Pristine landscaping covers the 355 acres of Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. On a day where caretakers dutifully trim the grass and care for the about 200,000 headstones marking the final resting place of veterans and their families, three plant specialists with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) begin work in the southeast portion of the cemetery.
They are returning a hilly slope overlooking the Mississippi River to its native landscape with native warm-season grasses. In stark contrast to the recently laid turf just inches from the edge of the slope, the native grasses will provide functionality while also restoring a small plot of land to its native species.
Wayne King, national cemetery agronomist at Jefferson Barracks, turned to NRCS for help. “The area that we had was too steep to mow and made perfect sense to use as an area for native warm-season grass,” King said. “We needed something low-growing and low-maintenance that would help prevent erosion while allowing visitors to view the Mississippi River without obstruction.”
Native plants are adapted to their local surroundings, meaning they’re accustomed to the amount of precipitation as well as the resident pests. They know their soil types and have mastered surviving and thriving, which makes them a reliable addition to your land.
NRCS’ Plant Materials Center in Elsberry, Missouri helped the cemetery. The Plant Materials Center, located 65 miles northwest of Jefferson Barracks, is a 226-acre area where staff members develop plants and new planting technologies for Illinois, Iowa and Missouri.
Using a mixture of little bluestem, tall dropseed, sideoats grama, Virginia wild rye and a small portion of switchgrass, cordsiemon, the PMC’s staff drilled and broadcast the seed mixture into the hillside.
“Years of research and testing have taught us which native species will grow best in certain areas of the region,” said Ron Cordsiemon, who manages the Plant Materials Center. “When I got the call from Wayne, we talked about what he wanted from the area, and we were able to determine the best native grass mixture for this plot.”
Established as a national cemetery in 1866, Jefferson Barracks is one of the oldest internment sites in the national cemetery system and serves as burial place to soldiers from all wars. The cemetery is one of only a handful of the 131 national cemeteries to use native warm-season grasses for solid cover in an area.
“This has been an outstanding venture for the PMC and National Cemetery,” Cordsiemon said. “We’re able to use the area for demonstration planting and the cemetery benefits from the selected mixture.”
Despite the steep incline, the Plant Materials Center staff members were able to drill seed, making several passes to ensure a thick growth of grass.
King, who provides direction for plant materials at 27 national cemeteries in the Midwest region ranging from one as small as one-third of an acre to his largest cemetery, Jefferson Barracks, is pleased with the progress.
Cemetery staff will maintain the grassy area on a bi-annual basis, ensuring that the grass remains between two-to-three feet tall.
“I’m thankful that we had the opportunity to provide assistance at such a nationally recognized and historic site,” Cordsiemon said. “The experience was rewarding and very memorable.”