Blooms Among the Tombs: Native Plant Demonstration Garden in Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery


I have always enjoyed cemeteries, but especially ones with age and history. Often carefully laid out and tended, cemeteries can include a sense of art, architecture, order and peace. I grew up visiting cemeteries in the North East, where cemeteries are often right in the middle of small towns and cities and used as public open spaces. During my high school years in a small town on the outskirts of Boston, the town cemetery was directly across the street from my house. The historic, green, landscaped space was where we teenagers walked, ran, ate lunch, studied – sometimes even walked hand-in-hand by moonlight along the storied paths. Photo: Signs of life in the Historic City Cemetery Native Plant Demonstration Garden: a bird preens himself on a headstone. Wildflowers get ready to bloom below, California lilac (Ceanothus) and deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) fill out behind.

Many old cemeteries, both large and small across the country, are beautiful gardens in their own right. Some are peppered with the individual personality of the many individuals tending each plot, others have a grander and more overall theme or feel to their plantings and maintenance. Further, many historic cemeteries are also well-known repositories and sources of plant species or varieties once thought to be lost to cultivation. Even more than most gardens, cemeteries embrace the interwoven and inter-dependent nature of life and death. Photo: A mature, formal allee of ‘Ray Hartman’ Ceanothus line the center of the Sac Valley Chapter of the CNPS Native Plant Demonstration Garden in the Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery.

Northern California is home to many a good historic cemetery, in city centers and side lanes around our region. I always enjoy the display of summer canna lilies in bloom as I drive by the cemetery near Live Oak, California; just as I enjoy the historic apple trees outlining the edges of a small cemetery near the old Camden House & Orchards of Whiskeytown. Each evokes its own personality, time and place. Photo: A small rural cemetery near Whiskeytown is lined with historic apple trees.

One of the best known historic cemeteries of our region might well be the Historic City Cemetery in downtown Sacramento. Having begun life as a 10-acre “Public Graveyard” as designated by Captain John Sutter in 1849, the cemetery now comprises 28 total acres with over 25,000 burial plots – many dating back to the pioneering era. Having suffered years of neglect and vandalism, the cemetery was taken firmly in hand by the Old City Cemetery Committee, Inc. in 1986, which undertook restoration efforts, including an adopt-a-plot program to improve the consistency of care and maintenance. Currently, the Historic City Cemetery also includes three major dedicated garden areas: an Historic Rose Garden, the Hamilton Square Perennial Garden, and a Native Plant Demonstration Garden, tended by the Sacramento Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. Photo: Ribes sanguineum in a blooming arch over an historic headstone.

The Native Plant Demonstration Garden was originally proposed to the Sac Valley Chapter of the CNPS by a member named Eva Butler in the fall of 1996. “Who wants to help start a native plant garden in the cemetery?” She put out to the member meeting. It happened to be one of the first meetings that a young Landscape Architect, Cassandra Nguyen Musto, ever attended and she thought: “heck why not. Sounds fun.” Photo: Cassandra Nguyen Musto, co-coordinator of “plots and schemes” in the CNPS Native Plant Demonstration Garden in Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery.

Cassandra, co-coordinator with her “partner in plots and schemes” (pun intended, good quirky humor noted), Sabrina Okamura-Johnson, has been having fun in this garden ever-expanding Native Plant Demonstration Garden on-and-off, ever since. While the garden started with the planting and tending of just 10 plots when the group kicked the garden off with a wildflower seeding in the spring of 1997, it now extends to over 100 plots, is close to an acre in size, and boasts more than 100 different species, including trees, shrubs, grasses, succulents, bulbs, medicinals and annuals. Photo: A strongly architectural Manzanita lights up its plot with early spring blooms, attracting visiting people and pollinators.

The Native Plant Demonstration Garden is tended by a group of volunteers working with Cassandra and Sabrina. Brigette Dinaberg, Renate Sperlich, Dana Nolan, Paul Townsend, Meaghan Donavon, Barbee Bird generally come to the garden for work sessions once a week on Sundays, or as they are able, weeding, starting seedlings, pruning, planting. The city did install both rotor irrigation heads throughout the area as well as hose bibs and the plants “either get hit by the sprinklers, get noticed by a gardener and hand watered, or they fend for themselves – which is largely the case,” Cassandra told me as we walked the pathways recently.

Cassandra trained at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and it was during a native plant botany class there that she got hooked on native plants. It was also in training that she fine tuned her sense of design and one of the goals she is working towards in the Native Plant Demo Garden currently is to keep working on a stronger sense of overall design. The foundation for an overall design-sense is beautifully executed by a long allee of now fairly mature ‘Ray Hartman’ Ceanothus, which were planted out along the strongest central pathway through the garden in 2001. “They were just skinny little 6 foot whips, when they went in,” she says smiling, but are now filled out and looking just as she had imagined as a sheltering tunnel of structure, protection, foliage and bloom leading you through the heart of the garden. Photo: Top: A small headstone with vase for floral offerings, and the edible spring green, miner’s lettuce, behind. Bottom: Miner’s lettuce coming into bloom. Photo Courtesy of Cassandra Musto.

A sense of purposeful design continues with different themed plots throughout the garden based on exposure, access to water and sometimes even the stories behind the headstones, which range from quite recent to the beginning of the cemetery’s history. Look out for the shade gardens, the habitat-row of Berberis nevinii, the newly planted “coastal” succulent garden around Etta Cook’s headstone and another newly planted desert garden area.

Another of Cassandra’s and Sabrina’s goals for the garden is to welcome the public into the space even more frequently – to really put it to use as an educational, demonstration and gathering garden for chapter members and the general public. “For a long time, we felt like it was still too young. It was not really ready for too much public scrutiny. But now we think it’s ready – we’re proud of it.” And they should be – the garden is mature, diverse and fun. Signs label a good portion of the plants as well as provide cultivation, cultural or ecological information to readers/visitors.

Increased public outreach in the garden really got started in 2011, and continues in 2012, starting with Cassandra’s March 11th tour “Blooms Among the Tombs” on which you are likely to see a bursting of color, and attendant fragrance as well as pollinating bees, butterflies and birds, throughout the garden’s Salvia, Berberis, Ceanothus, Manzanita and Fremontedendron collections, and spring wildflowers including tidy-tips, clarkia and chinese houses. A whole new coterie of blooms will come on with summer. It’s worth a visit.

March 11, 10 am – 11:30 am. California Native Plant Demonstration Garden in the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery, 1000 Broadway. Join Cassandra Nguyen Musto, local landscape architect and garden guide, for a pre-spring stroll through this unlikely locale of beauty and life. The hot pinks of western redbud and bright blues of California wild lilac will invigorate your Sunday morning, and numerous wildflowers like poppies and lupines will charm you as they peek out from behind ornately carved headstones that date back to the mid-1800’s. Catch our early California bloomers before they are gone! This event is free. Meet at the information kiosk within the cemetery entry at Broadway and 10th Street. Parking located across the street from the 10th Street entry gate. For more information: (916) 374-8116 or cnpsgarden@gmail.com. Photo: Redbud opening into vibrant purple and pink, sweet edible blossoms above, the deep blue of early Ceanothus coming into bloom below.

Upcoming events in the Sacramento Valley Chapter of the CNPS Native Plant Demonstration Garden in the Historic City Cemetery, include:

Sat Mar 31 – Gardens Gone Native, 2nd Annual Sac Valley – CNPS Native Garden Tour
Sat Apr 21 – Open Garden Day at Historic City Cemetery, special guest,
Alicia Funk of Living Wild.
Sun May 20 – Elixirs, Potions, and Other Notions – a guided walk
showcasing native plants for the healing garden, guide TBD
Sun Jun 24 – Pollination Sensation – a celebration of National
Pollinator Week, several special guests TBA. Photo: Multi-generational family enjoy the Native Plant Demonstration Garden on Day of the Dead, 2011. Photo Courtesy of Cassandra Musto.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. It is made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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