Planting flowers around a grave is a tradition that dates back to ancient Rome, when people planted gardens around tombs to provide provisions for the departed souls to use in the afterlife. Today we continue this tradition by leaving flowers and planting greenery around a gravestone. But cemeteries often are not as easy to cultivate as our backyard gardens. If you’ve tried to plant flowers at your family plot in Mt. Lebanon Cemetery and success has eluded you, I can help. But first some fun facts….
Mt. Lebanon Cemetery was founded in the 1870s on a tree nursery owned by Henry Bockstoce, who lived on what is now Shady Drive East. The Mt. Lebanon Cemetery Association purchased the land in 1874, and the cemetery was dedicated June 25, 1875. The venture failed, however—most likely because in the late 1800s the cemetery was located in a sparsely populated rural area. So the land was sold at sheriff’s sale in 1880. On September 7, 1899, Mt. Lebanon Cemetery Company purchased the property. Old histories report that in the 19 years the cemetery was “closed,” it reverted back to a tree nursery, but if you look at the dates on some of the tombstones it obviously remained a cemetery, as well.
My friend Dennis Fisher grew up in the Victorian gatehouse from 1957 to 1980. As a young man, Dennis’s father, Frank—known as “Fritz”—worked at the cemetery under superintendent Adam Daum. Fritz, who later became the cemetery superintendent, and his wife moved into the gatehouse in 1947 and raised their family there. Dennis remembers Daum as being about 100 years old in the mid-1960s and believes Daum began working at the cemetery as a very young man in the late 1800s. Daum surely passed on a wealth of knowledge to Dennis’s dad.
Dennis spent many a summer afternoon cutting the grass at the cemetery with his dad and brother. He also dug graves with his dad, which is how we know there are unmarked graves in the cemetery. Although this is rather indelicate, Dennis remembers several incidences of running into an old grave while digging a new one. When this occurred, his dad was very intentional about closing the unmarked grave and carefully noting the location on the map of the cemetery. They simply moved the new grave over a foot or two and proceeded as usual. We will never know the identity or the age of those unmarked graves.
Back in the day, Dennis says, Mt. Lebanon Cemetery was a busy place on Sunday afternoons. Families would come with a picnic lunch, tend the gravesites and make an outing of it. (It also was a great kite-flying spot). Today, we are more likely to see runners and walkers using the trails. Still, though our world has changed—few of us can spend Sunday afternoons at the cemetery—the sentiment has not. We still want to take care of our loved ones.
My family has several gravesites at the cemetery. My parents have faithfully tended the plots for years—I remember as a child going with my mother to plant flowers at her parents’ grave. I now bear the responsibility and the privilege of taking care of the family graves.
As a professional landscaper and garden designer, I have some experience and suggestions for those who would like to tend their family plots. This is not always easy. Planting conditions in Mt. Lebanon Cemetery are difficult, as the leafy canopy has deepened over the years and much of the area is in dry shade. In addition, the soil is compacted, there is no reliable water source and the cemetery is home to a herd of deer. But I believe it is possible to be successful.
Keep in mind that the person who purchased the plot owns it. The fee for a plot is not used to decorate it but to maintain the grounds—cut the grass, trim the trees, etc. Whoever owns the deed has the responsibility to care for the grave and most cemeteries provide some freedom for the family to choose what to plant.
Mt. Lebanon Cemetery has strict rules regarding what can and cannot be planted, depending on the location of the plot. So before planting anything other than annuals, at Mt. Lebanon Cemetery or at any cemetery, it is a good idea to check with management to ensure you are following the guideline of the particular cemetery. For information about what is permitted at Mt. Lebanon Cemetery, call 412-531-2007 or email email@example.com
Now to planting… for ease of maintenance think dwarf shrubs. You can create a backdrop for your little landscape with evergreen shrubs that will look nice all year. Choose wisely—think “right plant, right place.” For instance, boxwoods are very tough—dry shade tolerant, and the deer leave them alone. There are dozens of cultivars to choose from. Measure the space, and select one that will fit the area when it matures. You might choose “Green Gem,” which has a mature height and width of 2 by 2 feet—perfect for a small cemetery plot. Plan well, and you won’t have to haul your battery operated hedge clippers in to trim your boxwoods several times a year.
Once established, shrubs are tougher and last longer than perennials or annuals. Several other shrubs also would work well in a cemetery, including Japanese plum yew (cephalotaxus harringtonia prostrate). It has a gentle weeping habit; is deer, disease and pest resistant; can handle sun or shade and, once established, is drought tolerant. In addition, it is pretty and has a mature size of 3 by 3 feet. Need I say more? What if I wrapped three of these little darlings around the back of my nana’s headstone to create a frame? Making sure I leave enough room, I will plant these shrubs on a “3-foot center,” meaning I will measure three feet from the center of the plant to the center of the next plant. Next, I’ll define the bed-line by putting a deep “V” cut with my spade on the edge of bed to define the space, keep the grass from growing into the bed and give that all important visual cue to the grass cutters to stay out of that area. I will also bring a couple bags of hard wood bark mulch to clean up my work.
Cover the soil with a 2- to 3-inch blanket of mulch. This makes the planting look pretty and, more important, conserves moisture, keeps the topsoil from washing away and protects the plant’s root zones from extreme temperature fluctuations. Before I lay the mulch, however, I’m going to put down several layers of newspaper as an organic weed barrier. The newspaper will last a couple of years before it breaks down. And, as the newspaper and mulch decays, the worms will use it to amend the soil.
In the front of the grave, I want a dry, shade-tolerant perennial ground cover that’s long blooming, deer resistant and tolerant of dry shade and drought. With the goal of ease of maintenance in mind, several candidates come to mind. Evergreen might be nice. There is a new cultivar of pachysandra out called “Green Sheen.” It has a super shiny green leaf and is not as aggressive as the more familiar pachysandra. Pachysandra is the premier evergreen ground cover for dry shade because it really takes care of itself. It is a great weed suppressor and will look nice under my shrubs and in even in front of the headstone.
Since pachysandra doesn’t bloom, I might add some “pizazz” such as daffodil bulbs planted right in the pachysandra. They will come up in the spring, and the pachysandra will cover the fading foliage, which can be an eyesore, in the late spring. What else could I plant in the pachysandra? Hostas are out—they’d be perfect with their pretty leaves and ease of maintenance, but the deer love them. Weigela “My Monet” might do the trick. “My Monet” is a very small shrub, has lovely variegated foliage, is drought tolerant once established, and it prefers some shade.
But what if your nana’s grave is in the blazing sun with no water in sight. First, let’s do something about that dry, compacted soil. First, simply push the tines of a pitchfork into the soil without lifting or disturbing the soil. The goal is to open up the soil just enough to allow the air, water and nutrients to penetrate the top layer and draw the beneficial organisms—that carry nutrients to the plant’s roots—to the area. Next think about plants. How about using dwarf Russian sage (perovskia) behind the headstone. It is not as big as its parent and doesn’t need to be staked. That silver foliage and purple bloom will look great against a gray headstone.
An important characteristic of perovskia is that it is a “sub shrub,” meaning it is a perennial that gets a “woody” structure and cannot be reliably cut back until the end of the winter. In this case that‘s a good thing because the silver foliage provides winter interest.
Moving on, let’s use sedum Angelina under the perovskia as a ground cover. Sedum is a tough perennial that loves sunny dry soil conditions. The gorgeous gold foliage of “Angelina” will offset the perovskia beautifully, and it remains viable all winter long.
In the front of the grave you need something low, so passersby can easily read the stone. The new Drift Roses have real possibility. They are ground cover roses with a mature height of 12 to 18 inches and a spread of about 3 feet. These little gems bloom all summer long, are dry soil-tolerant once established and also are disease- and pest-resistant. Try pink. I like it with the sedum because it has a yellow center. The roses may be a bit of a risk where the deer are concerned but they could be well worth a try.
These combinations make sense to me—they will be low maintenance, colorful, provide four seasons of interest and are really pretty. Perhaps my suggestions can help you care for your loved ones’ graves.
Claire Schuchman is a local landscape and garden designer, Phipps Master Gardener, speaker, and author. Contact her at Claire.CS@ExceptionalGardens.net