Planting for the Next Generation: Ravine Cemetery restoration underway

Candy Sirakonda

The state-winning sassafras tree

The one-year anniversary of my father’s passing was fast-approaching. My thoughts frequently turned to memories of him and ways that I could preserve those memories. I contemplated how others might be doing the same with thoughts of their loved ones.

I serve as Chair of the city of Sylvania’s Tree Commission. Pat O’Brien, the Superintendent of Parks and Forestry, approached our commission with an idea for a restoration project. The city owns historic Ravine Cemetery, with stunning landscape vistas, gorgeous native trees and a beautiful ravine running through the center of the cemetery. The forestry office had stopped mowing the ravine several years ago, allowing the native seedbank to grow. Once again native plants and trees were beginning to flourish in the ravine, growing from seed that had been dormant in the soil for decades. O’Brien wondered if our commission might take on the task of further restoring the ravine, adding more native plants to the ravine site.

Admittedly, I am a bit uncomfortable in a cemetery. I grew up thinking cemeteries were the stuff of zombie movies. But, fellow Tree Commissioner Judi Young said, “You know, we used to have picnics in the cemetery. That once was the place where everybody went to enjoy being outside and being together.” Indeed, in the early 1800s, cities in America were in need of burial grounds as church grounds had run out of space and city land was becoming increasingly expensive. A group of horticulturists in Cambridge, MA came up with the idea to create a rural cemetery, and in 1831 designed the first modern cemetery. These early garden cemeteries were our nation’s first parks. They were designed with spectacular vistas, winding roads, wide-open spaces and Victorian gardens. Often, they were the only green space near town, and as towns spread out, these cemeteries slowly became part of the city-center again. Eventually, the concept of city parks began to slowly replace cemeteries as public gathering green spaces. But now that concept is once again changing, as a new movement has begun to bring cemeteries back to a park-like atmosphere.

Ravine Cemetery was established in 1883. The state of Ohio’s oldest living sassafras tree now resides there, having been spared from logging likely because of its location next to the ravine. This gorgeous 300-year old tree sits on the edge of the ravine, many of its offspring now growing on the cemetery grounds. The cemetery, and others like it, have some of the best and oldest specimens of various tree species throughout the city, rivalling specimens found on local nature preserves and parks. By making the decision to further restore the ravine and its surrounding urban forest, the city would reap many benefits. The native plants would filter runoff entering the stream at the bottom of the ravine; city personnel would no longer have to mow the steep slope; the city would save on mowing costs; the ravine site would serve as habitat for wildlife; and the restored grounds would provide a peaceful and inviting atmosphere for visitors.

Our Tree Commission team is made up of several members from Wild Ones—Native Plants, Natural Landscapes, and we quickly developed a plan for restoring the ravine with Ohio genotype native plants. Tree Commissioners collected native seed, grew plugs, and divided existing native plants on our private properties in preparation for a large planting event in the ravine. We then set a date, invited additional Wild Ones volunteers to help, and spent an autumn morning installing several hundred native wildflowers throughout the ravine. Species included common milkweed, swamp milkweed, dense blazing star, great blue lobelia, woodland sunflower, Ohio spiderwort, spotted Joe Pye weed, cut-leaf coneflower, blue vervain, tall ironweed, nodding wild onion and more. We now carry out an annual planting event, and are working on methods to deter the local deer population from browsing on our plantings. We also annually remove Canada thistle and other invasive plants. We developed plans for education and outreach, installing pollinator signage and tree identification tags throughout the cemetery grounds, with the goal of ultimately certifying the cemetery as an arboretum. We certified the cemetery as a Monarch Waystation through Monarch Watch, thereby demonstrating our city’s commitment to help support the monarch butterfly population.

This fall, our Tree Commission team and fellow Wild Ones volunteers concentrated on removing invasive oriental bittersweet and bush honeysuckle in the area around our state-winning sassafras tree. Behind this tree, there are many young offspring of the tree. We chose the best, pruning and training them to grow into beautiful specimens. We removed those weaker and poorly-developed, giving the stronger sapling trees more room to grow and flourish. One day this beloved sasafras will no longer be with us, but its offspring will, as we nurture these young trees. As the saying goes, “One generation plants the trees, another gets the shade.”

We also installed several dozen more native wildflowers in the ravine, and fenced some of them off. We are conducting an experiment, and created two garden plots side- by-side. In one plot, we planted native wildflowers without any protection. In the adjacent plot, we fenced off the plot from deer and treated plantings with deer repellant. Our aim is to compare how the native plants survive in the next year or two, and that will give us a more scientific measure of how much browsing pressure the resident deer population is putting on our wildflowers. We suspect they have been eating a great many of our plantings, as we noted chewed leaves and disappearing populations of specific plant species. Where did our swamp milkweed go? We’ll find out who has been munching on it!


As we finished planting and gathered our equipment one late October day, I turned back to admire our work. The ravine was lit up in the sunny reds, yellows and oranges of fall. The warmth of the sun shone on my face.

I closed my eyes, thought of my dad, and immediately felt at peace.

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