Just a mile and half from the US Capitol is Congressional Cemetery, a space interwoven into the lives of many who live in the surrounding neighborhood with its summer outdoor movies, Halloween activities, a death doula, and dog walking memberships. It is also the burial site for John Philip Sousa, and many other famous folks. Now the Cemetery is sprucing itself up and a group of volunteers are adopting the larger cemetery plots to plant annual and perennial flowers that will add color and beauty to the 35-acre national historic landmark.
A Historical Treasure
The Congressional Cemetery, which is between E and G Streets and 18th and 19th streets, SE, was established in 1807. In March 1812 the deed and plan for the cemetery were turned over to Christ Church, and it was officially named Washington Parish Burial Ground. Today the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery is a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that operates all aspects of the cemetery according to a long-term lease with Christ Church.
The cemetery fell on hard times in the 20th century and by 1997 was listed as one of the nation’s endangered historic sites. It was literally saved by the dogs. Neighbors banded together and created a K9 Corps for the Historic Congressional Cemetery. Hundreds of members pay an annual fee to walk their dogs off-leash on the grounds. The fees help fund the cemetery.
Many volunteers work to keep the grounds beautiful. Thousands of hours of work are donated by school groups, church groups, gardeners and K-9 members. Casey Trees recently donated eight Linden Trees to form a natural boundary in the Circle of Life section of the cemetery.
Meet Diane Kroupa – Garden Angel
In 2018, Diane Kroupa moved to Capitol Hill from her home in Minnesota to be near her growing grandchildren. Diane was looking for ways to get involved in her new community and saw an ad about a meeting at the Congressional Cemetery. It involved adopting a plot to add flowers and brighten the space up. “The organizers said no prior gardening experience needed,” Diane recalls. She was already helping the Hill Center with some of their volunteer gardening needs, so this seemed like a good next step.
Today, Diane manages plots and ten public areas in addition to being an enthusiastic recruiter for more garden volunteers. “There are so many different reasons a person can get involved in this work”, says Diane. First, there is the history of the cemetery. “There are over 60,000 stories to hear about the people buried here, how they ended up in this space, and family intrigues. I learn something new almost every time I come,” Diane notes. And she comes almost every day.
Then there is the chance to bring a plot to life by adding plants and flowers. It is also a great way to meet your Hill neighbors. Most of the time there is no personal connection between the volunteer to the chosen plot. But over time gardeners may do some research to learn more about those buried.
Diane is somewhat new to gardening so getting to try out different plants and combinations is quite educational and exciting. She hunts for plant bargains or freebies she might find on the street as she pushes her red wagon between cemetery and home. ”I am just amazed what people put out on the street,” Diane says, ‘just the other day I found three beautiful healthy azalea bushes on the sidewalk.”
In addition to free plants, Diane has had fun planting bulbs from the Beck Bulb Company’s perennial grab bag. The bag has five or more top quality bulbs for a total of 15 plants. Planted in the fall, the plants pop up in the spring and summer. “These bulbs really were the beginning of my plots.”
“I also learn by doing,” Diane laughs. Not being from the south, dahlias were a complete unknown to her. “I had no idea the size of the plants and especially the size of the flowers. No wonder they are called dinner plates.” This year, Diane has staked her dahlias to support the heavy flowers to come.
Adopt a Plot
The Congressional Cemetery plots have a variety of plantings. Volunteer favorites are spring bulbs such as daffodils and crocuses, and summer-blooming bulbs such as lilies. Other durable perennials such as salvia, iris, daylily, sedum, catmint, dwarf Russian sage, hardy geranium, dwarf aster, black-eyed Susan, and coneflowers can be found throughout. There is one plot that is covered in wildflowers. It is all up to the gardener.
The plots selected for plants and flowers are those that have a concrete or stone edging. These plots are found more in the historic part of the cemetery and the borders make for a good way to contain the plantings. Currently there are 40 plots adopted and there are plenty more available to be beautified. You can volunteer to care for a plot yourself or put together a group to take on the project, which is a fun way to get involved while sharing the responsibility. There are also plots that were started, then the gardener could no long care for the plot, and you can take up where they left off.
The good news is there no mowing, an outside contractor does that work. There are plenty of water stations that are hooked to hoses to reach to your plot, so you aren’t hauling water to your plot. And the cemetery has just hired a groundskeeper who can be a resource for your work.
You can also help out in ways other than adopting a plot. Do you have left over plants that you no longer need? Gardeners are always thinning out or reestablishing their gardens. Rather than tossing your unwanted plants, arrange to bring them to the cemetery.
For information about getting involved, Margaret Cabilang, a staff member of the cemetery, would love to help you. She can be reached at 202-543-0539. And, of course, Diane is happy to show you around as well. For more information on the cemetery, https://congressionalcemetery.org/
This July 4th, why not commit to a patriotic cause and volunteer to garden at the Congressional Cemetery. You can be part of American history.