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One of the first things you notice about the University United Methodist Church (UUMC) garden is the lack of walls.
The open-design, block-long space behind the church at 2000 S. Locust St. is a community garden.
It’s a quiet space, a green space, a safe place, a memory garden, a prayer labyrinth, a play area, a meeting place, an outdoor church/Sunday school and a community space to be shared and enjoyed by everyone.
“It belongs to the neighborhood,” said church garden volunteer Tammy Sprague. “We built it for everybody.”
That’s particularly important in a neighborhood where about the residents are living in poverty.
The garden is part of UUMC’s “In the Neighborhood Initiative,” which allows the church “to compassionately be there for our neighbors during times of crisis and hardship, as well as in times of joy and celebration,” said church member and volunteer Laura Sollars, who chairs the UUMC Trustees Committee.
The Initiative is designed to work on the four focus areas of the United Methodist Church: Overcoming poverty together, seeking health and wholeness for all, growing leaders and creating new places for new people, said UUMC Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Heike Miller.
“We know that loving God means to embrace the whole diverse body of the UMC worldwide and with our connection partners in the neighborhood,” Miller said.
The garden “brings us all together,” said volunteer Melly Locke, who set up an extensive garden at Sierra Middle School during her long tenure with Las Cruces Public Schools.
Even in winter, volunteers come to the garden every Friday to clean and maintain it. More volunteers are welcome. No experience necessary; just show up any Friday, 9 a.m.-noon and join in.
The idea for the garden, which stretches from Myrtle Avenue to Panlener Avenue along Garrison Street, began as a “mission challenge” to explore how UUMC “could take the church beyond the walls of the building,” Sollars said. Garden construction began on Change the World Sunday, May 18, 2014.
“The community helped put it together,” long-time church volunteer Mary Lacy said, using a basic design by Sprague’s son, Parker Sprague, who is an architect in Albuquerque.
Community donations helped pay for benches, picnic tables and other amenities, and volunteer labor created all three of the garden’s distinct spaces, set up pathways, laid down a labyrinth, set up a dog station, did the planting and even installed a low-water-use irrigation system.
Locke credited Sprague and her husband, Guy, along with Amelia Hunt, “for the energy and countless hours they spent in the actual labor of getting the garden constructed and up and running.”
The garden’s winter crops include turnips, spinach, lettuce and kale, which are available to everyone.
There are also raised beds, keyhole planters, a bucket-grow system and containers for summer crops and many kinds of colorful flowers in spring and summer.
The garden has a fruit-tree (apple, pear, peace, plum) orchard among the established New Mexico olive, oak and mulberry trees, along with desert willow, juniper, mesquite and others. It also has many shrubs and vines, Locke said, including grapes, apache plume, red sage, lady fingers, Mexican sage, vitex, pomegranate, desert bird of paradise, red bird of paradise, agave, ocotillo, crepe myrtle, Texas laurel, Texas sage, cassia, tar bush, pink mallow, paper cup cactus, claret cup cactus and a blackberry bush.
There is open space in the garden for other trees, shrubs, flowers and plants donated by community members, Locke said.
The landscaping also features winter rye grass as part of its groundcover. There is even a resident roadrunner.
The City of Las Cruces recently completed a sidewalk along the west side of the garden.
Through Lacy’s efforts, one of the garden’s highlights is a mural painted last year by Las Cruces artist Tony Pennock. Its leaves represent outstretched hands, Pennock said, to welcome visitors to the garden.
With guidance from Lacy and other volunteers, the garden has become a learning space for University Hills Elementary School students – the school is across the street from the church – as part of an after-school gardening club and summer program.
The garden is “so important for the community,” Miller said. “It’s one place for all. It is our outdoor sanctuary, where we meet, serve and study. We’re all ministers out here.”
UUMC, which celebrated its 65th anniversary Jan. 31, has three outdoor worship services, including a drive-in option, every Sunday morning.
“Yes, we do have church outside when it’s 37 degrees,” Miller said. She also celebrates short communion services every Wednesday morning in the garden.
“Our principles are John Wesley’s: ‘Do no harm, do good, stay in love with God,’” Miller said.
Contact UUMC at 575-522-8220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit uumc-lc.org.