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Whipps Garden Cemetery: A colorful retreat with an uncertain future

For Howard Magazine
This Ellicott City cemetery was a "junk yard" before volunteers turned it into a garden oasis.

With its dazzling displays of daffodils, bluebells, black-eyed Susans and other flowers, its beguiling benches and trails, its herb garden and rose garden and butterfly garden, it’s no wonder Whipps Garden Cemetery in Ellicott City is described by devotees as “a little gem,” “a hidden oasis” and “a very special place.”

But a quarter-century ago, those familiar with this one-acre cemetery had a different description.

“It was a junkyard,” recalls Barbara Sieg. “A dumping place for the neighborhood — cans, junk, old wood, whatever. … It was so overgrown, you had to fight your way to get out of the street into the cemetery. And all the beautiful graves were a mess.”

Sieg, 78, is widely credited with transforming the neglected, overgrown cemetery into a pleasant, if still little-known, neighborhood garden, a task she started in the late 1980s while president of the St. John’s Community Association.

Today, she is retired from such physical labors and spends her time writing a book on Maryland’s neglected cemeteries. But Sieg’s work is carried on by a small group of volunteers that includes Boy Scout troops, Glenelg Country School students and, most important, the University of Maryland Extension Howard County master gardeners, who host two annual fundraisers — one slated for May 8 and 9 — to keep the garden in top form.

Honoring a legacy

Ellicott City resident Aleta Gravelle took over four years ago as the master gardener in charge of the garden cemetery’s upkeep and maintenance. Six or eight volunteers come on a regular basis, she says, and others when there’s a special job to be done. “When we have a special project, we put a message on listserv saying ‘We need help,’” Gravelle says. “And they usually come.”

Master gardener Betty Rice, 71, is one of the Whipps volunteers. Every year, the Ellicott City woman donates hundreds of her homegrown flowers to the garden’s annual plant sale fundraiser.

“It’s a good cause,” she says. “I enjoy introducing people to plants, helping them figure out what plants will work for them. And it’s interesting to explain to people about Whipps. It’s such a pretty little place. It’s like a park that happens to have tombstones.”

The Whipps, a family of farmers and merchants, bought the plot in 1855 for $73.25 to use as a cemetery for family members, according to the Friends of the Whipps Cemetery and Memorial Gardens Inc., the nonprofit that now owns the site. Some family members were later moved to another site, but 56 people are still buried in Whipps. The last person was buried there about 100 years ago, and after that, the site’s gradual deterioration began, continuing unchecked until the 1980s.

Dan Whipps, a descendant of the Whipps family who lives in Catonsville, says he knew little about the cemetery until he joined the garden cemetery’s board about three years ago.

“I’ve slowly but surely been drawn into the process,” he says. “But it’s the master gardeners who really keep that place looking like it does. All praise goes to those guys.

“… Every time I go out there I’m just blown away by how beautiful it is and how well maintained it is, how much dedication and hard work is put into it by the master gardeners. They do most of the heavy lifting.”

Whipping up beauty

These days, the bulk of the heavy lifting has been passed from Sieg to Gravelle. Retired from separate careers in dress-buying and computer design, Gravelle, 73, became a master gardener a half-dozen years ago. She calls her current career with Whipps “a labor of love.

“Sometimes I wonder why I do it, but it’s rewarding,” she says. “It’s a challenge, to make it attractive, to continually improve it … and to highlight the gravestones, to make them more appealing. … There’s so many interesting things here.”

Indeed. Whipps packs a lot into one acre, especially in the spring and summer. Paths through the cemetery’s gently rolling confines take visitors past inviting fields of flowers, weathered tombstones, a rustic outdoor theater with seating for 30, a rose garden with a small stream, a parterre herb garden and even two siblings of the famous Wye Oak, at 450 years the oldest white oak in the country before it was felled by a thunderstorm in 2002 and later cloned by a University of Maryland horticulturalist.

The graves have their own stories to tell. A white picket fence guards the tombstone of Annie Vernay, who died at just 15 months old in 1862. The 1828 grave of patriarch John White, the oldest in the cemetery, presides over the land.

Maintaining Whipps is a year-round job. Leaves must be raked, weeds pulled, mulch spread, paths cleared, benches and fences put in or repaired, and gardens spruced up. But spring is the peak season. That’s when Whipps Garden Cemetery is at its loveliest, its thousands of flowers in bloom.

Spring is also the season of Whipps’ two biggest fundraisers. The first is Daffodil Day, which was held this year on April 4 and featured the usual variety of potted bulbs for sale, as well as presentations on gardening. The second and larger fundraiser is an annual plant sale, which will be held May 15 and 16 at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church on Frederick Road in Ellicott City.* Some 100 different varieties of perennials, annuals and shrubs will be sold, most donated from the gardens of master gardeners.

“It’s a big sale. People look forward to it every year,” Gravelle says. “We have master gardeners there who are knowledgeable of plants and can actually help the people who come to buy.”

Growing awareness

Besides helping pay for needed plants, equipment and improvements, the fundraisers draw attention to the garden. Although plainly visible at its site on St. John’s Lane, just south of Frederick Road, Whipps has never attracted many visitors.

Sieg, for one, does not hide her perplexity over that low profile, and is worried what it could mean for the cemetery’s future. “As long as there’s a director that runs it, like I did, like Aleta does, and sees about getting the volunteers to work there, it’ll go forward,” she says.

But without someone like that, she adds, “I don’t know what will happen. Maybe someone will come forward from master gardeners, but the neighborhood probably will say, ‘Oh, it’s a shame.’ And that’ll be it. It’ll be gone.”

For now, however, Whipps moves forward. In the past few years, volunteers have added a rose garden, a butterfly garden and an herb garden. Running water was piped in five years ago, and a storage shed and compost bins installed. Black-eyed Susans and hydrangeas have been planted near the entrance to make it more appealing, flags are flown on Memorial Day and Independence Day, and wreaths are hung at Christmas.

“I think we’re attracting more people,” Gravelle says. “More and more people are realizing it’s there and open to the public.”

While age and physical ailments have forced Sieg to end her decades of toil at Whipps, the garden cemetery remains dear to her heart. “My love for it and my concern about it will never die,” she says. “It’s a special place, and it’s typical of hundreds in this county that could be saved.”

 

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If You Go:

Whipps Garden Cemetery
3651 St. John’s Lane, Ellicott City

Whipps’ Annual Plant Sale
First Evangelical Lutheran Church
3604 Chatham Road, Ellicott City
Friday, May 15, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturday, May 16, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.*

*The plant sale was originally scheduled for May 8-9. It was postponed by one week.

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