- Associated Press - Saturday, August 13, 2016

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) - Behind St. Mary’s Catholic Church where the land slopes toward distant Toms Creek and Brush Mountain rears up to fill half the horizon, flowers are blooming. Beds of zinnias, sunflowers, Shasta daisies, gladiolus, cosmos and other blossoms create lines of riotous color over almost half an acre.

Though as pretty as a confetti-strewn carpet, this garden doesn’t host weddings, teas or parties. It is a working garden, a plot where church volunteers raise flowers to sell. Probably the only market flower garden run by a church in Virginia, it is the brainchild of parishioners Megan and Jim Dickhans. The couple sought a church fundraising project that dovetailed with Megan’s newfound passion for gardening.

“I was thinking about growing vegetables until I visited a pick-your-own flower operation near Fredericksburg,” Megan Dickhans said. “That clicked. We could use flowers in the church, in bouquets for the sick, and to sell.”

St. Mary’s garden supplies blossoms for all these purposes and has raised $11,000 in its first two years, Dickhans says. This year the garden’s blooming season, which previously ran from mid-July to late September, will likely extend a few weeks into October. With the extra weeks and the addition of orange and maroon sunflowers, the Dickhanses are hoping to peddle church bouquets to the lucrative Virginia Tech football tailgate crowd.

Right now the church markets bouquets of two to three sunflowers, three to five zinnias, and an assortment of colorful fill-in flowers for $8, a few dollars more if a vase is included. Volunteers sell flowers from a table outside the church immediately after Saturday and Sunday masses. Neighbor Bill Sembello at 3 Birds Berry Farm also hawks St. Mary’s bouquets to his berry-picking customers during the week. Jim Dickhans takes orders at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin Hall, where he works in information technology, and delivers about 10 bouquets every other Tuesday.

“We are so grateful for our friends and volunteers,” says Megan Dickhans, who is chair of St. Mary’s Stewardship of Time and Talent volunteer activities committee. “We have about 40 individuals who’ve helped us with weeding, cutting, wrapping and selling flowers. Kate Bixby got us started with a lesson in arranging and wrapping bouquets We’ve also had help in the form of plants and advice from Jay Smith of Crow’s Nest Greenhouses.”

Another friend donated a beehive to the garden. Honey from the gentle swarm of honeybees will be sold in the church gift shop later in the summer.

“We’ve learned a lot from the flower garden, garden lessons and life lessons,” Dickhans said.

The Dickhanses learned to use a sulfur liquid fence and then make peace with the groundhog, which ate some plants, and install a deer fence against cervid visitors, who decimated whole sections of the garden. They learned that cosmos must be picked in bud, ageratum is less delicate than bachelor’s buttons, and the sappy, sticky calendulas stems should be booted from their bouquets. They learned to appreciate the tenacity of volunteer plants from last year’s seed and of the perennials, baby’s breath, verbena, rosemary and lavender, which will be harvested next year.

“They’re quick learners,” says fellow parishioner Kate Bixby. “I gave them a quick lesson in assembling a bouquet that looks good from all directions, and they didn’t need a refresher. Volunteers work on bouquets assembly-line style on Saturday mornings. We have a good time. It’s such a blessing to have this energetic young couple in our congregation.”

Children are not regularly pressed into service, but when they do help, Dickhans has been amazed at their skill and perception. “My 5-year-old can identify just about all the flowers here,” she noted. “And my oldest, who’s 8, can make fine discriminations between weeds and immature flowers, something I wouldn’t expect from most adults. She acts as if it’s no big deal.”

The Dickhans family and occasional other volunteers have enjoyed picnics in the garden after an evening work session. “The sunset is a sorbet orange and sometimes the whole Brush Mountain landscape takes on a soft orange glow,” Dickhans said. “It’s absolutely beautiful out there.”

Dickhans says she’s uncomfortable when other parishioners praise her for taking on the garden project.

“I truly enjoy this,” she said. “I’m grateful for the volunteers. My husband and I are thrilled the church let us cut up this land, plant flowers and put up a fence. And now they treat us as if this is a huge good thing. The flower money goes to His Hands Ministry, volunteers who do home repairs for people with limited funds - those folks do hard work. I’m indulging in a fun hobby. I feel like they’re thanking me for eating chocolate or something.”

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com

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