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Saluting Veterans

A black metal bench overlooking the cemetery sits under the shade of a large, green tree.

Extension facilitates cemetery tree-trimming event

Story by Susan Collins-Smith • Photos by Kevin Hudson

A grey-haired man wearing a blue collared shirt smiles at the camera.
Keeping the grounds of the Biloxi National Cemetery in
shape is more than just a job for Matthew Ellis.

Foreman Matthew Ellis is responsible for keeping the grounds of the Biloxi National Cemetery in shape. But it’s more than just a job to him.

He wants to ensure that veterans who are interred there have a beautiful resting place and that their loved ones and others who visit can enjoy the meticulously manicured grounds.

But with just 11 people to care for more than 54 acres, lawn maintenance takes much of their time. Ellis and his grounds crew mow and trim every inch of the property on a 5- to 6-day rotation. They perform other routine tasks as well, such as mulching and pruning landscape plants.

“Turf care takes up a lot of our time and funds,” says Ellis, who also performs administrative duties for the cemetery. “We don’t hire contractors to do any of that work. A lot of our acreage has to be trimmed by hand. You can’t use a mower around the grave markers because they are so close together. All of that has to be done with a trimmer.”

The cemetery currently has 23,000 graves, with another almost 4,000 new graves to be added by the end of 2019, Ellis says. More than 600 trees also grace the grounds and require routine maintenance, which is usually contracted to companies that have the equipment and expertise to handle the job. However, in 2018, Ellis worked with the Mississippi State University Extension Service to organize the first-ever Saluting Branches event for the cemetery.

Saluting Branches is a 4-year-old, nonprofit organization made up of professional arborists dedicated to donating tree services to veterans’ cemeteries nationwide once a year. Any member of the community can volunteer during Saluting Branches, but all tree work is performed by properly trained individuals. Other volunteers can wash headstones and remove cut limbs.

“This cemetery is a shrine for those who served our country, for those who love them, and for all Mississippi citizens. It should be an inviting place where people can come and reflect on the sacrifice of the men and women who served our country.”

Matthew Ellis

“We are grateful for the volunteers who came out to help us,” Ellis emphasizes. “With minimal employees, this event helps us beautify and keep the cemetery safe with a savings to taxpayers. Getting this kind of tree work takes months when we use contractors because of the paperwork process we go through.”

Dr. Jason Gordon, Extension forestry specialist who spearheaded efforts to plan the event, says Saluting Branches primarily offers veterans’ cemeteries access to professional tree care at no cost and provides arborists a way to give back. But it also is an example of how Extension contributes to the community.

“We’re not here to teach today,” Gordon explains. “We are facilitators for this event, which is a critical role that Extension plays in communities across the state. We have the contacts to help recruit properly trained volunteers for this event. This is also a good opportunity to bring awareness to the importance of good tree care. Anyone can prune a tree, but, if it’s not done right, you can do more harm than good.”

Extension worked with Eric Nolan, city of Biloxi forester, to help Ellis and his crew prioritize trees that needed pruning a month before the event. Trees were evaluated for potential to cause injury or damage, including dead limbs and dead cavities. Some were flagged for aesthetic pruning.

Tim Brown, safety coordinator with Mississippi Power, provided safety oversight for the event, reminding volunteers of the proper safety protocols before work began and monitoring groups during the event.

Gordon plans to make Saluting Branches an annual event. Visit Saluting Branches website for more information.

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