Turf Management & Alternatives

June 1, 2017

To meet typical “expectations,” many cemeteries rely on frequent mowing and the substantial use of irrigation, fertilization, and pesticides. Historically, this was also the case at Mount Auburn. During the past thirty years, however, the Cemetery has drastically reduced the environmental impact of its turf and landscape maintenance practices by modifying mowing cycles, addressing soil health, introducing low-maintenance turf alternatives, and investing in more sustainable equipment. And as part of our efforts to reach carbon neutrality by 2050, we have plans to make our turf care practices even more sustainable.and landscape maintenance practices to reduce their environmental impact.

“Greening” our Turf Care

In the 1990s, Mount Auburn started to reduce mowings in the oldest sections of the Cemetery to create a more “naturalistic” and historically appropriate appearance. The additional environmental benefits of this approach–reduced carbon emissions and improved animal habitat–have led Mount Auburn to reduce mowing frequency in other parts of the landscape. Over decades of experimentation, the Cemetery developed the mowing cycle it uses today. The most prominent locations and active burial areas receive weekly mowings. In contrast, more time passes between mowings in the older sections of the Cemetery.

Our staff use adapted rotary mowers to mulch leaves each fall.

Mulching leaves in place is another sustainable practice that started in the fall of 1998. Over time, leaf mulching has significantly reduced the person-hours required for annual clean-up while improving our soil’s organic matter and nutrients. And with improved soil health, we have since eliminated fertilizers on turf at Mount Auburn, except for a few prominent areas like our Entrance. We do still collect about 1,200 cubic yards of leaves from the grounds every fall (about 1-2% of what falls to the ground each year) for compost production.

Transitioning from gasoline-powered mowers to propane and electric ones is yet another ongoing initiative. Our current fleet consists of five gasoline mowers, five propane mowers, and one electric mower. Our electric “Mean Green” mower works well for mowing turf, but it cannot handle the mulching of leaves in the fall without overheating. As their electric counterparts improve, we will look to add more electric mowers to our fleet. But, for now, we will continue to replace all gasoline-powered mowers with propane ones on a cyclical replacement schedule. 

Introducing Grass Alternatives

Reducing the frequency of mowing and investing in sustainable mowers are two approaches to minimize our emissions. Replacing grass with low-maintenance alternatives that don’t need any mowing is another. 

In conjunction with less frequent mowings in its historic core, the Cemetery started replacing turf with various dwarf fescue seed mixes more than two decades ago.  Initially, the seed mixes proved to be successful at creating the right look and feel. Unfortunately, we found that weeds took hold before the fescues could get established. (Mount Auburn does not generally use broadleaf weed control, and hand-pulling weeds became too labor-intensive.) More recent experiments have included the use of fescue sod and other meadow-like plants such as Liriope spicataCarex pensylvanica, and Bouteloua gracilis. So far, these turf alternatives are showing great promise!

  • A sunny field of tall grasses. Due to the height of the grass, only the tops of monuments are visible.
  • A square family lot is enclosed by a granite wall approximately 1 foot in height.  The lot is covered with low green plants. Red and yellow leaves are on the ground and behind the lot a tall tree is covered in yellow leaves.
  • A family lot is surrounded by a 1-foot tall granite wall. A 4 foot high square column sits in the center of the lot. It is surrounded by a ground cover with dark green and maroon leaves.
  • A granite structure is built into the side of a small hill. The top of the hill is covered with a large-leafed green plant.
  • Granite steps lead into a family lot. A low groundcover with bright green leaves and small yellow flowers covers the ground. The lot also includes several plants with gray upright branches covered in small purple flowers.

Mount Auburn’s 640 burial lots enclosed in iron fencing and granite curbs or with underground tombs are an essential part of our historic fabric. Yet, they also present numerous safety and preservation challenges. Since 1993, the Cemetery has planted turf alternatives in 244 (38%) of these lots to address our maintenance concerns. Consequently, we have removed an estimated 75,000 square feet from our regular mowing cycle while improving horticultural diversity, visual interest, and wildlife habitat. This initiative will continue with plans to convert a few historic lots from turf to low-maintenance alternatives each year.

Below is a list of the ground cover species and varieties that have been most successful as alternatives to turf at Mount Auburn.

What’s Next?

Our landscape maintenance practices constantly evolve. While continuing to follow the turf care practices already in place, we also commit to the following goals as part of our Climate Action and Sustainability Plan:


Environmental Stewardship

at Mount Auburn

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