Landscape Management

June 1, 2017

Mount Auburn Cemetery includes 175 acres of rolling hills and dells, 3 ponds and one vernal pool, and a nationally-significant horticultural collection of 5,000 trees (640 different species and cultivars), over 6,000 shrub plantings (600 taxa), and 4,000 groundcover plantings (770 taxa).  As America’s first large-scale designed landscape open to the public in North America, it also a landscape of extreme historic significance that reflects nearly 200 years of changing ideas about horticulture and landscape design. Our current landscape management plan has been shaped by our need to protect this historic landscape while utilizing environmentally sensitive practices. From its efforts to become a “zero waste” landscape to its ongoing work of replacing high-maintenance plants with lower-maintenance and drought-resistant options, Mount Auburn has become a leader among public gardens for its innovative and environmentally-responsible practices.

>  “Zero Waste”
>  Alternatives to Turf
>  Xeriscape Gardening
>  Tree Care


Mount Auburn has implemented a sustainable grounds maintenance plan with a goal of being a “zero waste” institution.  While this may not be achievable in the short term, we have both reduced the amount of materials that we must haul off-site for disposal as well as the number of materials we must purchase for the ongoing care of our grounds.  Some of our routine practices include:

Mulching turf and leaves – The Cemetery mulches grass and leaves in place on approximately 75% of the grounds. Mulching this material and leaving it to break-down in-place returns organic material to the ground in a natural way. Since the Cemetery began this practice nearly two decades ago, there has been a noticeable improvement in the health of our soil.

Composting grounds waste – The leaves that are collected from the grounds are mixed with “green” waste (grass, plant, and shrub clippings and old floral tributes) and “brown” waste (stump grindings, small branches, salt marsh hay) to produce compost. This compost is in turn used to create a biologically rich potting mix at our greenhouse, for grass seed germination, as a top-dressing on turf areas, and as an amendment in ornamental planting beds throughout the the grounds.

Mulch creation Aged leaves and woodchips (resulting from routine tree care) are ground to create mulch. The Cemetery is able to produce approximately 400 cubic yards of its own mulch each year. The mulch is spread in planting beds and beneath trees to improve the soil’s capacity to retain water while also helping to suppress weeds.

The graphic below represents a typical year at Mount Auburn.  Collected materials–wood chips, fill, leaves, green wate, and brown wate–are used to producethe material that returns to the landscape as part of our ongoing care of the landscape–loam, compost, and mulch. The few materials that we cannot reuse on site are hauled off site to be recycled or transformed elsewhere.


Grass is a finicky player in the landscape.  Mature trees, with complex root systems below ground and dense canopies (creating shade) above, are able to out-compete grass for water, nutrients, and sunlight.  The physical structure of a tree can also obstruct the air circulation needed by turf.  Grass requires large amounts of water and fertilizer to establish as well, two things Mount Auburn uses sparingly in its current landscape management plan. From an aesthetic perspective, grass becomes unsightly in periods of drought as it goes dormant and browns from lack of water, and from a maintenance perspective, average to above-average rain fall causes rapid growth which in turn requires more frequent mowing.  An additional concern for the Cemetery is the risk of damage to the Cemetery’s collection of monuments, which are prone to damage from the the debris projected by mowers or the string trimmers, which are used to touch-up around the bases of the monuments following mowing.

Mount Auburn has been working to reduce turf in carefully-selected areas of the Cemetery to alleviate aesthetic, preservation, and maintenance concerns. Well-chosen turf alternatives can relieve much of the maintenance burden while adding beauty to the landscape. In some cases, especially under some of the most dense canopies, turf has been traded for mulch but, more often the Cemetery has replaced grass with ground cover plantings that add horticultural interest and enhance the surrounding landscape character.  Groundcovers such as Pachysandra and Lamiastrum are common alternatives that cover bare areas and suppress weeds effectively in dry shade once established.  Ornamental grasses like Carex pensylvanica and Carex appalachica are good choices as well.

The Cemetery is currently working on an ambitious project to convert a number of family lots enclosed with either iron fences or granite curbs from turf to sustainable ground cover plantings. Removing turf from these enclosed lots reduces our mower requirements while also dramatically reducing the possibility of damage to these historic lots and the fragile monuments that they contain.  Plantings chosen for both their historic associations and their resistance to drought and pests will allow us to add to the aesthetic beauty of an area while also fulfilling our goals of creating a lower-maintenance landscape.

View of Perkins family lot in May 2016 (left) and in September 2017 (right). During the summer of 2016, the Cemetery replaced failing turf in several family lots located between Central and Beech avenues with appropriate ground covers, shrubs, and herbaceous perennials. Learn more about this project here >>>


Xeriscaping is a form of gardening is common to arid and semi-arid regions. With the goal of conserving water and creating low-maintenance gardens, xeiscaping relies heavily on the use of drought-tolerant plants, much, and water-wise irrigation.  Herbaceous perennials often associated with zeriscape gardens include: AchilleaPerovskiaSedumAgastacheNepeta, and Gaura. Ornamental grasses include: SchizachyriumMiscanthusPennisetum, and Calamagrostis.


Mount Auburn’s collection of 5,000 trees represents 640 different species and cultivars. Our collection includes trees native to New England as well as ornamental species indigenous to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Some trees, like a few dozen oaks, have stood on this land since before the Cemetery’s founding in 1831, while others have been planted only this year.  Maintaining a collection this diverse requires constant care. The Cemetery’s horticultural staff includes 3 certified arborists, who monitor our trees for health, routinely prune limbs to increase resistance to wind and heavy snows, and when necessary, remove failing trees before they fall and do damage to nearby monuments or cause any personal harm.

Learn more about Mount Auburn’s institution-wide commitment to

One Comment

  1. Phil Moser says:

    I love the landscape at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, particularly the biodiversity and many native plantings. I’m on the Conservation Commission in a nearby municipatity and working with our Cemetery Commission to try to improve the vegetation along 1.6 miles of riverfront to improve ecosystem health and aesthetics. I’d be interested to learn how you’ve been so successful at Mt. Auburn – do you have landscape architects on staff, do you hire them on a consulting basis for specific projects, etc.

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