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Horticulture for hallowed ground

old black and white photo of navy soldier Burlin R Mattson next to color photo of his grave

Fort Snelling National Cemetery gardener honors veterans, families by caring for the land that is their resting place

Burlin Mattson joined the National Guard as a hospital corpsman during the Korean War at age 16, requiring his mother’s signature because he was so young. When his daughter, Julie Mattson Ostrow, visits him at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Bloomington, she feels like she is part of a family “made up of the veterans buried there, the volunteer riflemen who perform the salutes, other visitors paying respects and those who work to keep the vast cemetery so beautiful.”

The 436-acre national cemetery is indeed vast and beautiful, but most visitors are thinking about their loved ones more than about the landscaping.

University of Minnesota Extension is helping Fort Snelling’s gardeners make sure of that.

“We want the focus to be on the 235,000 people buried here and their families,” says Trevor Blake, assistant gardener. “But if we don’t think through how we maintain the turf, trees and other plants, that’s when they are going to start noticing it—and not in a good way.”

Trevor Blake at Fort Snelling National Cemetery with flags waving with another photo under it showing Trevor in the classroom
Trevor Blake, assistant gardener, Fort Snelling National Cemetery, took the Master Gardener core course taught by U of M Extension horticulture faculty and educators, like Christy Marsden.

Blake’s education is in forestry, but he enrolled in Extension’s Master Gardener course to learn current research on how to care for the diverse landscape. Taking the course along with future Extension Master Gardener volunteers also introduced Blake to many people who could help him realize his plan for pollinator gardens.

 “While most people who take the Master Gardener course become Master Gardener volunteers, there are many ways to serve communities, so the same learning opportunity is available for those like Trevor who garden as professionals,” says Tim Kenny, Extension director of the Master Gardener program and horticulture education.

Blake and the other staff at the cemetery face constant challenges, from insect pests and weeds to road-salt damaged turf. Putting down new sod in a place that is still interring veterans nearly every day of the week is another challenge. He is also learning how to reduce the need for pesticides and select disease- and pest-resistant trees to replace some of those planted 50 or 60 years ago.

The work of Blake and the landscaping staff and volunteers is appreciated. “I am so honored my father is there, and my mother will eventually be buried there, too,” says Ostrow. “It’s a breathtaking place and we are so fortunate to have it here.”

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