Managing the turf in the Midwest’s National Cemeteries

The National Cemetery in Keokuk, Iowa, dates to the Civil War and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Photos courtesy of Wayne King.

Although the National Cemeteries of Keokuk, Iowa, and Holly Township, Mich., are more than 500 miles apart, both fall within the Midwest district where Dr. Wayne King is the agronomist in charge of them. The Keokuk facility dates back to the Civil War, while Great Lakes, as the Holly cemetery is called, was opened in 2005. Their turf problems, though, are quite similar. The turf programs of the two cemeteries, as well as some of the individual situations at other facilities in the district, share an agronomic program but are as different as the individual soldiers honored at each.

“We have 25 National Cemeteries in the region from Ohio to Missouri, including Iowa and Minnesota and the states between and Kentucky,” he said.

King said that the Keokuk and Holly Township cemeteries generally have a Kentucky bluegrass and ryegrass mix. “We tend to use a fair amount of perennial ryegrass because of its fast emergence. We’re always digging holes in it and trying to reseed it,” he said.

One of the major considerations at any cemetery is mowing. “Normally we mow once a week, but that depends, of course. In May, with Memorial Day and the growth that comes in early spring, sometimes it’s more than that.

“At Keokuk, the staff does the mowing, and at Great Lakes, this is becoming more and more common, we contract out the mowing—especially the herbicide and the fertilizer application,” King said. In addition, there is a major investment in trimming because of the headstones.

The maintenance contracts are usually set up for one year, he explained, with three or four option years possible. “Whoever gets the bid, we try to make sure that the scopes of work are appropriate for the cemetery. We work with the [individual] cemetery on those to make sure, and we modify them from time to time. We try to make them as bulletproof as we can,” he said.

What is the mowing height for the cemeteries? “Three inches,” King said. “That’s pretty standard. We like the higher height to keep the weeds down and of course for deeper rooting depth for better endurance to summer stress. Sometimes we’ve gone a little taller than that.”

King, who has a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in plant science from Utah State University and a Ph.D. in horticulture, weed science from Oregon State, said zero-turn mowers are used in most cemeteries. Primarily they are 60-inch machines, although they can range from 36 to 72 inches. “If the mowers can go down and back one row, or over one set of graves to get the full width, which often can be 10 feet, some are a little wider or narrower, that is good. Four by 10 feet is typical between rows of headstones. In some of our cemeteries there are 12-foot areas and even within a cemetery there are areas where widths are different.”

The fertilizing program for the National Cemeteries is fairly uniform, according to King. “We generally treat three times a year, and I try to emphasize to the guys at the cemetery, and it is in the contract, by Memorial Day or usually right after, because things are usually busy before, and then September 1 and then late fall or at the final mowing.

“We try to use 30 to 50 percent slow-release nitrogen, but we don’t specify coated urea or any of the others, and we try to put a pound of it on at each application, maybe a pound and a half in late fall,” King said. The aim is to keep the program as simple as possible to keep costs down. Often times, with the preemergence application, King said it’s just as inexpensive to put it on with the fertilizer.

“We try to keep the nitrogen rate low when the preemergence goes on. The preemergence herbicides we use are normally dithiopyr or prodiamine, usually applied on a low-nitrogen fertilizer carrier in April. Sometimes pendimethalin may be used; we’re not fussy about the particular product,” he said.

Often, it is the contractor who chooses which product will be used, as the contracts simply specify that an approved label rate of preemergence herbicide be applied.

An avenue of flags mark the entrance to the recently opened National Cemetery in Holly Township, Michigan.

Although the common trade names for dithiopyr, prodiamine and pendimethalin are Dimension, Barricade and Pre-M, respectively, there are various generic or individual supplier names of each. “We aren’t choosey about the trade names. In the interest of competition and fairness, the government has to be careful about specifying particular products,” King said.

Different areas of the cemeteries occasionally require different programs, according to King, as some areas are shaded more than others, and there are sometimes different soils. At Great Lakes, he mentioned, a lot of soil was brought in during construction so the pH in some areas is different, but in general, there isn’t that much difference within a particular facility.

Edging in the cemeteries is very labor-intensive, he said. “We have mowers and then people with weed trimmers going around the upright headstones. Then there are also flat headstones in some cemeteries. Fort Custer [also in Michigan] is one of the few that has flat headstones, and those are mowed with just an edger, which is pretty labor-intensive and even tougher than the string trimmers.”

Few of the National Cemeteries rely on irrigation, King said. “We have a few irrigation systems. At Fort Snelling, near Minneapolis, there is one that’s the most extensive of any in our region.” That cemetery is about half irrigated, according to King, and it’s an old system and has been problematic, especially during last summer’s extreme dry spell. “Ohio Western Reserve, near Rittman, Ohio, has some of the big irrigation guns that can irrigate some sections, and Abe Lincoln, which is south of Chicago, has a similar situation,” he said. “Where we’ve put [the new] pre-placed crypts in, those cemetery sections have to be irrigated. There are some of those at Great Lakes, but they’re not in use yet, since the turf isn’t established yet.”

Part of King’s job is conducting inspections of the cemeteries in his district. The inspections consist of some soil sampling, but, he said, “It’s mostly visual, though. I look to see if the mowing is being done appropriately, to the right height, if the headstones are being trimmed around correctly, and we especially try to keep the weeds down.

“I look at the headstones to be sure they’re straight, because that’s something important, even though it’s not turf-related. I look at how rough the sections are and if we need to renovate them, smooth them out and I check to see that the grass is being kept as nice as possible, within the constraints they have,” King concluded.

While they are places of quiet and contemplation, National Cemeteries often host re-enactments such as this Revolutionary War tableau at Great Lakes Cemetery.

Histories of Two National Cemeteries

By the beginning of the Civil War, Keokuk was home to a population of approximately 13,000 people. Its location, at the confluence of the Des Moines and Mississippi rivers, made an ideal location for the transportation of produce for the war. The first Civil War facility in Iowa was Camp Ellsworth, located near Keokuk, where troops were mustered as early as May 1861. As the war progressed, five Army hospitals were established in the area to help care for the thousands of sick and wounded soldiers transported up the Mississippi River from Southern battlefields. Most of the original interments at Keokuk National Cemetery came from these hospitals.

The 2.75-acre Keokuk National Cemetery was originally a part of Oakland Cemetery until the city donated the land to the U.S. government in the mid 19th century. According to an 1871 inspection report, just after the Civil War there were 627 interments: 600 known Union soldiers and 27 unknown soldiers. (Not mentioned in the report were the remains of eight Confederate soldiers buried at the National Cemetery, who died in Keokuk as prisoners of war.) Keokuk National Cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

Great Lakes National Cemetery is the second National Cemetery built in Michigan and the 122nd in the National Cemetery system. It’s located approximately 50 miles northwest of downtown Detroit, in Holly Township, Oakland County. The cemetery borders Fagan Lake, and is located on a portion of a land grant from the Federal Government to Terrance Fagan in 1836. The property served as farmland until it was acquired by the National Cemetery Administration in 2002.

In the 20th century, the property was purchased by Bryson Dexter Horton, a Spanish-American War veteran-turned-industrialist who invented the “Square D” switch. Mr. Horton constructed a small house on the property in 1927, and reportedly entertained such preeminent locals as Henry and Edsel Ford, who both hunted and fished there. Great Lakes National Cemetery was established in 2005, and the first burial took place on October 17 of that year.

Ron Stevens is a freelance writer based in the Midwest and a frequent contributor.