He tends a sanctuary of nature

How do you plant half a million tulips?

“One hole at a time,” said Ronnie Goforth, garden manager at Memorial Garden in Concord. He estimates he’s planted 500,000 of them during his career there.

Concord native Goforth, 47, started working at the garden in April 1989. He has not missed the annual mass planting of tulip bulbs in 25 years of service.

Promoted to garden manager in 1995, he works hard to maintain the property and its heritage. First Presbyterian Church in Concord owns the historic cemetery, which is the church’s previous location.

“Ronnie serves as both the historian of the garden and also as a master gardener,” Grace Davis, president of the Memorial Garden Association, said. “He has made changes in the different plantings, keeping in mind the future and how the larger trees will affect the landscape of the garden.

“Ronnie has made changes that have made the garden so much more beautiful. He looks at it as a sanctuary of nature, an extension of the church itself,” Davis said. “He has a certain standard of decorum that he asks of people who visit: one of respect.”

When Goforth isn’t working in the flower beds or pruning trees, he is acting as a tour guide, answering visitors’ questions about the cemetery and plant varieties with the same expertise.

Not only can he tell you what species of plant is planted where, but he can also tell you who is resting where.

If you happen to stray off of the walkway and get too close to the tombstones, Goforth will politely remind you to stay on the sidewalks.

“If I know everyone is staying on the sidewalks, it is less likely that a tombstone will be broken or a child will be in one of the flower beds,” said Goforth, noting that 20 of the tombstones have been damaged over the years.

“This is a cemetery. Even though the church is no longer on this property, I manage this garden as if the church is still sitting in the middle of the cemetery, with people worshiping inside,” Goforth said.

The church continues to use the relatively new columbarium – a structure for funeral urns – so he tries to maintain a quiet, peaceful atmosphere.

Goforth refers to the smaller flower beds in the garden as “rooms.”

“I try to make the garden where the color scheme flows through whatever angles that you are looking at in the garden,” he said. “All these little sidewalks and these little different ‘rooms’ in the garden overshadow each other, so you can see one bed from the next.”

Over the years, Goforth has learned much – from extending the tulip bloom season (by planting seven to eight species of tulips together that have the same color schemes but bloom at different times) to management of the other flowers, shrubs and trees, all of which are affected by the changing canopy and weather.

Goforth is state-certified as a plant professional, recognized as an arborist by the International Society of Arboriculture and state-licensed as a pesticide applicator.

This fall will be Goforth’s 26th planting of the tulip beds. Visitors will have to wait until next spring to see the blooms.

“My passion has always been to work outside with plants and animals,” he said.