On the Faith in Action walking tour, the purple coneflowers shine, the bees buzz and the towering trees offer shade.
Some of the most important parts of the tour are invisible. There’s permeable pavement that collects rainwater and slowly releases it into the ground below. Rain gardens do the same with plants and soil. And there are underground basins to keep stormwater from flooding local waterways and, downstream, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
These features help the environment, but they’re also a reflection of faith.Organizers hope this tour in Lancaster will inspire changes in more congregations and show what’s possible even on small, land-locked city properties.
Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake organized the walking tour, partnering with Lancaster Interfaith Coalition. The Maryland nonprofit encourages faith communities to take action to protect and restore our watershed, says Bonnie Sorak, senior outreach coordinator.
Pennsylvania plays a big role in cleaning up the watershed, and downstream groups and governments have pushed for more action.
The interfaith group wanted to organize an event in Lancaster County but COVID-19 canceled a spring nature walk. A self-guided tour presents a safe alternative, Sorak says. The group connected with Lancaster Conservancy, and the tour now is part of the conservancy’s Water Week, this Friday through Saturday, Aug. 15.
The stops include churches plus a museum that’s not faith-based but has environmental elements and is in the neighborhood. And Moshav Derekh Shalom is a Jewish intentional community, part of Ecovillagers, a movement of sustainable community living through land cooperatives.
Here are three changes highlighted on the tour that you can make outdoors, at home or at church.
Last week, bees buzzed around the anise hyssop’s purple blooms in several gardens on the tour.
In these gardens grow plants that bloom throughout spring, summer and fall. Right now, there’s orange-blooming milkweed, purple phlox, yellow black-eyed susans and feathery green blue star.
Most of these plants are native to Pennsylvania, so they’re familiar with local rainfall and don’t require a lot of extra water. They won’t mind cold winters and hot, humid summers.
They also evolved with native insects, birds and wildlife, so they’ll attract pollinators and serve as bird food.
Which plants are the best for pollinators locally?
For years, Penn State Extension Master Gardeners have been watching plants at the Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center near Landisville to see which plants are most attractive.
Clustered mountain mint attracted the most diverse range of insects, has a minty smell and is easy to grow. Boneset has fragrant white flowers, can tolerate flooding and is a host plant for several types of moths. Coastal plain Joe Pye has pink-purple flowers that attract different species of butterflies. Swamp milkweed is an easy-to-grow host plant for monarch butterfly caterpillars, plus bees and butterflies. Stiff goldenrod is a great fall nectar source for pollinators (and isn’t responsible for allergies, that’s ragweed’s problem).
At Moshav Derekh Shalom, on College Avenue, Eve Bratman, along with her partner, sister and housemate, have spent the past four years transforming their outdoor area into a space flourishing with biodiversity and producing food.
The front lawn’s turf grass was replaced with a rain garden of edible, medicinal and pollinator-friendly plants.
Some herbs can double as ground covers, like oregano, mint, sage, creeping thyme and savory, she says. Sprinkling native pollinator seed mixes will add more diversity.
Bratman says she’d like people to see what’s possible with a slight shift in what a beautiful garden looks like.
“The things that look like weeds have medicinal purposes,” she says. “Or can be eaten or can be of massive benefit to pollinators.”
Grace Lutheran Church on North Queen Street is putting the final touches on a project that includes a large underground rock basin that will collect rainwater from the church roof and parking lot. That stormwater will no longer flood the city’s drainage system and instead will slowly be released into the aquifer.
The church also built an addition, so it was a logical time to make stormwater changes, said Pastor Steve Verkouw, even if it added $30,000 to the project.
“We did it because as people of faith we are called to be stewards of the Earth,” he says. “Every time there’s a thunderstorm that dumps more than the sewer plant can handle, it’s our waste that’s going down to the river and into the Chesapeake. We have to do our part to remove that.”
On a smaller scale, a rain barrel is one of the most simple ways to capture water. Collecting runoff from a roof reduces the amount of water that flows from your property. It also collects water to use on lawns or gardens.
The rainwater quickly adds up. One inch of rain on a 1,000-square-foot roof equals 623 gallons of water, according to Save it Lancaster. (To calculate the yield of your roof multiply the square footage of your roof by 625 and divide by 1,000.)
To keep mosquitoes away, cover the top of the barrel with a screen. Add BTI dunks, a soil bacteria that kills mosquitoes but doesn’t damage other insects. Adding a few tablespoons of cooking oil to the rain barrel is another option, according to New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.
Keeping mature trees
St. James Episcopal Church was established in 1744, giving plenty of time for trees to grow. In the past, the church’s stately elm trees included one that was the largest English elm in the state. However, the trees died from Dutch elm disease and were cut down in the 1990s.
There’s still a sycamore tree towering over the church and the historic cemetery. (The courtyard off Duke Street is open to the public even when the tour is over. A more modern renovation added permeable paving and old bricks there, allowing stormwater to seep into an underground bed.)
The sycamore tree is old, big and beautiful. It also has lots of environmental benefits.
Trees sequester carbon and provide shade and cooling. They capture rain and their roots filter water into the aquifer.
A sycamore tree is one of the best canopy trees, says Doug Tallamy, professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. In Lancaster County, it’s a host plant for 44 species of butterflies and moths, including the luna moth, according to National Wildlife Federation.