Grow goodwill with green giveaways

Date Published: 
October, 2006
Original Author: 
Tom Smith & Tom Pfeifer
Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, Cincinnati, Ohio
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, October 2006

Cemeteries are valuable greenbelts.
You know that, but does your community?
To publicize how your grounds benefit everyone
in the area, try these ways of "spreading the green."

WHAT: One way of using your cemetery's natural assets to generate goodwill is to invite people to enjoy events on your beautiful grounds. Spring Grove certainly does that throughout the year, and your cemetery probably does, too.

But we also believe in exporting a bit of nature as a way to remind people that we're an arboretum as well as a cemetery. We're about the cycle of life, and you can't give people a better symbol of renewal and rebirth than a growing plant.

WHY: Plant giveaway programs can generate good news coverage and draw people in who may not have visited your cemetery before. They don't have to be annual events. Try the ones we describe here, or come up with your own tailored to your community and your cemetery, or to a special event in your community like a centennial celebration.

It's a subtle way to get your name out in front of the community, to be a good neighbor and a good citizen. When an at-need situation arises, maybe someone will remember your cemetery because of one of these programs.

And we can't emphasize enough the need to constantly build goodwill in the community, to generate good news stories as often as possible. Because no matter who you are, no matter how hard you try to have a perfect safety record, there may come a day that something goes wrong and the unhappy family runs to the media. When that happens, you want to have a long history of good news so that people will weigh that against the bad.

HOW: We do "green outreach" in a number of ways; we're going to describe three in detail. We've found these three to be cost effective and enjoyable for our employees and the public.

1. The Pansy Program. This is one we just started last year, so we're still working on perfecting it, but we love this idea. We get some tough winter weather here in the Midwest, and we thought it would be nice to do something to celebrate the rebirth of the outdoors environment as we start coming out of the doldrums of winter. In our area, pansies seem to represent that idea.

We decided we'd give away pansies to everyone who comes into the office. We start in mid-February, which is a little ahead of the curve as far as the end of winter. Occasionally we'll get one of those surprise 6O-degree days, but overall it's one of the ugliest months of the year in Cincinnati. The cemetery looks like it's taken a "whupping," with tracking where we've had equipment even though we tried to put boards down. The sky is gray, there's not a bud on a tree.

Just think how great it is to go into an office, maybe to complain about something, and as you're leaving the receptionist says, "Thank you for corning in; we'd like you to have this nice flower to take home and enjoy." Here's this colorful pansy looking you in the eye. How can you not smile when you see a pansy?

Did the bank give you a flower? No. The dry cleaner? No. The grocery store? No. But the cemetery did, and it brightened up your day. And the employee who handed it to you enjoyed doing it, too.

It's amazing how the expression on people's faces change when you hand them the flower and tell them it's free. We include a brief care sheet telling people they can either put the potted pansy on a windowsill and be inspired by it for a couple of weeks, or place it outside.

It doesn't have to be a pansy. Maybe you want to give out petunias, or some other flower. Pansies work well for us because even though the name makes them sound wimpy, they're actually tough plants. They'll tolerate extremes in temperatures, so the cemetery doesn't have to worry about keeping them inside just because it's going down to 20 degrees at night. Pansies love cold weather, damp rainy weather.

You can order them from a local grower, or grow them yourself in your greenhouse. Bring as many into the office as you think you'll need that day, in little pots. Any you don't give out that day can go back outside—you can't keep them inside too long or they start to yellow.

Start planning now, and say "welcome, Spring 2007" with flowers!

2. The Arbor Day Tree Giveaway. We don't do this every year, though it's not very expensive, and it's a natural for cemeteries. Really, is there a cemetery anywhere that doesn't have trees?

When we do it, we team up with the city's urban forestry division. Almost every city has one, or a parks division or something similar. Call up and say you'd like to partner on an Arbor Day project. (Arbor Day is the last Friday in April, by the way.)

One way is to buy seedlings wholesale, maybe for the top two or three plants for your area, and work with the forestry or park people to get them delivered to any schools or libraries who want to do an Arbor Day planting. Newspapers are always looking for a tree planting to take a picture of for Arbor Day, and if your cemetery donated the tree, you hope that will get mentioned in the photo caption or story.

Another way to give out trees is to announce that you'll be giving away seedlings to the first 200 families (parent or parents and at least one child) who come in to the cemetery during a particular time period, maybe the Saturday before or after Arbor Day. You want the child there to talk to about the importance of Arbor Day and trees in general. Having a child also makes for a better visual for the newspapers or television.

You want the parents there for obvious reasons. You'll have a chance to introduce yourself, hand over a card or brochure and ask if you can put them on the mailing list for your newsletter. So it's a subtle way to get some names of people you can eventually approach to talk to about preplanning.

Don't forget to notify the media that you'll be giving away seedlings. They're on the lookout for Arbor Day stories, so "this year. the ABC Cemetery is giving away dogwoods and blue spruce seedlings to beautify the community and celebrate Arbor Day" is news.

This is something you should start out small with, maybe 200 seedlings, depending on the size of your community. If you run out of seedlings, put people on a list to get one later and have a second pick-up day scheduled.
You can get a tremendous number of seedlings for a few hundred dollars. When deciding which seedlings to choose, you want to look for native plants that are reasonably priced, easy to transplant and have a high survivability rate. (You can ask the forestry or parks division, or your local Extension agent, for suggestions.)

You don't want Mommy, Daddy and Johnny planting a seedling, getting all excited, watching it grow and then going outside one day to find that it's died. Fife remembers Arbor Day as being Silver Maple Giveaway Day when he was a kid, probably because those trees can survive anywhere, so that's what everyone handed out.

The bigger the seedling, the higher the cost, of course, but you don't want to give people a tree so dinky that no one can really see it and it's going to get run over and chopped up by the lawnmower. You can buy a decent sized seedling sometimes for pennies and certainly for less than $1 a piece.

We give away seedlings 18 to 24 inches high—significant enough so you can see them. We buy them in bulk and repackage them. You can make a fact sheet with transplant and care instructions on it to give out, and a tag maybe with your logo on it that you can attach to the tree.

Or, since you have to repack the seedlings in planting bags with a little sphagnum moss to maintain the moisture, you could use a bag with your logo and the care instructions right on the bag.

The garden editors come running when we do the Arbor Day seedling giveaway. What better advertising can you get than a picture of a child getting his free tree as mom and dad look on? People look at that photo and say to themselves, "Man, that Spring Grove—they're always doing good things."
3, The Patented or Special Plant Program. Spring Grove has a Patented Plant Program—yes, some of our plants have been patented. But you don't need a patented plant to do this, just a tree or flowering bush that's special in some way and can offer "babies" to the community.

Maybe you have a great white oak tree you've been mowing around for years. It's got a majestic form and a huge canopy in the summer; it provides late fall color; its beautiful branches and white bark look phenomenal against the winter sky. You don't have to patent it—just identify it, maybe even name it!

Then make it available to the gardening public. Collect its fruit—the acorns—to give away. You could take the next step, of course, and plant the acorns yourself, then give people the seedlings as little potted plants. Either way, this is a fun giveaway.

When you think about it, a lot of cemeteries have been around 50, 70, 100, 150 years, and have plenty of plants that have endured over time. Take photographs of your magnificent tree or plant so people can see what great stock the acorns or cuttings come from, then write a little story about your giveaway to send to the press.

We sell some of our patented plants across the country through our Web site, popular plants that will grow probably in 60 to 75 percent of American gardens. But we're suggesting this as a low-cost giveaway limited to your community.

This doesn't have to be tied to Arbor Day (though it could be), but should be done during a good planting season, meaning spring or fall. As always, include a fact sheet, maybe saying something such as "this is a direct progeny of the champion/the biggest white oak on Section 23 of ABC Cemetery."

Remember, it doesn't have to be a tree, it just has to be a plant that's relatively easy to propagate. We've done this with some of our shrubs. Check with your Extension agent for suggestions.

Maybe you have a nice flowering vibernum—a plant that's adaptable to 90 percent of American gardens. You recall that the previous superintendent said the plant was there, and thriving, when he arrived 30 years ago. It's endured droughts, severe winter and summer weather and flooding. What better test is there? (Be sure to mention that in your press release.)
There's no law against naming it the ABC Cemetery Vibernum, taking some cuttings and offering them to the community. Make sure you have photos of it when it's blooming, or that you send out your press release when it's blooming so the newspaper can get a good photo.


We've tried to plant a seed of an idea with this column. Why not try one of these programs next year? Your employees will get inspired—they'll like being a part of this type of goodwill effort.

After all, being in the cemetery business could be a bit of a downer if it weren't for the fact that we're always trying to do some of these uplifting things, too.