Cover Story: Gardens of stone

Designated as a military cemetery June 15, 1864, the more than 600-acre Arlington National Cemetery is maintained specifically to honor the servicemen and women buried there who served the United States. The second-most visited site in the Washington, D.C., area, Arlington sees its share of foot traffic – more than four million visitors annually. “To maintain our nation’s most sacred parcel of land is a challenge and an honor,” says Erik Dihle, division chief for grounds care, burial operations and ceremony support.

Several aspects of maintaining Arlington are contracted. However, Dihle and his in-house staff of professionals plan, direct and monitor all their projects. Kelly Wilson, cemetery horticulturalist, has been at Arlington for almost two years and was previously a gardener at the former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post in northwest D.C. Wilson’s job is to design, install and maintain the plantings throughout the property, including the administration building, Tourmobile entrance, John F. Kennedy gravesite, the Tomb of the Unknowns and numerous other intensely landscaped gardens throughout Arlington.

Take Wheaton Place for example, located below the Tomb of the Unknowns on Roosevelt Drive. The beds sat empty when Wilson arrived, and it was the first area she worked to improve. “Those beds rock in the spring,” Wilson says, smiling.

First impressions
“Everyone sees the administration building, so I plant annuals like Salvia argentea ‘Hobbits Foot’ for its heat tolerance and the versatility it provides in different plant combinations,” Wilson says. Spirea, false indigo and other sun-loving perennials round out the entrance with their color and seasonal interest. “Roses here are very susceptible to black spot because of the large amount of rainfall we’ve gotten lately, so I use them sparingly,” Wilson explains.

More than 30 burials a day means often the first time someone will visit Arlington is for a service. “Our mission is to provide a proper burial for those who have served our nation and to keep the grounds as beautiful as possible for them and their families,” Dihle says. Maintaining the grounds without disturbing families and visitors is a challenge, and there are many rules for the co-existence. For example, landscapers and other grounds caretakers will not cut through a funeral procession while it is driving through the cemetery. In addition, power equipment must be shut down within 1,000 feet of a burial ceremony.

Arlington’s agronomy
Ed Tucker has been the management agronomist at Arlington for 31/2 years and before that was with Tru Green Chem Lawn for 20 years. He has a challenging job, overseeing a turf maintenance contract of several million dollars a year, a chemical application contract for fertilizers and pesticides, and a sod contract that requires a warranty of six months.
“We have a fairly aggressive agronomic program here, including aeration, fertilization, preventive pesticide applications and mowing,” Tucker says.

One-hundred percent of the cemetery is aerated in the spring, and a pre-emergent is applied to one-third of the property, including the more visible areas. Nitrogen is applied to turfgrass in the summer and fall, and selective herbicide is applied in the spring and fall to control problem weeds such as bermudagrass, poa annua and crabgrass. Core aeration in the fall helps replenish nutrients in the soil and relieves compaction caused by the constant parade of visitors walking among the headstones. The high-visibility areas – about 22 acres – are mowed once a week. Specialty areas, including the columbariums, administration office, amphitheater, Kennedy gravesite and visitors’ center, are mowed twice a week.

In spite of a relatively drought-free 2008, most summers – and even well into fall – Tucker and his crews must work diligently to prevent the turf from burning up. “Irrigation is definitely a challenge here,” he explains. “It gets very hot in the summer, but we do irrigate about 20 acres – some in-ground and some above ground.”

Tucker says some of his ongoing projects include renovating 50 acres of turf each year by killing everything and reseeding, maintaining headstone alignment, and replacing about 17 acres of sod each year near new gravesites and areas being renovated.

“With as many contracts as we have, we get a lot of traffic and we educate people to stay off the turf when it is stressed and we try to stay on top of turf repair,” Tucker says. “We also hydroseed about 10 acres a year to prevent erosion and make repairs.”

A crew of 12 is dedicated to string trimming between each headstone, a process required five days a week and eight to 10 hours a day. Watching the trimmers, you can tell they have it down to a science as they move among the thousands of headstones and trees with ease, taking special care to avoid damaging them.

9,000 trees
“What’s amazing about Arlington is the number of large trees,” says Steve Van Hoven, the cemetery’s urban forester. Arlington supports 9,000 trees taller than 15 feet, including more than 200 different species. Oaks and maples make up more than 27 percent of the tree population, while pine, dogwood and cherry trees round out a mix that includes a Virginia state champion 100-year-old pin oak.

About 20 people are dedicated to tree care each day, and the trees are on a four-year pruning cycle. Van Hoven’s biggest challenges are the ongoing activity throughout the cemetery including damage from machinery, the last few years’ drought and water management. “You can’t water 9,000 trees on 640 acres,” Van Hoven says, whose horticulture background includes jobs at the Smithsonian and the American History Museum.

For approximately the last 10 years, 150 trees have been planted each year on the grounds, so there is a healthy mix of old and new trees on the property. Newly planted trees come with a one-year maintenance contract. Van Hoven’s workers employ air spading, aerial trenching and vertical mulching methods to counteract compaction. Mulch rings are also being installed around the younger trees.

If a tree is dead or dying, it will be removed, but trees are seldom taken out for a burial. Van Hoven tries to maintain a 1-for-1 replacement for every tree removed. “Stressed trees attract several pests, and we watch for that, but this year has been the wettest in recent years and we’re getting anthracnose on the dogwoods and white oaks,” he says.

One of the biggest projects for Van Hoven is pruning the Linden hedge that frames the Tomb of the Unknowns. It requires a laser for accuracy and three weeks of manpower to precisely shape the hedge so that it looks great for the rest of the year.

In 2001, a tree GPS system was installed at Arlington, and every tree and shrub is in the system. Each tree has an identification number that links it to a record. The GPS links to a computer database, allowing Van Hoven to track the maintenance history of each tree. He can then download that information to a portable pen-and-pad unit so he can make notes while out on the grounds.

Keeping it fresh
During the Civil War, soldiers’ widows decorated both Confederate and Union graves with wildflowers. During World War I poppies, signifying the blood of heroes, were used for decoration. At Arlington today visitors may only place fresh flowers at graves, except for the winter when artificial flowers are permitted.

“Often visitors will bring very personal items,” Dihle says. “While some of those items may not be permitted to lay at a gravesite, we will honor the friends and families of those buried here and leave the items for a period of time.”

Renewal and remembrance
More than 400 pitch in at largest ‘Renewal & Remembrance’

The Professional Landcare Network (PLANET), the national association of lawn care and landscape professionals, celebrated their 12th annual “Renewal & Remembrance” project at Arlington National and Historic Congressional cemeteries in July.

Twenty-seven states were represented as 430 individuals donated their time and equipment to mulch, cable trees with lightning protection, prune, aerate, and install an irrigation system. More than 100 trees and shrubs were removed to make way for landscape improvements at the Visitor’s Parking Garage. Sixty-five new trees were installed, 126 tons of lime was applied to 282 acres, more than 10 acres of turf were aerated, and 750 perennials were planted. To date, PLANET has contributed almost $2 million to the care of these historic landmarks.

The turnout for this year’s day of service was larger than in past years. “There are definitely companies in this industry that are feeling the crunch from a lack of workers, increased gasoline prices, and other economic pressures; however, this opportunity to give back to the many Americans who have served our country is too great for these companies to pass up,” says Tom Shotzbarger, a PLANET member and chairman of the event.

As the day of service has grown, more and more PLANET members bring their families as well as company employees. The event now includes special projects for children of PLANET members.

To participate in the 2009 Renewal and Remembrance, please visit

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