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A Year of Sustainability

by Paul Kwiatkowski

Paul is a panelist at ELA’s Large-Scale Landscapes Symposium at Wellesley College on January 18th.

Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA, was consecrated in 1831. The resolve of its founders was to create a place of beauty for contemplation and commemoration. Over its 182 years, Mount Auburn has experienced transformations in the physical landscape due to the changing aesthetic taste of particular time periods, as well as the need for more interment space. It has also experienced transformations in its landscape maintenance practices.

During the 19th century, an army of gardeners provided the manpower to manage the landscape. By the late 20th century, the machines and inorganic chemicals that replaced the majority of workers reduced labor costs and made many maintenance tasks far more economical.

Planting beds and lawns at Mount Auburn Cemetery are maintained with long-term stewardship as a primary concern.

Planting beds and lawns at Mount Auburn Cemetery are maintained with long-term stewardship as a primary concern.

However, the advances in technology created an ease to disposal of what was considered “waste” that did not benefit Mount Auburn in the long term. Aside from the ever-rising cost of hauling material off site, the reduction of organic matter in the soil and the reliance on chemicals for plant nutrition combined to create an ecosystem in deficit of the very material that could sustain it through periods of either stress or vigor.

Planning Monthly Maintenance

To remedy the imbalance, a view toward long-term stewardship of the land was required. Thus, a plan to reduce and reuse waste was created. Following is a description of that plan’s implementation over a calendar year.

Every January, Mount Auburn’s arborculture and gardening staff begin tree pruning to improve future growth and health of the tree collection of our arboretum. The pruned limbs are chipped and held at our recycling center, to be used on pathways or ground up by a tub grinder with aged, collected leaves to create the mulch that is applied later in the year in the gardens of Mount Auburn. The greenhouse staff use compost, made the previous summer, to create potting mix for the annuals that will add color throughout the grounds in the coming spring and summer. The potting mix consists of two parts compost, two parts organic soilless mix, and one part coarse grade sand.

Bins for compost creation.

Separate bins contain the components for compost creation that takes place in January.

During February and March, the tree pruning continues and the greenhouses begin to fill with annual and perennial crops, all in our own potting mix. Plants are fed with Nature’s Source® liquid fertilizer, derived from soybean seeds, run through the irrigation lines. An organic Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program is followed at the greenhouse. Beneficial insects and organic or Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) listed treatments are employed to suppress any pest issues.

Creating a potting mix that meets the true demands of the plant material has benefited Mount Auburn in several ways. The amount of soilless mix purchased has been reduced by 60 percent. The soilless mix had been the sole component used when potting up plants. Irrigation and fertilizer requirements have also diminished due to the greater water holding capacity and the active biology of the compost. We no longer apply chemical-based time release fertilizers as well. March is also the time for the initial annual plantings. The gardens are top dressed with compost and are no longer tilled, preserving the diverse microbial populations that have been established. Cool season vegetable crops are started from organic seed.

March is an important period for wildlife conservation at Mount Auburn. Surveys are conducted at this time to determine population numbers of spotted salamanders that mate and lay eggs in a vernal pool on the grounds.

In April, new grass seed is started in topsoil created at Mount Auburn with screened fill and aged leaves to improve organic matter. The new turf areas are then top dressed with compost. Trees and shrubs are dug from our woody plant nursery and compost is added to the transplant locations. Warm season vegetable crops are started from organic seed.

May brings more annual garden planting, as well as planting of herbaceous perennials and groundcovers. The gardens are irrigated with rainwater captured from the greenhouse roof and collected in a 35,000 gallon cistern. The cut flower garden is planted to establish the material that will eventually create many dried flower tributes in the fall and winter. The gardens are all mulched in with the Mount Auburn mix of ground, aged leaves, and woodchips. Compost creation begins in mid-May, with feedstock consisting of ground’s waste. Wildlife conservation continues as American Toad tadpoles are introduced at the vernal pool and a lake on the grounds.

Mini farms create a living wall along a fence during the summer months..

Mini farms create a living wall along a fence during the summer months.

At the greenhouse, as part of our Sustainable Organic Stewardship program, a vegetable living wall and a small scale vegetable garden are planted in May to establish examples of micro-farming for Mount Auburn’s neighbors, who garden in small urban spaces. Handouts on composting, soil biology, and organic gardening are among many topics available to the public at our garden kiosk. A green community library also resides at the greenhouse, and anyone can withdraw a book for 30-day periods.

New bedding areas covered with opaque plastic in June are ready to plant the next May.

New bedding areas covered with opaque plastic in the summer are ready to plant the next May.

In June the tadpole releases are completed and monitoring begins for juveniles to determine the success of the introduction program which began in 2011. New garden sites that were covered under opaque plastic the previous fall are established after removing the plastic and the top several inches of earth, which is put into the interment fill pile to eliminate weed seed and anaerobic microbial organisms. Compost and top soil are added to the sites, and plantings based on the right plant for the right place are installed. Native plantings have increased in recent years to improve habitat and attract pollinators. Turf alternatives are also installed in June, and pots are always recycled for future use.

Landscape maintenance continues throughout July, August, and September. Turf is mulched in place in most areas, but is collected for nitrogen feedstock for compost in a smaller number of sites. A portion of the mower fleet has been converted from gasoline to propane to reduce pollution and gain power. Small shrub pruning is undertaken by the gardening staff and the waste also becomes compost feedstock. Vegetables are harvested and shared with the staff and groundcover propagation begins at the greenhouse for the future expansion of turf alternatives. The water quality in our ponds is sampled and emergent plant shelves are inspected to assess health and viability for habitat. Sites that will become new gardens the following year are covered with opaque plastic to kill off existing turf and weeds without the use of chemicals.

Leaves are either mulched in place or collected and added to the compost mix.

Leaves are either mulched in place or collected and held at the Mount Auburn recycling center for one year before being being used for mulch or a compost component.

Near the end of October, leaf pickup begins. In many areas, the leaves are mulched in place to improve organic matter. Approximately 1,200 yards of leaves are collected from other areas, and the leaves are held and turned periodically for one year at our recycling center. The leaves are then used to make mulch and as a carbon feedstock for compost. The finished compost made during the summer is screened and now available for top dressing and potting mixes. Also in October, the cut flower garden is harvested, and the flowers are hung to dry in a garage.

Seed heads are left standing to provide food for wildlife.

Seed heads are left standing to provide food for wildlife.

Fall cleanup continues through November. Herbaceous perennials are cut back, but many seed heads are left for a winter food source for wildlife. New perennial plantings are covered with salt marsh hay in December to provide winter protection. A tub grinder is rented in December, as well, to create the mulch mix of aged leaves and woodchips.

As the year draws to a close, we are able to determine successes and tasks to improve upon in the coming year. Mount Auburn has encouraged conservation and creative thinking about grounds maintenance. And, as we strive to become a zero-waste institution, green burials may become part of the future of Mount Auburn.

About the Author

Paul Kwiatkowski is a Conservationist and Assistant Greenhouse Manager at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA. He has worked on many restoration and habitat improvement projects over the past 14 years, and is currently working with a team of green professionals on a mini master plan to improve habitat at Mount Auburn over the next 10 years. Paul may be reached at