A veteran’s cemetery struggles to overcome drought, construction woes
Building a new cemetery is hard enough under the best of circumstances; try doing it in the middle of a drought with an inadequate well system and with a myriad of design and construction problems.
That’s the situation Larry Montandon walked into when he took the job as superintendent of the M.J. “Dolly” Cooper Veterans Cemetery near Anderson, S.C.
Not only was the first crop of bermudagrass dried up by the time Montandon set foot on the 59-acre site, but an elevation error in the design made some inground crypts deeper than normal, and drainage problems forced a total renovation of a section around an outdoor funeral shelter.
Montandon and his crew, however, have taken matters into their own hands. They overseeded, renovated and rebuilt until the facility, which officially opened this past spring, is on the fast track to recovery.
As the first state-owned veterans cemetery in South Carolina, this long-awaited burial ground must be in top shape, Montandon says.
Construction began on the cemetery in April 2006 with the idea of having well-established turf by the time Montandon took over in August 2007. That didn’t happen.
Due to a lack of coordination between the landscaper and general contractor, the well system wasn’t fully operational and the first planting of bermudagrass couldn’t withstand the drought.
“The grass was already gone,” Montandon recalled, “so we ended up going back with ryegrass to get a stand to prevent erosion and then started replanting or overseeding.”
With higher than normal temperatures, getting the ryegrass going was an adventure.
“We knew we would have to really get in gear to get 26 acres [the first phase of the cemetery] done with a limited water supply, being able to get that started and then move to another area, plus do your normal maintenance of mowing and edging, weed-eating and burials,” he said. “So, it’s been quite challenging.”
Helping make things work is Grounds Supervisor Doug Duncan, a former employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Subtropical Horticultural Research Station in Miami and landscape business operator in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“No water is about as bad a word as kudzu around here,” Duncan said.
The cemetery, named in honor of a decorated World War II veteran and former state legislator native to the area, has one 6-inch and two 4-inch wells, all about 450 feet deep. They run in series. “We have one main pump that runs primarily and the others will kick in as needed,” Duncan said.
With a decent stand of ryegrass in place, Montandon and crew started replanting bermudagrass in May. This time, the blend Bermuda Triangle was put in place. It includes the varieties Sydney, Sultan and Mohawk, which Montandon said offers drought resistance, dark green color and a fine leaf.
“The reason we went with three varieties is normally one is going to be dominant somewhere along the line,” he said, “but as long as you’ve got the three something will establish, and, eventually, the dominant one will prevail more than likely after two or three years.”
Compounding the problem was the fact that the seedbed hadn’t been properly prepared before the first planting.
“It would have been nice in some way to have been able to start from scratch and prepare the topsoil the way it should have been rather than overseeding a seedbed that was not properly prepared,” Montandon said.
Plus, Montandon had to work against 100-degree temperatures, and without using overtime pay in compliance with state policy.
Duncan made sure the second try at establishing a warm-season turf had all the advantages possible.
Following a soil analysis, he put down 1,800 pounds of lime on 10 to 12 acres at a rate of 12 pounds per 1,000 square feet, with starter fertilizer at a rate of 5 pounds per 1,000.
Because of budget constraints, he wasn’t able to get as much seed as was needed for the whole site. Since water availability was an issue, it meant prioritizing and focusing on the most visible areas first.
About half to two-thirds of the area had been established by late June.
Dignity and honor
Montandon, an agricultural economics major at Kansas State University whose background is in ranching and farming, has held supervisory positions at veterans’ cemeteries in three states. He takes the responsibility of providing an environment worthy of those who are interred there seriously. Sometimes that means taking time away from maintenance out of consideration for the families.
“I like to see every section looking excellent as far as grass, but when you bury with respect, dignity and honor, as we do with our veterans, I pull my maintenance crew to assist with parking for funerals,” he said. “So, it takes away from what they’re doing in the field.”
In keeping with that philosophy, Montandon tries to minimize the impact of new burials on the landscape.
“When we open a grave and close it, you should not be able to tell that we’ve been there,” he said. “You don’t see a mound that you normally see in a civilian cemetery. Once we get the turf established the way we should have, then we’ve got a sod cutter, we’ll be cutting the sod off and laying it right back on top of the grave.”
Among the challenges have been keeping up an area around a flag display and mausoleum and the outdoor funeral shelter area.
The flagpole area is equipped with a Toro Rain Bird irrigation system, but there hasn’t been enough water available to keep it running enough.
“It’s a situation where if you plant new grass, you’re going to have to water in the heat of the day,” Montandon explained. “You’re watering three to five times a day with your zone system putting on about 10, 15 minutes at a time to keep it from cresting over the top to get everything sprouted.”
The cemetery has 17 zones of sprinklers in the ground, some with 32 heads, he said. He uses Kifco sprinklers with Nelson heads to get the job done.
“This is where we get into that time management and really paying attention,” he said. “Once we get [the grass] up we can go back and lessen the number of times a day and increase the amount per time. It’s really challenging to get it started. It’ll take about three years to get a good turf set up where we can water once a week.
“If you can’t run all your water all at one time, you get into a situation of wishing you had some shift work, but state budget doesn’t allow you to have that shift come in and hire that extra person. So, we’ll work around it and do the best we can with what we’ve got,” he said.
The area around the funeral shelter is another story. “The design left a lot to be desired,” Montandon noted. “You couldn’t keep water on the hilltop, and it all ran down to the valley, and what was down in the bottom was sod and it drowned it out because of what was coming off the top of the hill.”
That required a major redesign and renovation, changing the elevation and resodding.
For mowing, Duncan broke the site into five zones on a weekly cycle. He uses two rotary mowers, both John Deere, a 72-inch and a 54-inch model. Mowing height has varied some because of rough terrain and heat.
National cemetery guidelines call for a 2-inch height. “We started out at 2 and because of rocks and rough terrain due to erosion on some of the slopes, right now we’re trying to go 2.5,” he said. “Part of the reason for that also is temperatures. If our grass was a little thicker we would still have that shade over the ground, but right now its not that thick so I’m trying to go 2.5 and protect it from the heat of the sun.”
Meanwhile, business is going on as usual. The first burial was December 14, 2007, and by late June this year, 77 veterans had been laid to rest in the new cemetery.
Ron Barnett is a freelance writer and has been a frequent contributor to Turf over the years. He resides in Easley, S.C., and is always on the lookout for new and interesting stories in the Carolinas, Georgia and east Tennessee.