What are Grave Gardeners?
The Grave Gardeners are a group of volunteer gardeners at The Woodlands. Each gardener adopts a "cradle grave" that they plant with Victorian-era plants and care for throughout the gardening season. As a site with many historical layers—The Woodlands was once the 18th century estate of amateur botanist and plant collector William Hamilton and was later converted into a rural cemetery—we are always looking for interesting ways to communicate these layers to visitors. Re-planting the numerous Victorian cradle graves that populate the site seemed like the perfect way to both beautify the space and engage the site users with a unique aspect of The Woodlands history.
Why Grave Garden?
Cradle Graves or, "tombs in the French style," were particularly popular in the Victorian period from the late 19th through early 20th century. At one point, most would have been planted and maintained by the family of the deceased, but over the course of the past century, they have come to sit flowerless. As one of the first rural cemeteries in the city, The Woodlands also functioned as one of the nation's earliest public parks. In the Victorian Era, it was common for family members to maintain gardens in their family cemetery plots and even to spend time on the weekends picnicking and enjoying peaceful green space outside of the city. The Grave Gardeners seek to reintroduce this practice, pairing volunteer gardeners with plots that need a little love and care. We like to think of the Grave Gardeners program as a model that could be adopted by other historic cemeteries, too!
Who are the Grave Gardeners?
The Grave Gardeners are a group of 150 volunteer gardeners who have each been assigned a cradle grave to adopt at The Woodlands throughout the growing season. Most of the gardeners live or work in our community of West Philadelphia, but there are gardeners from all over the Philadelphia area. The skill level of the gardeners range from people getting their hands in the dirt for the first time, to seasoned master gardeners. Volunteers must attend a series of introductory workshops before they begin gardening. These workshops provide some gardening basics, explain the historical context of the program, teach the specifics about heirloom and Victorian plants, and help gardeners get started working in their plots. Many gardeners also take on the additional task of doing historical research on their grave's inhabitants! The Woodlands plans twilight gardening workdays throughout the season as a way for people to share plant material and get to know their fellow Grave Gardeners.
How do you become a Grave Gardener?
We accept applications for each season beginning in January. While we try to include as many gardeners as possible, we have to limit the program somewhat in order to keep it manageable for our small staff and accommodate the group during the initial workshops. We love what a passionate response this program generates and we try to include as many people as we can.
Which plants are Victorian and where do you get them?
Gardening in cradle graves is essentially container gardening. Our planting list, crafted and curated by an heirloom plant expert, includes varietals that would have been common in this area in the Victorian-era and is full of perennials, annuals, roses, bulbs and ferns. The list is a guideline, though using period-appropriate, heirloom flowers and plants is fundamental to the program. These varieties tend to be more fragrant than contemporary varieties and also naturalize readily.
We try to provide our gardeners with all of the soil, plants, seeds and bulbs they need to keep their gardens full and beautiful all season long. We do an initial seed order each season from a variety of heirloom seed suppliers. Seeds are distributed to gardeners at work days, and we keep some to start in our greenhouse space as well. A big load of mushroom compost and topsoil from our partner Laurel Valley soils is delivered, and we provide gardeners with plugs from our partners at North Creek Nursery who specialize in native regional plants.
So, what’s the biggest no-no when planting an authentic Victorian garden? No variegated leaves. Really—they weren’t around back then!
“Putting love into someone else’s grave can spiritually connect you to those you have lost in your life”
—Jessica Baumert, Executive Director of The Woodlands
Who runs the Grave Gardeners program?
Currently, the program is coordinated and managed by the staff of The Woodlands. Since we’ve had such a positive response to the program—with over 150 participants this year—we hope to grow our capacity so that we can continue to grow the program. It costs The Woodlands approximately $15,000 annually to purchase supplies and manage the program.
How can I get involved?
APPLY: We accept applications for new Grave Gardeners each January. To stay tuned on Grave Garden updates and to be the first to know when we re-open the application process, please consider subscribing to The Woodlands mailing list.
DONATE: We try to provide all of the plant material, tools and assistance our gardeners need for the program and we rely on donations to do so. Donations to the Grave Gardeners go directly towards purchasing plant materials and covering program costs and are greatly appreciated! TO DONATE, CLICK ON THE LINK BELOW.