Through the stone gates of Woodlands Cemetery, a tranquil, verdant oasis thrives in the heart of University City. The Victorian necropolis, the last undeveloped parcel of the estate of botanist and plant collector William Hamilton, was preserved and a repurposed as a rural cemetery in 1840 as the city and University of Pennsylvania pushed westward. Today, The Woodlands is flourishing with the aid of creative placemaking and inventive programming.
The Grave Gardeners program is the most recent brainchild of Woodlands’ executive director Jessica Baumert and her staff. The cemetery is home to hundreds of “cradle graves,” tombs with both headstones and footstones connected by two low walls that create a bathtub-like basin. In the 1800s, family members of the deceased filled the French-style “cradles” with living, blooming coverlets of flowers. Cultivating these gardens on weekend outings to sylvan cemetery grounds like The Woodlands was a way of keeping a loved one’s memory alive. As descendants scattered and their memories of connections to Victorian ancestors faded, the gardens died out. The Woodlands’ Adopt-a-Grave program enlists the help of volunteers to revive these now scruffy patches of dirt and grass, one grave at a time.
When Baumert and staff initially sent out the request for volunteer gardeners in 2016 they figured only a handful of applicants would respond. Instead, interest overflowed and applicants had to be turned away. The Grave Gardeners program now has 150 gardeners caring for more than 100 graves. They also have their own website, tote bags, and an official slogan: “From Eternal Rest, to Garden Best.”
Volunteers receive a list of plants that would have been cultivated in Victorian times. “No variegated leaves,” says Baumert, citing one horticultural anachronism. Not that the list seems restrictive. A pair of workshops on gardening techniques and plant selection at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society introduce new gardeners to a delightful realm of planting possibilities true to Victorian tastes. A third workshop, hosted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, guides volunteers on researching their graves’ “inhabitants.” The Woodlands also provides catalogues, bulbs, and other plant materials to help get the gardens started. The rest is left to each gardener’s or gardening team’s sensibility, imagination, and aesthetic.
When volunteers adopt a grave, they are getting much more than a garden plot. They adopt a person as well. Many Grave Gardeners are inspired by the details they learn about those buried at their designated plot. They choose plants that reflect the deceased’s professions or flowers that might have appealed to their tastes. When Greta Greenberger and Maureen Cook discovered that their grave’s tenant was a successful wine merchant, they developed a wine-colored palette for their garden. When Molly Dixon learned that one of the men buried in the Helmbold family plot had made a fortune from his patented nutmeg grinder, she decided to grow a money plant as sly allusion to his riches.
The Grave Gardeners behave a little like landscapers hired by a homeowner. The only difference is their client is dead. More than a century may separate the gardeners and their graves’ inhabitants, but the volunteers come to feel responsible for their “person,” often calling them by their first names and regarding them as friends. That relationship prevents what Emma Max, programs and operations coordinator of The Woodlands, calls “community garden fatigue.” August heat and drought don’t dissuade the gardeners, because, says Max, “there’s this obligation you feel to your person.”
Some gardeners are motivated by other factors. “It’s competitive,” says Greta Greenberger, who loves strolling the Woodlands to check out what the other gardeners are doing. “Everyone wants theirs to be the best.”
The following five graves and their gardeners show the range of sensibilities, and the vibrant, colorful, aromatic dialogue the Grave Gardeners program has generated between the past and the present, between the living and the dead.
Amy Lambert: A Link in the Chain
Amy Lambert signed up as a Grave Gardener because she “wanted to get her hands in the soil again.” But when she saw the grave she had been assigned to, she felt a “ping of sadness.” Elizabeth Haseltine, whose grave is simply marked “Mother,” died at age 50, the same age Lambert is now.
To find out more, Lambert, an architect and historic preservationist, turned to available records on Elizabeth’s husband, Charles. “To learn about women in the 19th century, you have to research their husbands,” Lambert says. Charles, she discovered, was an international art dealer who traveled around the world and was remembered in his obituary as “an irrepressible lover of puns.” Lambert imagines that Elizabeth often traveled with him. She died in the resort town of Coronado Beach, California of acute laryngitis in 1891. “If she tagged along with such an interesting man, hopefully, she had a good time too,” says Lambert.
To celebrate this imagined sense of fun, Lambert envisioned a colorful garden. The native Texan was excited by the prospect of seeing flowers still blooming in August. When I spoke to her last month, she was enjoying the surprise of watching the flowers planted by last year’s gardener begin to bloom. Lambert paired the previous gardeners’ purple-hued violets, geraniums, and pincushions with pink and gold snapdragons, sweet peas, and copper tinged ferns.
For Lambert, gardening at The Woodlands makes her feel connected to Philadelphia’s rich botanical history. Her little grave garden is “a link in the chain” to the Bartrams, John Logan, and William Hamilton himself.
Angelina Jones and Kevin Wohlgemuth: Family Bed
“We’re keen on the Keens,” says Kevin Wohlgemuth as he jokes about the family plot that he, his wife, Angelina Jones, and two other Grave Gardeners care for. Team Keen, as they call themselves, share watering duties, text photos to each other, and crack puns throughout the gardening season. Wohlgemuth, a historic preservationist, and Jones, a landscape architect, both interned at the Woodlands as graduate students at Penn. For them, being a Grave Gardeners lets them contribute to a place that holds both personal and historic resonance. “Working here and being here has given so much to us,” says Wohlgemuth. “We wanted to give something back.” Jones especially loves that they are helping restore an historic, cultural landscape. “Not many people realize these graves were meant to be planted,” she says.
The cradle graves they were assigned to are two broad, double beds connected together, each holding a married couple. William W. Keen and his wife Susan lie next to William’s mother and father. At their feet, in one of the most heartbreaking graves in The Woodlands, lie five of Susan and William’s children. Narrow entablatures name each of them, along with the dates of their births and their deaths. Two died within a week of each other. Only one lived to be as old as nine. All of them died before 1840, which means their remains were disinterred and reburied at their parents’ and grandparents’ feet.
The Keens did have three surviving sons, say Wohlgemuth and Jones, one of whom became a prominent physician. All are buried in the Keen plot. The family patriarch, William W. Keen, Sr., a currier and leather merchant by trade, was also an amateur floriculturist who built a large glass conservatory alongside his Chestnut Street mansion in West Philadelphia.
Following the family’s floral precedent, Jones is enjoying experimenting with growing flowers for the Keens. She developed a color scheme that changes with the seasons–hot yellows and reds in spring transition to cool blues and violet blooms with silver leaves throughout the summer. She originally planned their side-by-side plots to be symmetrical reflections of each other. Nature dictated otherwise, and the plants migrating according to how water flows through the site. “It’s now sort of an impressionistic mirror,” Jones says, all of which fits with her favored approach to design–improvising along with nature’s inevitable surprises, rather than imposing a well-ordered plan.
Molly Dixon: The Expansionist
“I’m a gardener, but I had never used Victorian plant materials before,” says Molly Dixon. Dixon, 35, first discovered the Woodlands when she came to Philadelphia to study veterinary medicine at Penn. Her husband was in the Public History program at La Salle University and interned at the Woodlands. She was first drawn to Hannah Helmbold’s grave because of its prime location. The Hamilton Mansion forms a picturesque backdrop to the Helmbold family plot, which Dixon shares with another Grave Gardener.
She soon discovered other affinities. Hannah Helmbold died exactly 100 years before Dixon was born. Her footstone identifies her as “Grandma.” Dixon found that particularly endearing because her own grandmother taught her how to garden.
Research into the Helmbold family has given Dixon “a new appreciation for history,” she says. As Dixon learned about Hannah, who died at 98, she couldn’t help but to investigate the inhabitants of the family graves surrounding her. She started a garden for Hannah’s granddaughter Harriet, who died of TB at 19, choosing a bold palette of blues and purples, salvia, blue mist, and earlier in the spring, beautiful blue hyacinths–colors Dixon would have chosen herself as a 19-year-old. When she discovered Hannah’s grandson invented the Boss nutmeg grater and made a fortune on the patent, Dixon honored his grave with a money plant.
In her research, Dixon discovered that family plots were often cultivated as gardens themselves, with the cradle graves functioning as raised, rectangular accents within a lushly planted landscape. Taking this historic precedence as permission, she inserted a rosebush in between the Helmbold headstones, colonized a small strip of soil at the family plot boundary low boundary to propagate cuttings, and transplanted scarlet bursts of bee balm behind Hannah’s grave so visitors exiting the Hamilton mansion are treated to the garden’s delights.
Greta Greenberger and Maureen Cook: The Wine Merchant
“I love history and I love gardens,” says Maureen Cook, about what enticed her to apply for the Grave Gardeners program. The Havertown resident knew The Woodlands well. As a nurse manager at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center next door, Cook, 66, often enjoyed lunch hour walks along the cemetery’s shady paths. Cook retired in December and knew she wanted a gardening partner. The Woodlands paired her with Greta Greenberger, 70, who had also recently retired after 25 years leading tours of City Hall, a program she initiated. Greenberger also had close connections with The Woodlands. She had once served as president of the University City Historical Society, which had stewarded Hamilton’s historic mansion in the 1990s.
The two women didn’t know each other before being paired as Grave Gardeners. They quickly bonded over planning and planting the grave of Andrew C. Craig, an Irishman who ran a successful wine and liquor import business in Philadelphia. His profession inspired the two women to create a garden filled entirely with wine-colored hues, from garnet pinot noir to pale yellow Riesling. Craig’s grave features fat burgundy shamrocks, a nod to his Irish birth and lifelong involvement in the Hibernian Society, and chardonnay-toned heuchera leaves. To enhance the theme, they added a melted glass wine bottle, which makes an intriguing centerpiece to the elegant, polished granite grave.
Stephanie Slate: Hands-on
“I always joke that I was born in the wrong century,” says Stephanie Slate. The 30-year-old photographer mixes her own processing chemicals and makes her own paper to handprint photographs of trees and wild landscapes that look like ghostly messages from the past. “I’m a hands-on, tactile person. I’m anti-digital,” proclaims Slate. “I really have an affinity for processes where you use your hands.”
Her hands-on passion extends to gardening. She and her husband grow most of their own fruits and vegetables in their Southwest Philadelphia backyard. Before she signed on as a Grave Gardener this past winter, Slate had no experience growing flowers. Excited to experiment in an unfamiliar medium, she originally envisioned her garden as a Gothic fantasy. “I wanted an all-black garden,” she says, and hunted for flowers on the darkest end of the spectrum.
Then Slate learned that her grave’s occupant, Elisha Warren, was also a papermaker. She modified her plan to include interesting textures and colors. The photographer’s garden is still developing. Slate hopes to find plants that might have been used in the papermaking process in the 19th century to adorn Warren’s grave.