Friday, January 15, 2021

Soil, Plants and People: History of the Schaef Earth Garden

“We must use our time and our space on this little planet that we call Earth 
to make a lasting contribution, to leave it a little better than we found it.”
-                                         John Lewis, 1940-2020

Shared by Ellen Kirby

When I retired in 2007 and moved to Winston-Salem, NC,  leaving PSUMC and the church garden were very difficult for me.  I spent so many hours working there for over 20 years with wonderful groups of volunteers.  It was a respite and an inspiration. It was and  is a sacred space.  Since the garden started in 1971 there have been several "waves" of volunteers, each offering their time, energy and creativity.  For their names, see the sidebar and if you have other names, please send them to me.

I created this blog to provide a channel for communication between volunteers and a way for the wider community to learn about the garden as a significant part of the church's outreach. Nearly 16,000 visits to the blog are recorded by Blogger's analytics, many from other countries.

Today, I am grateful to church Trustee Rickie James, one of the original gardeners, for reviving interest in the garden's history and its ongoing significance for the church. Rev. Melissa Hinneman, the current pastor continues strong support for the garden along with faithful volunteers. 



The Park Slope Methodist Episcopal Church (formerly the Sixth Avenue Methodist Church) opened  in 1884. The property included a large empty lot adjacent to the church. Led by pastor Rev. Phil West in 1971 a planning process began after gaining approval from the NY Annual Conference.  A group of members moved forward  to create a garden in the empty lot.  Led by church members Monte Clinton and Faithe Davis the group recruited local landscape designer Bob McMahon to implement their plan.  Ground was broken in 1972 and an energetic and creative group of volunteers transformed the rubble strewn vacant lot into a beautifully designed and landscaped garden.


That basic design survives today. A large yew shrub and boxwoods from Mt. Vernon are still in their original places. In the original design, railroad ties provided borders and brick paths were laid. The center square of peach trees and boxwoods provided a focal point. When Rev. Finley Schaef became the minister of the church in 1972 he continued strong pastoral support for the garden including the garden's inclusion of composting as an earth saving process.

In 1984 when the original group of volunteers asked for help, I volunteered to lead a new group of volunteers.  We started a composting area and used it to dispose of leaves and weeds and invited church members to "bring their kitchen garbage to church" thus creating beautiful new soil to replenish the tired old soil.  New plants and trees were planted.  

Volunteers learned new gardening skills and tried and tested many different ideas.  Through their connections to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, volunteers  acquired interesting new plants to add to the design.  Many took gardening classes. Notable plants included a Japanese Maple, a Korean viburnum, clematis, hydangeas and many other perennials, along with tulips and daffodils.  One October, church members, including children planted many varieties of bulbs and enjoyed the surprise of red and yellow in the Spring.  It was a great sight. During this time the four original peach trees died and were replaced with a Japanese white birch, and Japanese Maple. Additional trees were added including a Dogwood Altinofolia and a ‘Red Jade’ weeping crabapple. The crabapple and Japanese Cherry Tree (‘Kwanzan’) flowered beautifully in the spring. A Crape Myrtle replaced the Japanese Cherry when it died.

The church members and the community used the garden for congregational coffee hours, meetings, weddings, birthday parties. local  AA meetings, outdoor movie screenings and many other purposes. Amazing lobster dinners were held to raise funds for the church.  The neighborhood Beansprouts Nursery School had its early beginnings in the church and the garden was a major feature that continues to this day.  Hundreds of children have spent their formative years in this garden.   Certainly this beautiful open space left an indelible memory that would last their lifetime. We enlarged the play area with a special surface made of recycled tires. Over the years the rentals from Beansprouts became a major source of funding for the church.

Garden volunteers and members donated many significant additions to the garden in memory of friends and family, including a Colorado Spruce in memory of Monte Clinton’s father, a wonderful wooden bench for Guy D’Angelo who made a major donation to the church, new roses in memory of Ruth Bell by her daughter Delores and a teak bench in memory of Sara Zug by her friends and family.

The garden extended to the street with colorful window boxes on steps leading to the sanctuary, created and cared for by Nancy Crumley.  Nancy Wilks filled the gingko tree bed with beautiful yellow daffodils and flowers for spring and summer.

In. 1997 the garden was named for our beloved minister Rev. Finley Schaef and his wife, Nancy. Rev. Schaef had been the pastor for 25 years and Nancy had been his devoted partner and deeply dedicated church leader. Because of Rev. Schaef's commitment to environmental sustainability and his and Nancy's love for the garden it was named the Schaef Earth Garden. 

Rev. Finley and Nancy E.K.Schaef

In 2001 a signifiant renovation  was done with garden volunteers working with Kevin Gerard, local landscape architect.  A new wrought iron fence with a center gate replaced the old chainlink one (which included barbed wire at the top). A new amphitheater with brick decking replaced the original railroad ties. 


One strong memory are the remarks of people who walked by the garden a few days after the 9/11 terrorist strike on New York City in 2001.  As the passersby saw the folks working to rebuild the garden, they spoke of their gratefulness to see something new and positive. Another time a woman who was in the Sunday evening AA group left three beautiful shrubs in the garden.  Later I learned that she donated  the plants from her own garden due to her appreciation for the chance to sit in the garden before and after meetings.

In 2007 I retired and moved to North Carolina.  Many of the volunteers continued at that time and Nancy Crumley coordinated the work. (to be updated).

In 2020, The church started another major renovation to make the church more accessible from the sanctuary to the garden and the street,  as well as the garden into the church building.  A new entrance, an elevator and new paths were added. Some plants had to be removed but new ones will be planted. The Trustees and current pastor, Rev. Melissa Hinnen have led this effort.

Ellen Kirby, January 2021


Susan Johnson, Kathy McCullogh and I
received an award for the garden from the
Citizens Committee for NYC, 1988

Monday, October 12, 2020

Why this blog

I've wanted to record the history and meaning of the PSUMC garden for a long time. There are so many stories in a garden and in plants. All the people who've gotten thier hands dirty there, all the many plants and designs mainly based on the patterns of sun and shade. I want to record it all here as thoughts come to mind. Maybe you have stories to add too. A particular plant, a memory of times in the garden, an area of the garden you managed, people stories....all are part of the life of this garden that needs to be recorded. Today...Saturday, Nov. 11. We had a workday to primarily plant the bulbs and clean up for winter. I looked at the dogwood tree that seems to be dying.
Trees in the Garden
Reminded me of all the trees that have been planted in the garden. With the original design, four peach trees, one on each corner of the berm, were centerpieces of the garden.  Eventually they died and other trees were planted. A Whitespire Birch, a Japanese Maple and a Crepe Myrtle still provide shade and beauty.  This dying tree is a Cornus altinifolia, common name pagoda dogwood. It's a beautiful tree with unusual flowers, at least for a dogwood. Most people don't know it's a dogwood. It's a native tree and has white flowers that look more like a mimosa flower than the common Cornus florida. Like the florida, altinifolia has been subjected to anthracnose. It one of many beautiful plants donated  by Lucy Jones from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden at its plant sale about 25 years ago. We planted it when it was in a two gallon pot. Some people say its the most beautiful specimen of its type in NYC. I hope so much we can save it. It will be a very great loss if it dies. Its a great shade tree too.  
POST NOTE:  The tree mentioned soon was cut down  sometime after this photo.        Ellen Kirby

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Hydrangea....looking towards summer

This Hydrangea Macrophylla started as an "Easter Plant" and was moved three times and divided into three separate plants. It grows like crazy and puts out a multitude of these beautiful flowers for about six weeks in the summer. Seems like we need to remember this during these long, dark, cold days. Spring will come. It always does!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Winter in Our Garden in Brooklyn

Winter is such a good time to rest in the garden. The soil is hard, the plants are dormant, the bulbs are starting to push up and the wind is roaring. Seed and nursery catalogues become our friends. Sometimes it's nice to read and learn without having to rush outside. Seed sowing can begin now even if you want to do WINTER SOWING (check out if you want details). Lest we forget, however, the compost still can use a turn once in a while, mulch should be put around all the perennials (to prevent the freeze and thaw that can kill them) and there may be berries that can be cut. January is a great time to feed and watch the birds. What's happening in the winter for all you gardeners. Are you getting spring fever yet? Are you enjoying your "houseplants". Are you beginnning to read your catalogues that seem to jam our mailboxes at this time of the year? Have you started getting your seed sowing plans together? We are getting readers from around the world since we have listed our blog at Look at the list in the "feeds" below. It's pretty amazing to be part of this worldwide community. At you can check out all kinds of blogs. Another great way to get your garden "fix" in the winter. Time to go get some hot chocolate. Ellen

Friday, October 17, 2008

Harvest compost!

Lisa with her handy Felco's tackles the Holly

Photos from the Garden

Spontaneous work day in the garden

A few of us gathered on the spur of the moment. Lisa pruned the holly, Susan harvested compost and Ellen just hung out and took these photos. Nancy cheered us on while scurrying to do her chores. I thought the garden looked fabulous. It looks very vibrant and some of the color combinations are stunning. Here are a few shots from the day.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Few Photos Taken Today

We are suffering a heat wave, but the garden is holding up nobly. I have a new digital camera -- yay! I would have taken more pictures but it was a bit too sunny.

Plantings & containers in the area where Pagoda Dogwood used to be:

Echinacea (purple coneflower):

Nicotiana and cosmos, with tiger lilies from Linda Mandracchia's garden in the background:

Front steps:

Front steps:

Nicole, watering:

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Hi Gardeners

Hey all,

This past Sunday I managed to get to the garden. I saw Susan there. I chucked that rotting Xmas wreath that was flung under a tree. I also repaired the little picket fence that had been broken in many places. It was great to do some work there and the garden was looking soooooo beautiful!!! Wow. Especially those barrels with all that colorful gorgeousness. When are the next work days? Or when one of you plans to go over for a while, maybe you can let me know so I can work, too. I don't have a key as of yet, though it's just a matter of meeting up with Nancy at some point. You can call me at 718 633 0059. Happy Summer!

Resources (Books and such) List

  • Community Gardening Guidebook, Brooklyn Botanic Garden,
  • The End of Nature by Bill McKibben