“About thirty years ago or more, when I first commenced traveling around the country in the interest of the nursery trade, I began to find out that the best places and the places where I could get the most information about trees and plants, was by visiting cemeteries, for there I could learn what trees and what plants were doing the best in those communities.” What Trees and Plants Mean to a Cemetery, published in 1919 by Fletcher Bohlander
Cemetery plantings are difficult. They’re difficult to talk about, difficult to think about. Planting is often a last-minute decision, sometimes left to the discretion of the cemetery or a local nursery. Usually plantings are maintained by grounds crews with limited time and resources. The constraints of cemetery planting are daunting… plants need to stay within the confines of the individual plot, withstand foot traffic, require a minimum of water and care, not cover the gravestone, not interfere with mowing or other maintenance and may need to survive winter with a foot or more of leaves covering them.
Understandably, most cemeteries have strict guidelines about what can and cannot be planted in order to avoid maintenance problems, obstructions, invasive plant issues. Does the cemetery owner or association even allow planting? Is there a limited list of plants allowed? What are their requirements? Remember, too, that guidelines may change under the direction of future caretakers. Given all those constraints, cemeteries may be the ultimate test for sustainable landscapes.
One of the best ways to decide what can be done with an individual plot is to see what plants are currently thriving at the cemetery under similar site conditions—sunlight, available moisture, protection, etc. A visit to a nearby arboretum or public garden will also offer examples of plants sustainable in that area.
There are other, more personal, considerations as well. Many of us will be visiting cemeteries in the coming month but how many of the gravesides we visit will bear any memories of the person we remember? Was there a plant they especially loved, a plant that carries special meaning about a specific time or event? Will that small plot of ground bear any resemblance to the gardens they cared for themselves? Is there a plant that can be transplanted from their home garden to the grave?* Another question might be the time of year friends and family will most likely be visiting the grave… Memorial Day, an anniversary or birthday?
Below are some recommendations for varying goals and conditions but make sure you check with the cemetery administrator or association before undertaking any planning or planting. Also make sure plantings are well-defined from nearby turf. If you won’t be there to water them regularly, you may want to amend the soil with compost to help it retain moisture better; then mulch it well to protect and further define it.
For early spring bloom, consider bulbs like snowdrops or daffodils, which are hardy, long-lived and will spread gradually but not aggressively. For Memorial Day, peonies, iris and lilies are likely choices, along with pasque flower and bleeding heart.
Low-growing groundcovers that can withstand mowing include: ajuga, creeping phlox, germander (fragrant when bruised and semi-evergreen for interest far into winter), purple poppy mallow, plumbago and creeping sedum.
Native plants are adapted to local conditions and usually require the least maintenance. The ones listed below are fairly tall, and should be planted behind the gravestone to keep it visible. Long-blooming summer and early fall perennials for sunny areas include: Agastache, aster, bee balm, catmint, coneflower, coreopsis, garden phlox, black-eyed Susan, gaillardia, toad lily (fall) and yarrow.
For shady areas: bleeding heart, coral bells, Corydalis, daylilies, hosta, sedum.
For foliage that persists year-round: coral bells, germander, hens and chicks, perennial geranium.
Though ornamental grasses are low-maintenance and tough, in early stages it can be difficult to differentiate them from turfgrass or weeds, so it may be best to avoid planting grasses unless specifically approved.
* One of the plants I transplanted to my parents’ grave from their pasture was purple poppy mallow. It’s been mowed many times but remains—a reminder both of my parents and the pasture they took pleasure in.