Sacramento’s Hamilton Square Garden

By: Saul Wiseman

Saul Wiseman, president of the Perennial Plant Club of Sacramento, writes a weekly gardening column for the Auburn Journal/Roseville Press…

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Watsonia highlights a section of Sacramento’s Hamilton Square Garden. Photographs by Sharon Patrician

Watsonia highlights a section of Sacramento’s Hamilton Square Garden. Photographs by Sharon Patrician

The concept of a “garden cemetery” originated in nineteenth-century America with the era of romanticism. The first American cemetery to embrace the idea of a landscaped cemetery was Boston’s Mt Auburn, where winding walks, ponds, and groves of trees created a popular destination for the local citizenry out for a casual stroll—regardless of any connection to those interred below ground.

In Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery, the garden cemetery theme continues today with three major dedicated garden areas: the Historic Rose Garden, the Hamilton Square Garden, and the Native Plant Demonstration Garden.

The first public cemetery in Sacramento was created in 1849, with Captain John Sutter’s ten-acre gift to the city. The cemetery’s expansion, dictated by the city’s burgeoning population, continued until 1880, when its land holdings amounted to nearly sixty acres. Today, after the disposition of excess property over the years, the cemetery encompasses twenty-eight acres.

The City Cemetery has been the resting place of many remarkable Californians, reflecting the diversity of California’s history and culture. Visitors will discover the burial sites of Sacramento mayors and California governors, as well as memorials to Civil War veterans, volunteer firemen, and the victims of the 1850 cholera epidemic. Along with many early gold seekers, William Stephen Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s son, came to California in 1849 and died of dysentery in Sacramento in 1850. Today, a monument stands near his final resting place in Hamilton Square Garden.

Pioneer Sacramento families bought family burial plots in the cemetery from the city. The grounds were designed in the Victorian garden style that was popular throughout the mid- to late 1800s. Traversed by pathways and grand avenues, the cemetery provided a park-like setting for exploring elements of local and state history. Resembling the Pére Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, the elevated plots, row after row, became the final resting place of many notable California pioneers; their families maintained each burial plot, planting roses and both wild and cultivated flowers. Unfortunately, there was no perpetual plot maintenance agreement between those families and the city. One hundred years later, the cemetery had deteriorated into a weed-choked, forbidding place with broken or vandalized stones and monuments.

In 1986, a group of concerned citizens organized the Old City Cemetery Committee (OCCC). Upset by the years of obvious neglect and mistreatment, the committee became an active voice of concern for the future of this important community resource.

Today, adorned with beautiful statues and dramatic markers, Sacramento Historic City Cemetery is an outdoor museum recording California history from the Gold Rush Era through the present. With the addition of the three gardens, the cemetery has also become a horticultural treasure.

Grassy paths lead between raised burial plots planted with a wealth of roses, other shrubs, and perennials well adapted to the Sacramento climate

Grassy paths lead between raised burial plots planted with a wealth of roses, other shrubs, and perennials well adapted to the Sacramento climate

Innovative Approaches

An Adopt-A-Pioneer program began in 1988; its initial intent was to recreate the cemetery’s setting as it might have looked in the 1880s, with lots of roses, wildflowers, bulbs, and other plants of the day. Volunteers assumed the duties of long-departed relatives and began restoring the cemetery to something beyond the vision of its early planners. The program offered individuals, groups, and organizations the opportunity to help preserve an historic Sacramento landmark.

Co-sponsored by the City of Sacramento and the OCCC, Adopt-A-Pioneer became the Adopt- A-Plot program in 1996, an innovative concept in cemetery restoration, beautification, and preservation. The program coordinator selects neglected plots that the cemetery supervisor considers abandoned. A team of volunteers, now sixty in number, weed, plant, prune, and water these abandoned plots, creating charming new gardens. Also under the auspices of the Adopt-A-Plot program, Barbara Oliva, heritage rose curator, and the Heritage Rose Group began planting heritage roses at the behest of the city to beautify the north side of the cemetery.

In 1996, the Old City Cemetery Committee asked Sharon Patrician, then a state systems analyst, to become the volunteer coordinator for the Adopt-A-Plot program, a position that Patrician, now retired, still holds eleven years later.

Bearded irises and shrub roses thrive in the Hamilton Square Garden

Bearded irises and shrub roses thrive in the Hamilton Square Garden

Enter the Perennial Plant Club of Sacramento

The Perennial Plant Club of Sacramento (PPCS) was started in 1988 by a small group of avid gardeners desiring to meet others and exchange ideas on coping with a climate much harsher than that of California’s coastal region. Gardening in the Central Valley is ruled by the sun, and summer temperatures routinely reach into the hundreds. Winters are characterized by mild frosts, with an annual rainfall of approximately eighteen inches per year, falling between October and May.

With the city’s support, the OCCC began a joint program with the PPCS to improve the appearance of the cemetery’s Hamilton Square area. Patrician, an enthusiastic member of the club, was asked to design and manage this new garden project. She determined that the restoration of several plots was necessary before much planting could occur. Grants from the Glide Foundation of Davis and the PPCS enabled this endeavor. The brick restoration was completed by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Work Release Program.

When restoration began in 1997, only a few trees and roses inhabitated Hamilton Square. That fall, with six volunteers from the PPCS and a crew from the Work Release Program, Patrician began the initial planting of fifteen to twenty Hamilton Square plots; each measured twenty by twenty feet or ten by twenty feet, and was raised eighteen to twenty-four inches high with brick or granite sides. Contributing to that initial planting effort were donations of plants and roses from Barbara Oliva, Robert Hamm, Daisy Mah, PPCS members, and the Target store at Riverside and Broadway. The Columbian loam soil, prevalent in the burial plots, helped assure the success of these early plantings. Over 200 plots in Hamilton Square have now been planted with perennials, roses, flowering shrubs, and bulbs. Each plot has an individual look, yet is tied by design and color to neighboring plots.

As both garden designer and manager of Hamilton Square, Patrician faces many obstacles in choosing the plantings. First, she considers the setting. Hamilton Square is a hot, dry site with few trees, and plants must be able to tolerate Sacramento’s summer drought. Consequently, she has emphasized plants from the world’s mediterranean climate regions. She is also limited by the plot’s size and cannot obscure any of the headstones. She has to consider plants that will stand up to both gophers and heavy-handed but well-meaning Sheriff’s work crew members.

Secondly, she considers the aesthetics of color. She uses combinations of orange, burgundy, purple, and silver; reds and yellows; purples and oranges; or colors within a single hue (monochromes). The design goal is to relate each plot’s color scheme with those in adjacent plots to avoid eye-jarring combinations. Patrician wants visitors to look diagonally across Hamilton Square and detect a distinct color flow. She constantly edits the garden, moving plants, or removing plants that fail to thrive; she revises her plant list at least twice a year.

The plants in Hamilton Square are not identified with labels, because Patrician views the garden as part of the cemetery museum. She is primarily interested in growing plants well and in showcasing those that thrive in Sacramento’s climate.

Color echoes in an old selection of bearded iris and Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas)

Color echoes in an old selection of bearded iris and Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas)

A Strong Community Effort

With growing public interest in the cemetery, maintenance has improved, due primarily to the efforts of the many dedicated volunteers in the Adopt-A-Plot program, members of the Perennial Plant Club of Sacramento, and the weekend involvement of the Sacramento County Sheriff Department’s Work Release Project Program. The preservation of this historic landmark is becoming a community effort with investment in a soon-to-be published Master Plan for the Historic City Cemetery.

In June 2000, a plaque was affixed to the granite wall of Hamilton Square commemorating the partnership between the Perennial Plant Club of Sacramento and the Old City Cemetery Committee, Inc, to restore and beautify the section of the Sacramento cemetery named for William Stephen Hamilton. As a volunteer and board member of the OCCC, Patrician has been the key person responsible for changing this one section of the cemetery. Once populated with only California poppies and weeds, Hamilton Square has become one of the showplace perennial gardens accessible to the public in Sacramento.

Yellow roses and yellow bearded iris in the Hamilton Square Garden

Yellow roses and yellow bearded iris in the Hamilton Square Garden

If You Should Like to Visit . . .

The Sacramento Historic City Cemetery is located at 1000 Broadway, between Muir Way and Riverside Boulevard, in Sacramento; the main gate is at 10th Street and Broadway. The cemetery is open daily, from 7 am to 5 pm (winter) or 7 pm (summer). Free guided walking tours are scheduled regularly; self-guided tours are encouraged at all times.

Every year, an Open Garden event, sponsored by the Historic Rose Garden, is held to showcase the heritage roses and other gardens in the cemetery. The 2007 date is April 21. For a complete list of tours and events, visit www.oldcitycemetery.com.

Sharon Patrician’s Plant Successes at Hamilton Square

Salvia, Echinacea, Buddleja, Aster, Nepeta, small bulbs, Narcissus, hardy geraniums, Helianthus, Iris (bearded and Siberian), Origanum, Penstemon, Solidago, Achillea, Anthemis, Artemisia, Brodiaea, Ceratostigma, Cistus, Coreopsis, Erigeron, Freesia, Genista, Lavendula, Rudbeckia.
For a complete list of plants grown in Hamilton Square, visit www.sacramentoperennialplantclub.org.