Melbourne Cemetery volunteer gardening group makes ground with help from SMCT

Carol Saffer

Locals concerned with the state of the Melbourne General Cemetery joined together to form the volunteer group Greening the Cemetery under the auspices of the Princes Hill Community Centre in September 2021. 

The Centre signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Southern Memorial Cemetery Trust (SMCT), the managers of the Melbourne General Cemetery, with the group’s first official two-hour working bee scheduled for the last Friday in November 2021.

Initially the group was under the guidance of the cemetery’s operational manager John Wright when it was decided to target areas where there will be maximum impact for the visitor walking down the main paths and roads.

The group began working under the direction of Helen Tuton, a horticulture operations leader with SMCT, on Friday, August 26.

A member of the greening group Liz Aird said, “We were all a bit euphoric.”

“We now have a plan and a plant list.”


The group utilised indigenous, non-invasive native plant species to enhance garden beds and bring new plant life to critical areas of bare earth. The September working bee saw the volunteers finalise the installation of a woody meadow planting in an older public burial area of the cemetery. 


Ms Tuton said, “a woody meadow planting is a mixture of appropriate native shrubs, selected for their ability to form dense canopies, suppress weed growth and provide colour, movement and habitat for insects, birds and reptiles.”

“Woody meadows are self-sustaining, drought-tolerant and tough, requiring minimal inputs but providing positive aesthetic, environmental and canopy coverage outcomes,” she said.

Working group convener Carlton resident David James said, “I have beautiful visions of fine kangaroo grass and flowers waving in the breeze.”

A spokesperson from Princes Hill Community Centre said this year it was estimated the group provided more than 200 hours of voluntary labour and supplied several hundred free plants.

“Most importantly this work is greatly appreciated by the public who are excited to see the improvements and make positive comments when they see the work being done.” 

Ms Tuton said, “the volunteers are extremely enthusiastic, keen to learn and keen to plant, so to be able to engage and work with them on these types of gardening activities at this beautiful and important site is wonderful.” 

Ms Tuton has considerable experience installing these woody meadow-style plantings and is excited to plant this type of garden with the volunteers at the cemetery.

Once established, the only necessary maintenance is to coppice the plants (hard pruning to 20cm) every few years.

The pruning reinvigorates the shrubs and promotes dense, breathtaking floriferous displays.

A favourite of the greening cemetery group, Veronica perfoliate, is just one of the plants in the new meadow. 

The foliage of this shrub, known by its common name of Diggers Speedwell, resembles that of some juvenile eucalypts with rounded blue-grey leaves. 


“It has a beautiful display of blue to purple flowers in summer and performs very well in tricky spots under the canopies of tall trees; what’s not to love,” she said,


With the woody meadow establishing well, the volunteers will now look to undertake planting indigenous grass and wildflower species in other areas of the site at future monthly working bees. 

Planting large trees within the cemetery boundary is very limited.

“We instead utilise understorey plantings to provide canopy coverage, create habitat, provide corridors for wildlife movement, reduce weed infestation and increase our botanical diversity,” Ms Tuton said. •


Photo caption: L-R: Liz Aird, Dr Vanda Fortunata (chairperson SMCT), Helen Tuton (horticultural operations leader SMCT), Laz Cotsios (CEO SMCT) and David James.

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