Cradle gardens: beauty and mystery

By Janet L. Sullivan,

Penn State Jefferson County Extension, Master Gardener

If you are that person who enjoys visiting old cemeteries, you may know what a cradle garden is. If you are a follower of Victorian age gardening, you may know what a cradle garden is.

If you are the average person, like me, you will very likely not know what a cradle garden is.

This past fall I stumbled across cradle gardens as I was searching out day-time amusement while on babysitting duty in the Philadelphia area.

Because of its heritage as the botanical center of the early Americas, Philly is now America's garden capital, and you can visit 30 public gardens within 30 miles.

During an internet search of gardens to visit, the term "Cradle Gardens" caught my interest. Since their location was within the span of a school day drop-o? and pick-up, I elected to visit.

The Woodlands Cemetery situated along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia has a signi?cant number of these interesting Victorian memorials, but they can also be located in other U.S. and English cemeteries that existed in the 1800's.

Cradle gardens can be identi?ed by their layout. They usually consist of a stone headstone, foot stone and two low walls connecting them.

In the middle, there is an exposed patch of earth. If you are visiting a cemetery that is reviving its cradle gardens, such as The Woodlands, that patch may be bursting with an abundance of heritage blooms.

As 21st century visitors viewing the small bed form, our imagination sees the shape as a cradle and further imagines that infants and small children must have been buried in these ‘cradles.'

Not quite so. A quick journey into history will provide some insight.

An old Philadelphia guide book referred to "the "French-style" cradle graves over?owing with ?owers."

According to my research, "the French-style" may well be a popular French garden element used in the 1800's employing the use of edgings, often stone, around planting beds and pathways.

These edgings expressed the French horticulturist's view that "all vegetation is (to be) constrained and directed to demonstrate the mastery of man over nature."

This would account for the containment of the cradle garden with stone headboards, foot boards and sides.

In England at this time, it was vogue to adopt aspects of many classical cultures. Thus it came to be that the French in?uence of ordered architecture, combined with the romantic painting of English gardening, was created.

During the Victorian era, the wealthy of Europe were obsessed with collecting, growing and propagating plants from around the world.

The Victorians loved their ?owers, both domestic and exotic varieties, and attached much sentiment and romance to their use.

Another factor in the creation of the cradle garden was the shifting perceptions and expressions of death during the Victorian era.

Church graveyards in the industrial cities of the 19th century were literally over?owing, sending decaying matter into water supplies and causing deadly epidemics.

These conditions helped to prompt the Rural Cemetery Movement. The idea of a garden-like cemetery on the edge of town caught on.

Lovely names like "Greenwood" and "Forest Lawn" conveyed visions of a place of repose for the living as well as the dead.

In some places, particularly in Europe, these were about the ?rst parks open to the public. Victorians would take day outings to picnic, stroll, converse with the deceased, and garden on the grave sites.

Memorials such as cradle gardens gave sculptors a venue to showcase their work, and prominent families an opportunity to memorialize their wealth. Choices of planted ?owers spoke of their devotion to loved ones.

Although the infant and child mortality rate was high just prior to the discovery of penicillin, cradle gardens were not speci?cally structured for children.

These peculiar memorials constructed on top of a portion of the grave were used to honor deceased of all ages. Flowers were lovingly tended as a way to honor the a?ectionate relationship between the living and the dead.

Since 2016, The Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia has documented about 250 cradle graves.

Most of these lovely Victorian relics were ?lled with weeds or had been dismantled or vandalized.

An innovative Grave Gardeners program was launched in 2016 with the hopes of signing up volunteers to revive, plant and tend the little cradle graves.

The program has expanded from an initial 20 volunteers in 2016, to 150 in 2019. Volunteers include Master Gardeners as well as the inexperienced.

As a by-product of this program, The Woodlands is now a welcoming green space within the University City relatively free of vandalism.

It is open to neighbors, joggers, walkers, weddings, community gardeners and cradle garden tenders.

The Jefferson County Extension's Speaker's Bureau is available for group presentations. For more information or for details about the 2019-20 Master Gardener class schedule, contact the office at (814) 849-7361, ext. 508.

Certified Master Gardeners are local volunteers trained by Penn State to answer horticulture questions with properly researched information.

For a "best practices" answer to your question, call Penn State Jefferson County Extension at (814) 849-7361, Ext 508, e-mail, or mail your question to 186 Main Street, Suite 3, Brookville, Pa. 15825.n