Patricia Carmody feared continuing drought conditions, and a lack of water for irrigation, would yield a wilting burial ground filled with dead trees and weeds at Riverside Cemetery in Denver, one of two cemeteries she works to preserve for Fairmount Heritage Foundation in Colorado.
Years of worsening drought, coupled with the cemetery’s loss of water rights for irrigation in 2003, prompted the slow death of more than 100 non-native, mature trees in the 77-acre cemetery. Denver’s oldest operating cemetery started reverting to its naturally dry, drab prairie landscape after spending decades looking like a lush, green oasis.
The landscape found new life in 2009 through what Carmody calls “cemetery serendipity.”
Each year PLANET (now the National Association of Landscape Professionals), organizes a national day of service on the days around Earth Day. The day of service encourages green industry associations and businesses across the U.S. to spend a day volunteering in their communities.
Andy Ferguson, Davey's South Central operations manager and member and past president of the Colorado Arborists and Lawn Care Professionals (CALCP), fully supported the idea of preserving the cemetery’s remaining trees and working to return the landscape to a more native state.
Davey, CALCP and other volunteers started in 2009 by developing test plots for various native grasses. Volunteers loosened the soil, applied native grass seed and fertilizer. In all, volunteers created eight test plots to determine which grasses would do the best in the dry semi-desert conditions with only 12 inches to 15 inches of annual rainfall.
The cemetery does have some trees that are drought-resistant and as much as 100 years old. Davey has helped prune those hardier trees, such as burr oaks and Kentucky coffee trees, so the cemetery could retain some of its historic tree canopy.
“A lot of the work we do out there is slow and careful work,” he says. “Cemeteries are solemn places, and we certainly don’t want to damage headstones. We take pride in our work every day, but we certainly take pride in our donated services to the cemetery at a little bit higher level.”
Thanks to CALCP, Riverside has benefitted from a mix of new landscape bed installations, reseeding of native prairie grasses, tree pruning and removal and now modest irrigation capabilities.
But there’s still more to do. Carmody is hopeful to establish a master landscape plan for restoration and preservation of the cemetery’s entire 77 acres by using the past six years’ worth of data collection—herbicide applications, type of seed used and when, moisture levels by year and other information. And, of course, there are more non-native trees that must be removed.
Carmody said the cemetery would have virtually no landscape without the volunteer efforts of her “gardening angels.”
“It’s like a miracle story, it really is,” she says. “I am forever indebted, and the difference it’s made in Riverside’s future and what it means to our families is beyond my words.”
Ferguson says he’s been pleasantly surprised by the number of volunteers who help each year.
“At the end of the day, the complete loss of water rights for irrigation is not a situation that’s likely to be repeated in a lot of places, but drought is something that is becoming more and more prevalent,” he says. “Planning is what has made us so successful, without a doubt.”
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