THE UNITARIAN CHURCH GARDEN – sustainability in action

This case study describes the garden of Plymouth Unitarian Church in Notte Street, PL 1 2HG and the work recently undertaken to develop it as a small inner city haven for wildlife, especially pollinating insects, and for the congregation and residents of the surrounding area.
The rationale for this, and how we are working to achieve it is described in greater detail below. Plymouth Unitarian Church, a Grade II Listed Building, was completed in 1958, to replace the previous building sited in Treville Street which was destroyed by bombing in WWII.
Standing within a 24.5m x 51m plot, the front garden border runs the whole width of the frontage, with a gap of approx. 2.5m where there is a path leading from the street to the main door. The east side garden border of 20m runs the length of the side of the church to the start or the car park at the rear. The borders are approx. 2.2m wide. These face east, south and south-west and are stocked with several mature flowering trees, shrubs, seasonal flowering plants, herbs and spring bulbs.
The thin soil covers a layer of rubble, a legacy of the bombing and subsequent rebuilding of the inner city space. In 2015, a sterile area of gravel in front of the vestry was transformed into a spiral shaped, 4.6m by 9m, meditation area (’The Spiral’), planted with ornamental grasses and other flowering perennials. In 2015 we decided to encourage more wildlife, especially pollinating insects, so the range of plants in the garden and Spiral was increased to extend the flowering period at both ends of the season. The local branch of ‘Buglife’ kindly donated a variety of plants and two Bee Hotels.
The development and care of our garden is an ongoing activity.

To Contact the Unitarian Church
Email : Rev Kate Whyman at
Telephone : 01752 290091
Website :,
Facebook :

A few words about Unitarianism will help put our development of the Garden into context. Unitarianism, while having roots in the Christian tradition, has an open-minded approach to faith, open to insights from all faiths, science, the arts, the natural world and everyday living. We have a long and proud tradition of working to improve social justice and hold reverence for the earth and the whole natural system of which we are part.

In January 2015, our Minister Rev Kate Whyman was instrumental in setting up a church ‘Green Team’ (‘GT’) with members of the congregation to encourage better environmental practice within the whole congregation, and the groups which hire the premises on weekdays.

Actions: One of ‘Green Team’s first actions was to develop a more ‘green’ area in the garden. Changes had already been made to Church garden since the building was completed in 1958. A row of conifers bordering the eastern edge was removed over 20 years ago, replaced by low growing shrubs, heathers, a flowering cherry and a Rowan tree. In 2015, a large bare area of gravel in front of the vestry was designed as a Meditation Spiral by a landscape gardener, husband of a congregation member, assisted by two men of the congregation who did the hard work of digging into the hard subsoil to form paths topped by red sand, and beds, planted with ornamental grasses and flowering perennials, heuchera and lavenders.

Because we shared concerns with several national environmental organisations about declining numbers of pollinating insects, especially bees, we wanted to encourage them by increasing the variety of flowering plants. We raised money to buy some by selling homemade jams, potted and indoor plants provided by GT members. In Spring 2015, we did our first planting of herbs into the front flower bed next to the public pavement. We included mint, sage, margoram, chives, rosemary and lavenders. Bees love their flowers. We put an explanatory sign in the border, inviting passers-by to pick spare herbs. One person was so impressed she has become a valued member of our GT! In the autumn, in the sunnier south and east facing borders, we planted spring flowering bulbs: daffodils, snowdrops, crocus, aconite, all sources of nectar for early insects.

We wanted to plant even more species, to increase the flowering season. We realised we needed professional advice to make the best choices. We contacted the Laura Larkin, responsible for the wild-flower plantings around the City as part of ‘Urban Buzz’ one of BugLife’s projects. The aim of the project was to set up one hundred sites throughout Plymouth, to encourage growth of the insect population. Laura met with us, looked round the garden, and suggested we compile a list for various locations, times of flowering to attract different insect species. On a bright December day in 2016, the plants arrived and were put in. The list included oriental poppy, white paeony and native species such as knapweed, Yarrow, ox eye daisy for the front sunny border. Sea holly, thrift, sedum and white scabious went into the Spiral. Japonica for spring flowers and autumn fruit was planted in the east facing border. Winter jasmine, ivy, for late flowers and honeysuckle for the spring, were planted along the western boundary wall. In Spring 2017, Laura and a colleague installed two bee hotels on the east facing wall. We hope solitary bees and other insect species will use them for over-wintering adults or as eggs or larvae.

As part of the Urban Buzz project we have signed a joint Agreement with them, undertaking to care for the plants and Bee Hotels for at least five years. This is a work in progress, and we look forward to seeing how the garden develops over the coming years.

A few months ago, we met with David Curry, the Plymouth Representative of Arocha UK, an interdenominational religious organisation working with churches to encourage protection and restoration of the natural world. Congregations can work towards an Award, by seeing how they score in several areas of concern. We score well for including references to environmental concerns in our worship, our attempts at improving recycling and for our Garden, which David describes in the Devon Living Churchyards Summer Bulletin as ‘a small, compact oasis in the Plymouth city centre’.

Our Garden is a work in progress, and we look forward to seeing how it and the wildlife it shelters and sustains will develop over the coming years. You are welcome to come and have a look for yourselves!

We would like to thank Laura Larkin and her colleagues at the ‘Urban Buzz’ project, part of ‘Buglife’, for supplying advice, plants and bee hotels and David Curry of ‘ArochaUK’ and Devon Living Churchyards for his advice.

Contact Info

  • Devonport Guildhall, Ker St, Plymouth PL1 4EL

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