Lower Earley, the gardens are easily accessible to the vibrant housing estate, schools, leisure centre and retail outlets and hold groups such as the ‘Jumping Jacks’ toddler church - where young children play in the gardens and plant bulbs.
Patients at the local GP surgery have been referred to the church gardening club for healthy, social outdoor activity in a positive, uplifting environment. As a result, the small gardening group received a number of volunteers willing to give their time to something worthwhile and enabling the plan for the site to accelerate.
The gardening group also signed up to the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) ‘It’s Your Neighbourhood’ programme that helps communities to ‘green up’ their local spaces. The local branch of the RHS paid the church garden a visit offering lots of expert advice on how to help bring their vision alive.
Margaret Mortlock added: “We wanted to turn the green space around us into something that should be open and welcoming for the community and our church members. We had a three-year plan for the garden – part of that included making it accessible for all ages and abilities, to use it for social prescribing and where people can come for peace – knowing they can explore faith with us here at The Salvation Army”.
In summer 2022 the garden achieved recognition from the RHS, achieving level three in the ‘It’s Your Neighbourhood’ initiative. During Gardening Week (1-7 May) the garden group that consists of eight volunteers will work towards level four, advancing the garden and continuing to build community while caring for God’s creation.
The Salvation Army church holds Sunday worship and runs a coffee hub throughout the week open to the public and for other groups covering all ages. The gardens and carpark have been used for community events such as local well-being fayre, fireworks displays and Christmas Carols.