The Grave Gardeners Flower Show Journey

When we were asked by PHS in the early summer of 2018 to enter the Small Garden design competition of the 2019 Philadelphia Flower Show, we were not entirely sure what we were getting into, but knew that it was an opportunity we could not pass up. It wasn’t just that The Woodlands was being asked to enter the show, it was that PHS was interested in having the Woodlands Grave Gardeners enter the show.

With the realization that the Grave Gardeners would have the opportunity to be in the spotlight for the second time in one year (check them out in an April 2018 episode of CBS Sunday Morning), we knew we had to go big, and couldn’t do that without help. A dedicated group of Grave Gardeners started to get together months before the Flower Show to plan and execute our competitive entry. The theme of our design category is “Yin Yang”. Naturally, we decided to move forward under the guidance of our newly chosen exhibit title “Life From Death,” and create life size replicas of three Grave Gardens highlighting some of the notable horticulturalists buried here including Ann Bartram Carr, WM Henry Maule, and Henry Dreer.

The Grave Gardeners proceeded to learn the unique skill of creating hyper-realistic headstones out of pink foam with the aid of water, heat, and spunk. None of this would have been possible without the guidance of Doug Bailey, who has honed his foam headstone creative skills working on the installations for Eastern State Penitentiary’s Terror Behind The Walls. The process from there is better described through images, and you can follow along the Grave Gardeners journey to the Flower Show below. You’ll also find a guest entry by Toribird, who took the cemetery scene and our theme, “Life From Death” one step further by creating life size replicas of birds and positioning them in the exhibit hanging out, even snacking on bees.

Visit the Grave Gardeners exhibit in person in the “Small Gardens” section of the Design Gallery at the PHS Flower Show. The Flower Show will be running from Saturday, March 2nd through Sunday, March 10th. Learn more about the flower show here, and download a copy of the map to take with you!

And so it begins, Robin and Jessica purchase pink foam to create the hyper-realistic headstones you’ll see in the exhibit.

And so it begins, Robin and Jessica purchase pink foam to create the hyper-realistic headstones you’ll see in the exhibit.

Thanks to Doug, for sharing his unique experience with our Grave Gardeners, Greta Greenberger, Maureen Cook, May Sam, and Sue Gettlin. Woodlands Staff Natalie and Robin also learned this new skill.

Thanks to Doug, for sharing his unique experience with our Grave Gardeners, Greta Greenberger, Maureen Cook, May Sam, and Sue Gettlin. Woodlands Staff Natalie and Robin also learned this new skill.

The headstone “engraving” process begins. How did we do it, you ask?! Find out below as Grave Gardener Becca Flemer takes Henry Maule’s headstone to the next level.

The headstone “engraving” process begins. How did we do it, you ask?! Find out below as Grave Gardener Becca Flemer takes Henry Maule’s headstone to the next level.

Doug showing all the different techniques to carve and build text on the foam. To get raised letters, you apply concentrated heat over vinyl letters and all the foam around the vinyl melts down revealing crisp text.

Doug showing all the different techniques to carve and build text on the foam. To get raised letters, you apply concentrated heat over vinyl letters and all the foam around the vinyl melts down revealing crisp text.

Grave Gardeners Becca and Sue begin the “engraving” process on Henry Maule and Henry Dreer’s headstones.

Grave Gardeners Becca and Sue begin the “engraving” process on Henry Maule and Henry Dreer’s headstones.

BEFORE: Grave Gardener Emma Hollier shows us what life size pink foam headstones look like.

BEFORE: Grave Gardener Emma Hollier shows us what life size pink foam headstones look like.

AFTER: Woodlands Intern, Kathie Brill proves that monster mud and white paint go a long way in turning foam into headstones.

AFTER: Woodlands Intern, Kathie Brill proves that monster mud and white paint go a long way in turning foam into headstones.

At this point we have three brand spanking new looking headstones, which doesn’t fit in a Victorian cemetery scene, so the next step is aging the stones to look like 19th Century marble. Grave Gardeners Becca, Greta, and Rachel Eichelberger take on the challenge.

At this point we have three brand spanking new looking headstones, which doesn’t fit in a Victorian cemetery scene, so the next step is aging the stones to look like 19th Century marble. Grave Gardeners Becca, Greta, and Rachel Eichelberger take on the challenge.

Grave Gardener Peggy Daniel oversees the layout of the family lot in the dining room of the historic Hamilton Mansion.

Grave Gardener Peggy Daniel oversees the layout of the family lot in the dining room of the historic Hamilton Mansion.

Enjoy this time-lapsed video of the “headstone” aging process.

Maule is almost there!

Maule is almost there!

Man With A Van generously donated their services to help us get our platform, foam headstones, and supplies to the convention center! They are THE BEST. From this point on, explore the visual diary of our 2-day adventure in the convention center.

Man With A Van generously donated their services to help us get our platform, foam headstones, and supplies to the convention center! They are THE BEST. From this point on, explore the visual diary of our 2-day adventure in the convention center.

Here, Volunteer and Grave Gardener Joe Shapiro shows off the platform HE BUILT HIMSELF. Thank you, Joe!!

Here, Volunteer and Grave Gardener Joe Shapiro shows off the platform HE BUILT HIMSELF. Thank you, Joe!!

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A little cemetery humor!

A little cemetery humor!

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A HUGE thank you to our Grave Gardener volunteers for making this possible. Pictured above from left: Jessica Baumer (ED The Woodlands), Emma Hollier, Jackie McCrea, Becca Flemer, Greta Greenberger, and Rachel Eichelberger. Not pictured: so many Grave Gardeners.  THANK YOU!!!

A HUGE thank you to our Grave Gardener volunteers for making this possible. Pictured above from left: Jessica Baumer (ED The Woodlands), Emma Hollier, Jackie McCrea, Becca Flemer, Greta Greenberger, and Rachel Eichelberger. Not pictured: so many Grave Gardeners. THANK YOU!!!

Thank you so much to all the Grave Gardeners, volunteers and supporters who made our exhibition in the Flower Show possible. We hope you’ll visit our display, and wish us luck in the judging!


When you visit the Grave Garden scene at the Flower Show, you’ll notice that in addition to the trees and flowers, there are also a variety of birds present. We asked our resident birding expert, Toribird, to curate The Woodlands wildlife, and she blew us away. Read on to learn more about her personal Flower Show experience.

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“Hey, Toribird here. Last July, I was told that The Woodlands would be participating in the upcoming Philadelphia Flower Show, and that it might be nice to have a few model birds in it to emphasize the nature at The Woodlands. As The Woodlands own bird nerd, I was asked if I could make these models. Though not 100% sure what I was getting myself into, it sounded like a unique and fun opportunity, and I said that I'd be happy to. 

Of course, the first step was deciding what birds to make. The setting for our display would be The Woodlands in May, so I wanted to pick common, charismatic, birds for that scene. In the end, I had four species - three Palm Warblers, and one each of Northern Cardinal, House Finch, and Eastern Kingbird. My models started out as lumps of wet Model Magic, which I formed into life-size birds, sometimes needing to come up with very creative ways for them to dry so that they would not end up flat on one side!

Next, I drew the markings of the birds in pencil on the dry Model Magic. Those pencil markings would serve as a guide for painting the models - somewhat like following the outlines in a coloring book. When the birds had all been painted, I inserted pewter bird legs (the kind that woodcarvers often use). 

This all sounds relatively easy, and is not to say that I did not encounter problems. Sketching on all the patterns could be painstaking, but what really proved difficult was matching all the colors in the birds. (Never underestimate the number of shades of red in one male cardinal!) Despite these difficulties, I am happy with what I have created, and glad to be a part of The Woodlands latest adventure!”

Hamilton’s Trees Live On

In 1876 Eli K. Price, one of the founders of The Woodlands Cemetery Company, wrote in The Gardener’s Monthly:

“These trees will be cared for and preserved in the Woodlands. What is more important is, that they should be secured to our country by propagation. If seed should appear next Fall, they will be gathered. In the meantime grafting should be attempted. Mr. Sargent is trying it at Cambridge, on English elms. I invite gardeners to get cuttings and try their success.”

Carrying this ethos into the twenty first century, Executive Director Jessica Baumert reached out to Philadelphia’s tree experts in 2014 for help propagating some of the significant trees of The Woodlands as Dutch Elm Disease took hold in the Grove of Seven Giants. Tony Aiello of Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania  graciously offered their propagation facilities and this fall The Woodlands staff took a field trip to visit the resulting Caucasian Zelkova (Zelkova carpinifolia) and English Elm (Ulmus procera) saplings. In the expert hands of Morris propagators Shelley Dillard and Steve Pyne, cuttings taken in the summer of 2014 are now growing ready to be planted back at The Woodlands.

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While unassuming in appearance now, these toddler trees have formidable ancestors. English Elms and Caucasian Zelkovas have been part of The Woodlands landscape since William Hamilton’s time. More recently the English Elm grove of Seven Giants was one of the oldest remaining of its kind before succumbing to Dutch Elm disease in 2014 and 2016. It will be a challenge to reestablish an elm grove at The Woodlands because the disease is on the property, but for now the genetic material of the Grove of Seven Giants lives on.

Remaining four trunks of the Grove of Seven Giants. Photo taken by Ryan Collerd at the English Elm Memorial Service in March, 2017.

Remaining four trunks of the Grove of Seven Giants. Photo taken by Ryan Collerd at the English Elm Memorial Service in March, 2017.

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The Caucasian Zelkova near the Hamilton Mansion is perhaps The Woodlands most photogenic tree resident. Native to the Caucasus region of Eurasia, this species of zelkova was introduced to North America by William Hamilton. Visitors to Hamilton described a double row along the driveway between the Stable and Mansion. Can you imagine walking  through a tunnel of eight of our fairytale trees? By 1916 only one Hamilton’s planting was still living and by 1921 it was also dead. The Caucasian Zelkova lived on, however, in the form of root suckers of one of those original trees which grew into the specimen we see today.

Just as contemplating the lives of Hamilton’s era or the many people buried here can connect us to the community and history of this site, so can consideration of its trees. Our trees bear witness from the past with scars from injury or trunks leaning out of the shade of a neighbor tree no longer there. They also enrich the present by providing wildlife habitat, cooling shade, and cleaner air (not to mention beauty). And best of all, each year’s new growth reminds us of their resilience and durable presence.

Planting the next generation of English Elms and Caucasian Zelkovas in 2019 will coincide with The Woodlands’ pursuit of arboretum accreditation.  The accreditation process involves updating our tree database with recent additions and losses as well as formalizing our policies for caring for and building our collection of over 1,000 trees. We look forward to sharing our progress as we continue caring for the horticultural legacy of The Woodlands, and in the meantime, please enjoy these photos from our recent trip to the Morris Arboretum.

Written by Robin Rick, Facilities and Landscape Manager

Birding at The Woodlands: Finch Irruption to Wow Birders

A male Purple Finch is about to be released unharmed after being marked with a serially numbered aluminum band, aged, and measured. Photo by Toribird

A male Purple Finch is about to be released unharmed after being marked with a serially numbered aluminum band, aged, and measured. Photo by Toribird

Toribird here, bringing you some breaking birding news that I find very exiting! Quite a few birders, myself included, have noticed a remarkably large number of Purple Finches this fall. It seems like this will be a good irruption year for them - a year when birds move in substantial numbers outside their typical range. A few Purple Finches come down from the northern U.S. and Canada every year to spend the winter, but typically fewer than this year. This is a natural movement, likely caused by a good seed year, allowing the finches - seed eaters- to raise many chicks, causing a population bulge. The Woodlands is an excellent spot for House Finches, so I bet Purple Finches will hang out here as well! 

Now, if you've been a birder for a little while already, the back of your brain may be going "Oh no, aren't Purple Finches very similar to House Finches!? How will I be able to identify anything?" Have no fear, Toribird is here!! (I had to. Sorry.) Yes, House and Purple finches look alike, but the males in particular can be told apart with a few tricks. 

Purple Finch Male:

  • Here in the colder months of the year (~October - April)

  • Not really purple, but a magenta or raspberry red. 

  • Raspberry color extends from the face to the tail, fading near the tail


House Finch Male:

  • Here year-round

  • Brick red with brown and white stripes

  • Red color on the face and breast, and again at the base of tail 

Also, Purple Finches are the 'pretty' finch. Think P for purple and pretty. The males have more color than House Finches, and the females have a much clearer face pattern and more defined stripes than the houses. 

Purple Finches aren't the only bird coming down in larger-than-usual numbers this year. Several winter sparrows like the Lincoln's Sparrow and the beautiful White-crowned Sparrow are in the area. They like grassy areas, so maybe check out the small meadow near the mansion at The Woodlands or the field at Bartram's Garden, as well as any other area like this you may know of to spot this year's special treats. 

A Pine Siskin shows off the yellow in its wings and tail. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

A Pine Siskin shows off the yellow in its wings and tail. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, the Pine Siskin has been seen in the area, though they are a fair bit rarer than the other birds mentioned on the blog. They are finches, striped brown and white not unlike the female House and Purple Finches. However, they have thinner bills than similar species, and distinctive if subtle yellow in their wings and tail, bolder in the male but present in both sexes. Get out birding and keep your eyes peeled for this rarity as well as all the other birds that have come down to visit this year! 

Written by Toribird.

Notable Veterans of The Woodlands

In honor of Veteran’s Day, Kathie Brill, our newest intern from the Historic Preservation Department at UPenn has highlighted the stories of two notable Veterans buried at The Woodlands. She is also taking over our Instagram account this week, sharing her perspective as a new Philadelphia resident and frequent visitor of The Woodlands.


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Emily Bliss Souder

Emily Bliss Souder was a volunteer nurse at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. She lived in Philadelphia with her husband and 4 children. At that point in time, formal organization for trained nurses in the United States had just come to life. In 1861 A woman named Dorothy Dix ”was appointed Superintendent of Female Nurses of the Union Army by Secretary of War Simon Cameron. She was empowered to create a volunteer nurse corps and regulate supplies that were donated to the troops.” (Stanley B. Burns, Nursing in the Civil War, 2009). So, women like Emily Souder and her contemporaries, upon the hearing of significant combat, made the pilgrimage out to scenes of post battle devastation along with doctors, surgeons, and members of the Sanitary Department. Between five and ten thousand women offered their services in the medical field during the Civil War.

The book “Leaves from the battlefield of Gettysburg; a series of letters from a field hospital; and national poems” is a published collection of letters and poems written by Emily Souder describing her nursing experiences. She writes “of the great and pressing want of kind Christian women, who can minister to the bodily suffering and also to the spiritual wants of our poor soldiers…how sorely stricken and wounded our noble soldiers are, and how grievously these rebel wounded are suffering and both lying side by side like brothers.” I recommend reading the entire book which lucidly depicts an inside account of the gruesome aftermath in the weeks following the Battle of Gettysburg, and the crucial role women played during that time. It also provides a glimpse of war in the context of a time period with a limited amount of treatments and technology in the medical world, in comparison to what exists today.

The full text can be found here.

Works Cited:
Burns, Stanley B. “Nursing in the Civil War.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service.


 Colonel Sylvester Bonnaffon Jr.

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Sylvester Bonnaffon Jr. entered the army in 1861 in the 99th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Throughout the Civil War he worked his way up through the ranks eventually becoming a Colonel in April of 1865. He is one of two Civil War Medal of Honor recipients buried at The Woodlands. He received the award for “’distinguished gallantry at the at the battle of Bodyton Plant road, Virginia, October 27th 1864. [Where he] checked the rout and rallied the troops of his command in the face of terrible fire and musketry.’” (Benson, Benson, & Wiedersheim 1992) He was injured during this battle. He was mustered out of the 99th Infantry in 1865 but continued to serve in First Regiment Infantry in the National Guard of Pennsylvania, as lieutenant and then captain. He was honorably discharged in 1874, and then was called to emergency service from July to September of 1877 as a Colonel in the Twentieth Regiment Emergency Infantry. He then Major of the Artillery Corps, Washington Grays Batillion and finally the Colonel of the Third Regiment Infantry, National Guard of Pennsylvania until 1890. During his time with the Third Infantry he built the Armory at 12th and Reed Streets which was completed in1882. His Son, Sylvester Bonnaffon III, continued the legacy of military service serving as a US army officer during the Spanish American War and WWI.

Works Cited:
https://prabook.com/web/sylvester.bonnaffon/1836233
Benson, Edwin N., et al. History of the First Regiment Infantry, National Guard of Pennsylvania. University Publications of America, 1992.