Maintenance of Cemetery Landscapes

Date Published: 
September, 1940
Original Author: 
Earl C. Grever
Landscape Architect, Buffalo, NY
Original Publication: 
1940-1941 Cemetery Handbook & Buyers' Guide

When approached by your representative to prepare a paper for this meeting, I declined. Had the subject been estate landscaping, sanitarium landscape, schools, golf courses or park landscapes, I should have drawn upon experiences to relate to you, but Cemetery Landscapes - NO - for it has not been my privilege to assist in the planning and development of a cemetery. In declining, it was my thought that cemetery owners would prefer to hear from one who has had considerable experience in cemetery work. Your representative felt this point of no importance but failed to explain himself. I wondered if he had the thought so aptly expressed by Bob Mann of Chicago when he said, "A fresh viewpoint from an un¬promising source sometimes lifts the many petticoats of custom and lays bare the essentials".

An essential is what I have chosen to talk to you about. An essential indeed - Maintenance. I know of no man-made Landscape that does not require maintenance and I therefore assume that you all have a mainte¬nance problem as do all other land developers.

Your policies, rules, and regulations primarily affect your maintenance costs. Those of you who operate the monument type cemetery have one problem. Those of you who operate the Memorial park cemetery have another. Those of you who operate a combination of these two types have still another. I am sure you have all made the observation which I made not so long ago. While driving through one of the monument type ceme¬teries, I came upon about a dozen men operating hand mowers on a small piece of turf that happened to be a clear grass island between two major drives, I stopped short and gazed in wonderment - for I was sure I had come upon a W.P.A. project - in a cemetery. If there is such, I haven't heard of it. I looked around this island and saw every slope covered with monuments, which soon convinced me that I wasn't looking at a W.P.A. project but no doubt at a part of the regular maintenance staff for these dozen men and several more would be needed to push hand mowers be¬tween those monuments. That afternoon I happened into a Memorial Park Cemetery where no monuments were the policy and here I saw one man riding a power mower, cutting about 72 inches at one time, and at a speed considerably faster than I could walk. There may have been several other differences in these two cemeteries but it was quite obvious that the difference in lawn maintenance cost was considerable.

You also have your rules and regulations - Such as: "Only one monu¬ment allowed on a lot" - "Not more than one urn allowed on a lot" ¬"No trees or shrubs can be planted or removed without the consent of the superintendent". These are but a few of many which all affect your maintenance costs.

As I understand it, all cemetery lots are sold subject to some limita¬tions concerning their use and surface treatment. Many of you are oper¬ating old cemeteries and will therefore be obliged to carry on under whatever conditions were made a part of the sale contract rather than what you might wish them to be. I will therefore try to confine the obser¬vations of this paper to the maintenance problems which most of you will have regardless of the type of cemetery you operate.

What is Maintenance, or more specifically - Landscape Mainte¬nance? Maintenance is simply the operations necessary to control the many forces of nature so that they will produce our desired results. For exam¬ple, we want a lawn, but nature does not produce a lawn. She will produce a meadow, and provided there are sufficient animals grazing it, the effect will be somewhat the same as a lawn. As we don't have grazing animals in cemeteries, we must provide labor, with tools, to pro¬duce the same effects. Lawn cutting is nothing more than the operations necessary to control the natural growth of grass so that we might have a lawn rather than a meadow, or woods perhaps.

Since the beginning, man has not found the undisturbed forces of nature compatible with his needs and fancies. He has continually altered the natural conditions to provide his wants. If nature could only see our point and be cooperative, she would, have produced by this time a grass that would not tolerate other plants, i.e. weeds; a grass that grows lux¬uriantly with or without water and does not grow higher than two inches. A grass that would meet these qualifications, would indeed be a find¬ - but so would perpetual motion - and it is my opinion that when we find one we will find the other.

Nature has her rules and regulations which we are bound by. To be sure, with enough maintenance we can make nature do almost anything we want, or at least for the time being. But to reduce maintenance we may be wise to study the natural order of things and thereby save a lot of grief by doing the cooperating rather than expecting it.

Soil is a thing that you are all interested in. When you take it apart you will discover however that from the standpoint of your landscape you are principally concerned with the top soil or that crust of the earth's surface which provides the essentials to plant life - that is, friability, organic matter, and minerals, which provide food. The earth's crust or top soil is not deep. Indeed, it is usually measured in inches. When we undertake a grading operation, an extensive drainage or irrigation system, we usually find that from the engineering point of view it is most eco¬nomical to readjust the soil which usually results in having the top soil on the bottom and the sub-soil on the top. This is one of nature's laws which we cannot violate if we want her future cooperation in growing vegetative materials. When we undertake any type of land readjustment project, we must put the soil back in the same formation in which we found it.

As we go further into soils, we also find that nature has not prepared all top soils alike; quite to the contrary - for in some places we find a heavy clay soil - others, a very light sandy soil. Sometimes we find a good quantity of organic material in the soil. Other times we find none. The same is true of minerals which provide the food. Should you find it necessary to purchase top soil for anyone of many reasons, it would be decidedly to your advantage to specify the type of soil you want. Don't buy “dirt”. As far as I can determine, this is what most top soil pro¬ducers sell and have no further interests. You as the buyer however definitely have, for you are interested in at least three principal factors. That is, you want a soil for most purposes which the Department of Agriculture classifies as “loam”. You want a soil which has ample or¬ganic matter in it. Many times you will be concerned with either its lime or acid content, and while you can purchase and add food elements, it is decidedly to your advantage to acquire a soil that contains them. These factors can all be measured by a competent chemist and it is considerably to your advantage to determine first the characteristics of the soils which best fit your needs and then to set out to acquire these soils and not just “dirt”. I have seen “dirt” hauled in from great distances at considerable cost on several projects, which frankly was not as good as the soil that existed in the first place.

The next check we should make on nature is to observe where and what she will allow to grow. We know, for example, that she provides luxuriant growth in Florida and Oregon; that the deserts have but few plants; that there are no trees in the plains, and that there are limits to the kinds and varieties of plants she will allow to grow anywhere. We have learned that by adding or holding water to the deserts and plains we can produce things that nature cannot. To add water we must provide and maintain irrigation ditches. To hold the rainfall we must grade the land and provide contour ditches which do not allow it to run away. These are special problems encountered only in sections of the country where rainfall is insufficient. Plant associations however, are of interest to all. Your geographical region, wherever it might be will have definite limits on the plants you can grow without undue or excessive mainte¬nance. From the nursery catalogs you can inform yourselves of the many fine points of many plants. From the maintenance standpoint however, we are not interested in a plant's fine characteristics, but rather with what is troublesome about a plant. We expect it to be good. The limitations of a plant are seldom listed in a nursery catalog. Some of the Colleges of Agriculture have, and disseminate this information. Here is an example of my point. Within a hundred miles of Buffalo, we find broad leaved evergreens, such as laurel and rhododendrons growing naturally. We do not find them growing in the immediate vicinity of Buffalo however. They can be grown in Buffalo, if we remove the existing soil to consider¬able depths, replace with acid soils and expensive peat mosses, and treat the bed periodically to maintain suitable conditions. It is also usually necessary to protect them during the winter with evergreen boughs, screens, or wind breaks. They may be fine additions to our local land¬scapes, but should not be used unless there is a clear understanding of their maintenance requirements. Use only materials hardy to your locality, if you wish to avoid a lot of special handling to keep others alive.

You who have new cemeteries will be interested in fast growing trees. Nature provides them and they can be obtained at very reasonable prices from the nurseries. However, you should know this about fast growing trees. Nature uses them for a nurse crop. That is, when she is establishing a new forest, the fast growing trees are the first to take over from the brambles and grasses. In her scheme of things these trees are used to provide shade and shelter for the stronger growing or permanent trees which are to follow. "Fast growing trees” are relatively short lived and have soft wood which readily breaks under strong winds or heavy snow¬falls. If you use them you can expect to do a lot of pruning and bracing to keep them in shape, and this item will add considerably to your maintenance costs. It is much wiser to plant the stronger permanent varieties. And if rapid growth is essential, you might try feeding and watering to push them along. I made an observation on feeding a few years ago which would be more appropriate as a fish story than as a plant story, but I have every reason to believe it true.

"Some twenty or thirty years ago an inmate of one of our local old folks homes heard that the institution was going to set out a dozen English Walnut trees the following Spring. With much ceremony he approached the governors and asked for the privilege of planting one half of the lot personally. His request was granted. He promptly pro¬ceeded to the kitchen of this rather large institution and made a deal with the cook to place all meat bones in a special container which he offered to keep empty. Before frost set in that Fall, he had his six holes dug, and as the story was told tome, he dug them six feet wide and six feet deep. All Winter long he carried the bones to his holes and by Spring they were well filled and prepared for planting.” I was called into this institution a few years ago, and in making a survey I discovered that there were twelve English Walnut trees planted at equal spaces on the edge of a semi-circular drive. One quarter segment of this drive had six trees all about the same size in trunk and height, and the other seg¬ment had six trees which were more than twice the size of the latter in trunk and height. I cannot recommend this method to you, but it is the most conclusive proof of the value of fertilizing and preparation that I have ever seen.

The natural laws are not at all confined to vegetated material. Several of your cemeteries will contain water features, or perhaps you are con¬templating a lake or a pool. A few observations of the natural may be helpful to you in reducing future maintenance problems. Most of you will see Niagara Falls while you are here. That is, I hope you can still pick it out from all of the formal gardens, power plants and bridges they have built down there. Note the Gorge and particularly how water and ice are cutting it back. The rock is receding in measurable quantities and some time way off in the future you will see that Niagara Falls is coming to Buffalo. For our purposes however, all we need to observe is that one of the largest plugs or natural dams in the world is wearing away through the effects of water. This is one of the reasons for the geological expression that "all lakes are disappearing". It is true of course that when the Niagara plug is entirely worn away, Lake Erie will disappear. Wisconsin has lakes that are in the late stages of completing their disappearing act. Some of you no doubt have seen them and also observed the part played in the disappearing process by vegetated growth. After the plugs are well worn away, the shallow waters that remain provide a natural environ¬ment for many water plants. As these plants complete their life cycle they deposit a residue which eventually piles up and changes the lake to a bog, and then fills it completely.

One more observation that is pertinent to water can be observed by viewing the Delta of the Mississippi which is simply the sediment de¬posited at the mouth of the river. The principle here is that water in motion will sustain a silt load but as it stops flowing, it dumps its load. This is not only found in large rivers, such as the Mississippi, but also in small rivers, creeks, and streams. All of these factors that is the plug or the dam, vegetated growth and sediment are important to you and measures should be taken to guard against them if you hope to retain your lake without undue maintenance cost. The plug or dam can be designed to withstand the pressures of the lake for your practicable pur¬poses but it should be designed by competent technical personnel and not be left to chance, for the volume and rate of flow of water, develops almost unbelievable pressure variables. To abate vegetated growth we return to nature again and discover that few water plants will grow beyond limited depths. Therefore, if we make the bottom of our lake deep enough we will avoid troublesome plant growths, or inversely, if we want a bog, we purposely make the lake shallow. Here is another observation regarding vegetated growth in water which we derive this time from man's operation rather than nature. You from the State of Missouri may have heard rumors that there is not much hope of sustaining fish life in your Lake of the Ozarks, which you know, is a beautiful arti¬ficial body of water some ninety miles long, caused by the erection of a power dam. One of the reasons that there is concern over the fish life in the lake is simply that there is a lack of vegetated growth establishing itself to produce fish foods. These artificial reservoirs which are erected for power purposes necessitate a draw down of the water level periodical¬ly, and experiences with them to date would indicate that plant life can¬not sustain itself under fluctuating water levels. This finding should have some application in the smaller artificial lakes. Sediment can be abated by building check dams in the stream that feeds the lake and planting the water sheds. If the dam is designed to drain the lake, it will be possible to fluctuate water levels and remove much of the sediment which accumu¬lates on the bottom by leaving the gates open during periods of heavy rainfall.

I have attempted to point out to you a few of the pitfalls that can be avoided in the development and maintenance of your cemetery land¬scapes, principally in the interest of keeping your maintenance costs at a minimum. To summarize - Maintenance costs can be reduced if: We treat our soils properly and do not buy just "dirt": If we hold to the policy of using only hardy materials and avoid fast growers: And, if we provide our artificial lakes with dams that will hold, and drains which will allow for fluctuation in water level and clearing or removing the sediment.

In closing, I should like to suggest a method of operation affecting your relations with your Landscape Architect. When you engage his services you expect that he has a sound knowledge in the fundamental forces underlying the natural, and he knows how to use it. You expect him to use his art to produce pleasant landscapes. You expect that he understands structural requirements and can prepare working drawings. That he has considerable knowledge of plants and how to handle them, and that he will thoroughly acquaint himself with your functional needs and design, primarily for salable cemetery lots. These are his qualifica¬tions if he is a Landscape Architect. All of these qualifications however, are principally for development purposes. He can also help you with your maintenance if he is given the opportunity to inspect your cemetery periodically after the development program is completed. Most Land¬scape Architects are engaged for development purposes, but I believe they would be of greater value to you if engaged primarily as consultants. Place your Landscape Architect on an annual retainer fee basis, for which he is to provide a definite number of consultations annually. His fee will be nominal and many times will not amount to as much as the cost of one laborer. Make it clear to him that you want his advice on how to improve your landscape by using what you have rather than his opinions on suitable major improvement programs. Make it clear that you want him to frankly tell you not to undertake a development when in his opinion your gains will not be commensurate with the costs involved. His recommendations cautioning you against certain developments will often be as valuable as his recommendations to undertake others.

From the publication:
“1940-1941 Cemetery Handbook & Buyers’ Guide”
ACOA 11th Annual Convention & Exposition
Hotel Statler, Buffalo, New York
September 8-11, 1940