Cemetery Gardening Ideas Wanted
May 1, 2007 8:54 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for ideas for planting around grave sites.

I don't get to visit my mother and father's grave sites as often as I would like because they are buried in western Pennsylvania and I am in Vermont. When I do visit the sites I usually bring potted flowers, but I would like to consider planting something that will live longer and not require someone having to pick up the pot. When I am not around my family cleans the stones and trims the grass, etc.

I will be visiting the sites in a few weeks. I plan to ask the people who maintain the cemetery if there are any limitations or rules. Baring such things, I'd like to plant something or at least get some ideas for planting for next year.

The cemetery is in zone 5b. I am thinking bulbs of some sort, but I'd appreciate any ideas and advise. Thanks.
posted by terrapin to Home & Garden (8 answers total)
Rosebushes are a traditional grave-side planting, to the point where people in search of disappearing rose cultivars sometimes wander through old graveyards looking for bushes to take cuttings from. There's a kinda cool book about it called "In Search of Lost Roses."
posted by OmieWise at 9:12 AM on May 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

In addition to the planting zone, for best success (a plant that will live a long time), you'll need to know how much sun the site gets, how moist it is (does the site lie low so that water puddles there when it rains, or does it have good drainage?), and ideally the pH and nutrient content of the soil. The cemetery keepers may know some of this from their work keeping the grass. Alternatively, if you know the type of grass and how well it grows there (I'm assuming there's grass, ignore this if not), this may tell you something about the soil conditions.

I visited a very old graveyard in Florence, Italy recently and was surprised at how common one plant in particular was: I know it as "Hen and Chicks". It's not the most glamorous plant - it's a very low-to-the-ground succulent - but I was there in February and it was always green. It might bloom in summer for all I know. I suppose it's very low-maintenance and does well even with little or no watering, it has babies but spreads slowly (I have some in my garden here). This graveyard wasn't grassy, it was almost entirely paved over with gravel paths, but there were occasional little plant sconces as part of some grave stones (hard to describe) and the occasional grassy grave area. Here's Wikipedia.

That article also features another low-growing succulent, sedum. We have sedum here, too, and it lasts forever, requires little care, and has lovely tiny yellow flowers that grow above the leafy parts.

Note, I am in North Carolina and you'd want to check viability of both these plants for your area. If they work, though, they're perennial.

If you can find a botanical garden in the area of the cemetery, they may be able to recommend some hardy but non-invasive native plants that would be ideal.
posted by amtho at 9:42 AM on May 1, 2007

I like the bulb idea. Maybe you can find some from Old House Gardens from the years your parents were born. Seeds of sweet violets or johnny-jump-ups are also very nice, and won't mind the occasional mowing if they end up in the lawn.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:47 AM on May 1, 2007

Seconding succulents as a good low maintenace choice (I'm several zones above you in Canada and my Hens and Chicks and Sedum have been doing fine and blooming for years).
Look at native plants for the least maintenance. Bee balm, Purple Coneflowers and Black Eyed Susans come to mind right away. For bushes you can plant Lavender (not native but low maintenance and keeps its leaves in winter) or Elderberry (a neat hardy shurb that looks like a mini Japanse Maple but with pink flowers), Burning Bush (fiery red colour), or Blueberry Bushes (feed the wildlife in the cemetary!). If you want a rose I would recomend the Fairy Rose, again very hardy and low maintenance, covered with (smallish) pink roses all summer long and then you prune it to the ground in fall so there is no depressing mess over the winter. Mine is on a windy exposed site that is dry in the summer and the winters haven't killed it yet.
I am sure some of the Master Gardeners at The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society would be thrilled to offer suggestions as well.
posted by saucysault at 11:20 AM on May 1, 2007

I like the idea of Snowdrops at a graveside; they have such an intrinsic ethereality, and their appearance in early spring is one of the first and most stirring promises of renewal for me.

They also spread, but not invasively, so that if you come back to the same spot year upon year you may feel lifted at the sight of their patient, modest increase. A gardener friend tells me there are many places around the country where they have established themselves for more than a hundred years.

Here is a picture of snowdrops on a slope, showing the effect of a stand of them and some detail of the blossoms, and here is a picture of them in an old British graveyard which seems not to have been touched for a long time.
posted by jamjam at 12:45 PM on May 1, 2007

What are the other people there planting on the graves? That might give you an idea what works - and what doesn't! Also I second the trip to a local botanical garden (or just sneak around and have a look at old gardens:) and see what might work of local plants.

I have no idea of the climate in Pennsylvania, (nor of how big a plot is in the US), but bulbs are a good idea in most climates. I liked the idea of snowdrops (which are perennial so just stuff them in the erath and they keep comming up year after year) , and perhaps some later bulbs, tulips are good too.

A small rosebush or similar can be added as long as you come and look after it a couple of times a year. Small rhodondendrons work nicely as well if they like the climate - there are lots to choose from in all sizes and colours, and they are really low maintenance. (Again, look after it so it doesn't suddenly become a huge tree).

When I worked in a cemetery there was nothing I loved more than to give ideas and recommendations to the families asking for it, hopefully my USAnian collegues in are equally enthusiastic, so I would say to ask the workers there.
posted by mummimamma at 1:52 AM on May 2, 2007

Peonies are traditional down south, where they bloom in time for Memorial Day (which the old timers still call Decoration Day). In that climate, they will probably bloom a little later. The only downside is if the caretakers get happy with the lawn mower and run over them, they don't survive that so much.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 6:19 AM on May 2, 2007

OmieWise, graveyards and heirloom plants seem like such an ideal partnership, but not one which had ever occurred to me; thank you for sharing that.
posted by jamjam at 10:36 AM on May 2, 2007

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