Visitors to Hollywood Cemetery make maintenance a challenge

The cemetery is implementing a development plan that calls for the removal of asphalt roadways and replacing them with cobble walks.

Ask most southern turf experts about the flower of the South, and they likely will respond with magnolia or perhaps azalea. Ask a southern historian, and they will respond with names like General George Pickett, President James Monroe or any of a number of Civil War figures.

Responsibility for maintaining the burial sites for all of those people rests with David L. Gilliam, general manager at Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Va. Hollywood Cemetery was established on what was formerly known as Harvie’s Woods, grounds of the Harvie Plantation. “The property would easily return to woods if it were not for the grounds maintenance program in place,” Gilliam says. While the grounds are routinely mowed and trimmed, the concept of the management of the grounds is to stay as true to the rural concept of the original plan of the cemetery.

“We maintain the grounds, but not to the point they appear manicured lawns,” Gilliam says. “The idea is that Hollywood should not have the appearance of a manicured grounds like a golf course, for example. However, we do work hard to maintain the trees, shrubbery, flowers, ground covers and the turf itself so that the grounds do look well cared for.”

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, is buried at Hollywood Cemetery.

That job falls to a grounds staff of 10, including Donald R. Toney, grounds foreman. While they address the service aspect of the operation (funerals, foundations and special care to certain areas of the cemetery), the staff also provides routine maintenance of the property and directly oversees or performs the detail work, including edging, pruning and weeding. This distinguishes Hollywood from other cemetery properties. “We do outsource roughly 80 percent of the routine mowing, trimming and leaf removal,” Gilliam says.

Hollywood started outsourcing in the 1990s, putting them in the forefront of a nationwide trend in cemetery grounds maintenance. “The blend of our staff with the contractors has proven to be the most efficient and cost-effective approach to maintaining our 135-acre property,” Gilliam says.

English ivy is the prevalent ground cover used throughout the steeper areas of the cemetery.

Turf care

Part of that success is due to the staff’s knowledge of the site. “Certain grasses perform better in certain areas of the cemetery grounds,” Toney says. The quality of the soil varies across the property, from the rough Piedmont clay to the best of soils. Since the site has a long history of being wooded, often the pretty black soil is thin and devoid of nutrients. The ground overlooking the James River is thin – “rock from the get-go,” Toney says – but toward the western boundary, they are blessed with 18 inches of beautiful soil.

The mainstay of the turf is bluegrass along with Kentucky 31 tall fescue. Toney says of the fescue, “It gets stalky and doesn’t look good.” His thoughts on rye: “It will get you through, but it clogs the mowers.”

Toney says, “One of the things we do is turf all new graves with freshly cut sod.” This stabilizes the ground, and makes a family’s return visit to the grave a better experience. “Piece by piece, the cemetery turf is replaced as burials take place,” he continues. Seeded mesh rolls are used on the numerous banks in the cemetery to promote the growth of grass while providing erosion control. English ivy is the prevalent ground cover used on steeper areas.

“We use a Weed Feed and Seed product for most areas selected for fertilization,” Toney says. They also make good use of a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer. “It’s an old product, but I really like it,” he says, explaining that it gives good green-up without making things lush.

Some areas, however, never receive fertilization. “They are generally wetter surfaces and don’t need the fertilization,” Toney says. In fact, in certain areas of the cemetery a growth retardant is used.

Iron deficiency is also concern. “The condition of the soil and turf in any specific part of the cemetery dictates the treatment,” Toney adds. “We do apply a granular weed, feed and seed mixture for broadleaf weed control.” Herbicides are also applied to retaining walls and curbs for total weed control.

Gilliam and Toney have 25 and 40 years of experience, respectively, in managing the cemetery. Both avail themselves of the various maintenance workshops provided by the Virginia Cemetery Association and other professional associations.

Hollywood Cemetery overlooks the James River. Designed in 1847 in the “rural” mode, as opposed to the grid plan that was in vogue at the time, it features winding lanes passing green hills and tree-lined valleys.

Touch of history

In addition to being the final resting place of two U.S. presidents – James Monroe (1817-1825) and John Tyler (1841-1845) – Hollywood houses the gravesites of six former Virginia governors and 22 Civil War generals. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, is also buried at Hollywood, as are many soldiers and generals who fought for the Confederacy. George E. Pickett, whose name is forever linked to a valiant but futile effort at Gettysburg, is interred in the Confederate Soldiers section near 18,000 Confederate soldiers, including tombs of the unknown Confederate soldiers. In another section rests James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart, who also commanded troops for the South.

William Burke, Edgar Allen Poe’s teacher, is buried here, as well as a couple of Pulitzer Prize winners, some prominent college presidents and learned scholars of the South. As a result, Hollywood Cemetery sees a lot more visitation than a typical cemetery, adding to the maintenance challenges.

Ongoing upgrades

Paths in the Presidents’ Circle area were traditionally grass, however, because of all the foot traffic, the decision was made to replace the grass walks with cobble walks. “The same was done in the Jefferson Davis Circle,” Gilliam notes.

Generally, wear is not a problem in the cemetery, but these two sections are the most-visited in the cemetery. “We adapted the areas to accommodate that level of visitation,” Toney says.

This spring, there are several projects going on simultaneously in the Presidents’ Circle. Gilliam says that the program to restore monuments and iron fences in that area started in 2007 with support from the Friends of Hollywood Cemetery. “Work is being done to reset, repair and replace curbing around lots in that area,” he notes. The cemetery is implementing a development plan that calls for the removal of asphalt roadways and replacing them with cobble walks. “This development includes installation of over 900 inground cremation niches, which will be available to the public late spring 2011,” Gilliam says. The project also calls for the installation of new trees in this section.

There are 18,000 Confederate army soldiers resting near the grave of James Ewell Brown (J.E.B.) Stuart at Hollywood Cemetery.

Maintaining monarchs

“The trees are an important part of the cemetery grounds,” Gilliam says. They sub out their large tree maintenance work to Van Yahres Tree Company of Charlottesville, Va. Mike Van Yahres, owner and president, is a trained arborist and holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture. The company works a lot of high-profile jobs, including maintenance at Thomas Jefferson’s estate, Monticello. “Our plan is to replace a tree with the similar species if it is determined that the replacement location and species is still appropriate to that site,” Gilliam says. “Each new tree is selected based on a list of recommended trees for the grounds.”

Van Yahres Tree Company strives to preserve the monarch trees- those with historical significance.

“Our main goal is to preserve the monarch trees – the trees with historical significance,” says Dave Rosene, general manager of Van Yahres.

Gilliam notes that, over the years, the tree maintenance program has evolved from one of removal and major pruning to a maintenance and preservation plan. “All of our Monarch trees are evaluated on an annual basis, and work is scheduled on them accordingly,” he says. “We also look for the trees that will be in the ‘monarch’ category in the next 100 years,” Rosene says. “Hollywood Cemetery will be around for a long time, and it is up to us to anticipate which trees will become the monarchs of the future. Of course, our strategy depends on the individual tree and its location, but pruning is key,” he says. The benefits of regular pruning include visitor safety, long-term tree health, improved aesthetics and increased air circulation through the canopy, which reduces insect and disease problems. “That’s not to say soil nutrition is on the back burner,” Rosene continues, “but there is not much value in having a healthy root system if the canopy is poor.”

A graduate of Kent State University who worked at Ohio’s Holden Arboretum after graduation, Rosene has worked in the green industry for more than 25 years, including experience as a property manager and horticultural specialist. Rosene’s recommendations are backed by his hands-on grounds management experience and extensive knowledge of plant materials.

Each Van Yahres Tree Company crew includes ISA-certified arborists. At Hollywood Cemetery, they provide soil nutrients for stressed trees. The soil is fairly sandy, so the trees feel the stress of drought sooner than otherwise might be the case. “We use a two-year, slow-release material in the dormant season,” Rosene explains. Typically, about half of the trees scheduled for fertilization will be treated in early March. “We don’t do every tree every year,” he continues. This staggers the workload and is easier on the budget as the cost is spread out. If a tree shows signs of disease, they will use an injection. “But, we try to avoid the use of chemicals wherever possible,” Rosene says.

The cemetery has slowly increased its annual budget for tree maintenance and replacement to its current level of $120,000 per year.

Turf maintenance

The staff uses a combination of riding and push mowers. “But, much of our lawn maintenance is performed with gas trimmers,” Toney says. Water lines run throughout the entire cemetery, with spigots located at various points for lot owners and visitors to access water for plants. Some specific sites in the cemetery are also on a self-contained, timed irrigation system, Toney says.

Gilliam sees little in the way of major change in the 21st century. “The cemetery will continue to maintain the turf and grounds as it has for many, many years,” he says.

Curt Harler is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Turf. He resides in Strongsville, Ohio.