Keeping the Texas State Cemetery green

Located just a few blocks from the Texas State Capitol building in Austin, the Texas State Cemetery serves as a final resting place for many of the state’s most powerful leaders, including former governors, judges and generals. Because of its prominent location and mission, and the fact that it’s visited each year by thousands of family members, school children on educational field trips and tourists, there is a clear priority given to keeping the unique, state-run cemetery looking its best.

“It’s the only one like it in the nation,” says Harry Bradley, superintendent at the Texas State Cemetery (www.cemetery.state.tx.us), which was founded in 1851.

A staff of nine runs the Texas State Cemetery. From left to right: Carlos Galvan, Harry Bradley, Roosevelt Harris, Jason Walker, Debbie Rothberger, Julian Banda, Tim Price and Will Erwin.

Burial in the Texas State Cemetery is reserved for state officials—governors, legislators, etc.—as well as those deemed to have made “a significant contribution to Texas history and culture.” Given these lofty criteria, fewer burials take place here than at many cemeteries. “We might have 40 a year,” says Bradley. There is still a lot of activity at this cemetery because it offers guided tours of the grounds.

For example, says Bradley, “In the spring, we’ll have about 20,000 school children here on organized trips. They learn a lot about the history of Texas here.”

The Texas State Cemetery sits on 18 hilly acres, and serves as the final resting place for some of the state’s most prominent leaders.

The cemetery sits on 18 acres of hilly ground and is covered by a variety of grasses and trees. Since coming to the Texas State Cemetery 13 years ago, Bradley says he’s undertaken an ongoing effort to introduce better-performing, lower-maintenance versions of both.

A major renovation/restoration of the cemetery began in 1994. The work improved many features at the facility, but the grass that was selected was not necessarily an upgrade. “They covered the place with buffalograss, which is fine if you’re out in a pasture, but it wasn’t appropriate for this cemetery,” says Bradley. “So, I’ve been working to change that grass out.”

Little by little, the grass in small sections of the cemetery was killed off, plowed under and resodded. “We went slow, mainly because of labor and cost issues,” Bradley says of the transition to new grass types. With a grounds crew of just three or four men, it would have been impossible to keep up with routine maintenance while regressing large portions of the grounds. “We did have access to inmates from the prison who were here to help us with some of the work. We just kept going in small sections.”

Today, the buffalograss is gone and in its place is a combination of common bermuda (about 40 percent of the turfgrass at the cemetery), St. Augustine (40 percent), three types of zoysia (20 percent), and a little bit of Tif 409. “The Tif 409 costs twice as much per pallet, so we don’t buy as much of it,” says Bradley. “We tried it in some really nice parts of the cemetery just to see what it would do. It’s doing great, but it’s very expensive. If I could, I would have nothing but bermuda,” says Bradley, “simply because it requires so little maintenance. It fights weeds and it’s tough and it comes back if it gets damaged. [Crews that come into the cemetery to set headstones are required to put plywood down to protect the grass when backing up to the gravesite.] But, we also have a lot of trees here, so in those areas we went with St. Augustine and zoysia.”

A number of years ago, Dr. Gene Taylor with Texas A&M developed a turfgrass management program for the cemetery that is still followed. “We aerate in the spring, and we have two different fertilizer plans. Sometimes we fertilize twice per year, sometimes three times per year, and we use slow-release fertilizer,” Bradley says.

Perennial gardens are located throughout the cemetery.

The cemetery’s trees are predominately red oak, live oak, pecan and mesquite. “We’ve had two big storms in the last few years that have taken out some big trees, so we’ve probably planted about 10 or 11 red oaks. The only thing we plant now is red oaks, because they look nice and the maintenance is easier than live oaks. The maintenance with live oaks will kill you,” Bradley says. There are still many older live oaks on the property, so leaf cleanup is a huge challenge, he says. “We blow them up in piles and collect them into huge bags. The neighbors actually haul them off to use for mulch.”

An Irritrol irrigation system keeps the turf, trees and plantings watered, but sometimes, even in Austin’s hot climate, more water isn’t helpful. “We don’t use a set irrigation run-time pattern,” Bradley explains. “Here in central Texas we have a lot of storms and floods come through here. This summer, for example, we’ve had the wettest year in 40 or 50 years, so we only water when we need it and when the weather allows.”

When needed, the system works well, says Bradley. “We spent a lot of time when we regressed each section putting in the proper heads and calibrating the whole system. We also had to move the control boxes inside. When they were installed, they put them on the west wall of the brick shop building. The metal boxes were just sitting in the blazing sun and it burnt up all the controls inside.”

A staff of three works outside on the grounds, and Bradley spends about half of his time inside with administrative duties, and half outside working with the groundskeeping crew. “You can’t understand the grounds if you’re sitting behind the desk—you just can’t,” he says. “You have to get out there and mow and work.”

The Texas State Cemetery’s fleet of mowers is built around the need to work in and around headstones, monuments and other tight spaces. In the garage are two John Deere X485 mowers with all-wheel steering, one Bobcat zero-turn mower and Honda commercial, walk-behind mowers. Mowing generally takes place on Mondays and Fridays, and is done mostly in the morning to avoid the heat of the midday Texas sun.

“You have to weed-eat around everything, as well,” adds Bradley. “Weed-eating is a big deal here, it’s probably the hardest part of the maintenance.” For handwork, the crew uses Echo trimmers and Stihl blowers. “We’re trimming about a day and a half each week. We have one area in the cemetery with 2,000 Confederate soldiers headstones require the most time and attention, but most headstones have concrete bases on them, so they can stand up to the trimming. And, our groundskeepers all have a lot of experience here, so they can go out and do it in their sleep. They do a great job.”

One important part of the job is to keep the cemetery grounds free of trash, as well as to periodically pick flowers or other items left at gravesites. “We police the cemetery in the morning and afternoon to pick up everything that needs to be collected,” Bradley says. “We keep on it so it’s not that big of a job.” A fleet of E-Z-Go gas utility vehicles is used for that task.

The groundskeeping crew also oversees extensive flower and shrub plantings. The emphasis over the years has switched from the use of annuals to perennials. “We switched for two reasons: to save cost and time,” explains Bradley. “Now we use plants like dwarf crape myrtles. They require some trimming and fertilization, but that kind of work doesn’t take as much time as maintaining the grass. We work on the flower beds in the afternoons, and they make a big difference in the look of the cemetery.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories. He can be reached at pwhitevt@aol.com.