A Native Plants Garden That Brings Birds, Pollinators, and Parishioners Together

The partnership between Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society and St. Eugene Catholic Church in Asheville, North Carolina, is just one example of the chapter's work in the community.

In the Friendship Garden, also known as "Jardin de la Amistad," in Asheville, North Carolina, will sit a commemorative pole. On one side it says “Que la paz prevalezca en la tierra;” and on the other, “May peace prevail on earth.” The pole, and the garden in which it will be installed, is part of a project designed to bring two communities together: Anglos and Hispanics in the parish of St. Eugene Catholic Church. More than 25 percent of the church’s 1,440 families are Hispanic, and the garden's purpose is to be a place where they can work with their English-speaking co-parishoners to build a refuge for humans and birds.

The garden, which is full of native plants that support local birds and other wildlife, was once an abandoned lot. Transforming it from a wasteland of concrete and invasive weeds into a bird-friendly sanctuary took the efforts of multiple groups within the community. The work on the garden began in late 2017 and began to ramp up in January, when members of the local Audubon chapter, Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society, approached the St. Eugene team about adding a bird-friendly component to the Friendship Garden, which would allow the parish to obtain extra funding for the project.

The funding came through Audubon’s Coleman and Susan Burke Center for Native Plants, and according to John Rowden, director of Audubon's Plants for Birds program, he approved the grant for two reasons. He says he was specifically drawn to the partnership’s committed members, as well as Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society and St. Eugene’s dedication to sustainability in their respective communities.

“We saw it as having the potential to not only get native plants in the ground but also to engage the community effectively,” Rowden says. “[The garden is] a way to build the chapter’s capacity in being inclusive.” 

This project, for both St. Eugene and Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society, is just part of a larger body of environmental work. In addition to attending the multiple garden workdays, Tom Tribble, president of Elisha Mitchell, participated in St. Eugene’s annual “Going Green” weekend in May. Before and after masses, Tribble set up tables that educated churchgoers on energy efficiency, while the children’s table let kids make nesting bags out of raw materials like wool.

“It is more than just an effort for plants for birds. I do not want this to simply be a bird club,” says Tribble on how he views Elisha Mitchell’s role in the Asheville community. “It is important to fit the chapter’s work in the larger context of Audubon’s mission.”

In addition to its work with St. Eugene, Elisha Mitchel juggles several other community projects. Presentations to schools and environmental groups on the impact of climate change on birds, and outreach to local plant nurseries are just two examples of their work. The chapter also runs a bird-friendly shade-grown coffee program and annual birdathon, donating the proceeds from the latter to the Cerulean Warbler Reserve and Reserva El Jaguar, two bird-friendly coffee farms in South America.

The plans for St. Eugene’s Friendship Garden call for a total of 300 native plants, and so far about two-thirds of those have been planted. Once done, the project will be a springboard for engaging other churches and schools around Asheville to imagine bird-friendly gardens, says Cynthia Gibbs, coordinator of the project for St. Eugene’s. And though the garden will continue to change and evolve, Gibbs says she envisions the completed space being used as a peaceful respite for prayer and a spot where the community can gather, work, and play as “one family in one home.”