Historic grounds get a facelift

The 77-acre Riverside Cemetery, 5 miles from downtown Denver, was founded in 1876 and was one of the true old “prairie” cemeteries at the center of Western life in those days. After its water rights were withdrawn in 2003, the cemetery was deprived of irrigation and suffered a steady decline. It was only through a chance encounter with the Colorado Association of Lawn Care Professionals (CALCP), and members’ willingness to volunteer services and equipment, that the memorial park got an Earth Day reprieve.

“Our mission is to protect the history, heritage and horticulture of these historic cemeteries,” says Patricia Carmody, executive director of the Fairmount Heritage Foundation. The Denver Foundation manages two cemeteries, the Riverside and the Fairmount, both founded in the 19th century. She says at that time, they were planted like parks and were the center of concerts, picnics and other social activities. “Quite a few of the cemeteries have rich horticultural treasures.”

Photos by Donna Ralston.
An important aspect of the Day of Service was laying out test plots for native plants.

Unlike Fairmount Cemetery, Riverside, though situated on the bank of the North Platte River, did not have written, endowed water rights. When those rights were revoked in 2003, the foundation could not afford to keep watering the acreage, where over 67,000 people are buried, 1,300 of them American war veterans. “We were in the middle of a drought at that time,” Camody says, and over the course of the next six years, many of the plants died. Since the cemetery was not actively selling plots, with only existing plot holders asking for burials there and only two employees on the job, the place fell into virtual ruin.

In fact, the shattered cemetery became a news item, and some local members of CALCP saw the situation. Carmody says that was the beginning of the cemetery’s salvation. The lawn care professionals were looking for a facility to lavish some volunteer affection on, and they picked Riverside.

Donna Ralston, executive director of CALCP, says that the 151 member companies had been searching for a project to work on for Earth Day, following the example of the Professional Lawncare Network (PLANET) which had been doing volunteer work at Arlington National Cemetery for years. On short notice, Ralston was able to organize a Day of Service at Riverside.

“We got flower seeds donated, we got fertilizer donated, we got herbicides donated,” Ralston says. In addition, nine companies were able to send 18 people out on April 22. The Day of Service started at 8 a.m. and lasted until early afternoon. Just as important, the companies brought equipment such as aerators, a seeder, a boom truck and wood chipper to the job. “The place was pretty devastated.”

The day was spent cleaning up, trimming trees and planting test plots of native vegetation that might be able to survive in this climate without irrigation. The central part of the effort was the 12 test plots. Several types of native or native-hybrid grasses and wildflowers, or mixes of the two, were planted as part of the Native Plant Revitalization Plan for Riverside Cemetery, developed in 2008.

“Everybody is watching very carefully to get data from this,” Carmody says, because without water, the cemetery vegetation will have to survive on rainfall. A heavy snowfall the week before the Day of Service gave the ground good moisture, and volunteers have hand-watered some of the vegetation since then, but the long-term plan is to have the cemetery planted with more of the plants that survive in the plots, including some drought-tolerant shrubs to be selected later. That extended planting could begin next year at the next CALCP Day of Service. To have the seeds donated and the labor supplied was the crucial part for the foundation.

Carmody notes that these old cemeteries are of significant historic importance. Riverside holds the graves of three territorial governors and other prominent names from Colorado history, including three Congressional Medal of Honor winners. She says the cemetery also has the largest collection of zinc memorial monuments in the nation. Those are distinctive monuments shaped in zinc, some very rare ones done in the likenesses of the dead.

“There’s a large veterans plot out there that goes all the way from the Civil War to the first Iraq war,” Carmody says. Those gravesites include some of the black soldiers from the Civil War’s 54th Massachusetts, the unit featured in the movie “Glory.”

Carmody, who has been the executive director of the foundation since last summer, says that the old photos of the cemetery show it to have been fairly lush with a half-wild mix of horticultural plantings and native plants that blew in and established themselves. It looked like a “green lawn,” but it also had an old aboveground sprinkler irrigation system that supplied water. Since 2003, much of the sprinkler system had been stolen, and without the money to pay for water, the foundation will not be able to pay for irrigation in the foreseeable future.

On Earth Day, the Colorado Association of Lawn Care Professionals sent volunteers andequipment to help.

This plan for the cemetery was drawn up by Ray Daugherty, a professor of horticulture at Denver’s Front Range Community College. Many other volunteers were involved. A horticulture advisory committee helped Carmody develop the Native Plant Revitalization Plan, with members from Colorado State University, Front Range Community College, the Colorado Forest Service, Denver Botanic Gardens and the Denver Rose Society. Signage was donated to mark the test plots.

Workers and equipment were donated by Bestyard.com, Cyn Mar, Davey Tree Expert Company, Fertek, Green Mountain Lawn and Tree Care, Jim’s Pride Landscaping, Lawn Doctor, Van Diest Supply and Whit Tree Service. Donors of materials and seed for the Earth Day project included Alpha Once, Inc., Beauty Beyond Belief, Chem Way, Helena Chemical Co., High Country Gardens, Pawnee Buttes Seed, John Deere Landscapes, Sharp Brothers Seed and Western Native Seed.

“This is way beyond my wildest dreams of what could be done,” Carmody says. “I thought it would be a couple of volunteers and me with a few bags of seed.”

Instead, the foundation has been laid for a solid future. In addition, the local chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture plans a volunteer day this summer to prune the few remaining trees, especially the old elms, and local Boy Scouts have pledged to help with cleanup and maintenance. There are also some historic rose plants at the cemetery that could use some TLC.

CALCP has committed its Day of Service for the next several years to Riverside Cemetery. Once the data from the test plots is analyzed, larger plantings will be undertaken. It is thought that a colorful and thriving landscape can be established. It makes Ralston proud, too.

“We really felt that our contribution would make a difference here,” Ralston says, noting that one of the Day of Service’s goals is to establish a sustainable landscape in a challenging and visible setting. CALCP is gratified with the results so far. “It would have cost them thousands and thousands of dollars to do what we did.”

Don Dale resides in Altadena, Calif., and is a frequent contributor to Turf. He has covered the green industry for more than 10 years.