I’ve been thinking a lot lately about loss, memory and the restorative power of the garden. There’s a calming measure in nature, a peaceful presence that can be found among plants and pathways. Whether they’re intentionally planned or develop organically over time, memorial gardens are a beautiful way to encourage reflection and give peace to those who visit.
Often, we see memorial gardens connected with churches or cemeteries, where we lay to rest friends and family that have passed away. Less common are memorial gardens for pets — furry, four-legged companions that hold special meaning for a large majority of people. A new park in Mount Airy has set its sights on such a garden and is encouraging community members to visit the space of remembrance and reflect on their departed animal friends.
The Rotary Pup Memorial Garden is a special space connected with the Rotary Pup Dog Park off of Mount Airy’s Granite City Greenway. Behind the New Market Crossing shopping center, the memorial garden is a simple space where pet owners can come to sit amongst plants, watch dogs play nearby and reminisce about their pets.
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The dog park and memorial garden are the vision of Rotary Club of Mount Airy member Sue Brownfield, who spearheaded the projects. Starting in 2019, Brownfield worked with the Rotary Club of Mount Airy, the Rotary Club of Surry Sunrise and the City of Mount Airy to figure out where and how to go about establishing a large dog park. What transpired has been a success, thanks to help from many organizations and individuals.
“After I got the nod from the Rotary Clubs, I went to our Parks and Rec Department,” Brownfield said. “I knew I wanted the dog park on the greenway. But it’s on a hundred year flood plain, and we had some low areas. So one of our big construction companies donated 80 truckloads of fill (dirt). We couldn’t grade, but we could raise everything up.”
So after the whole area was raised and many trees were cut, grassy areas were established and fences were put up for large and small dogs. Once the dog park was complete, Brownfield set her sights on the memorial garden, which she felt would help bridge the gap between all pet lovers.
“I’ve lost three dogs,” Brownfield said. “When I took one to N.C. State to the vet clinic there, they had these memorial brick pavers as you walk in. And I thought, we should do something to remember our pets. Whether it’s dogs, cats, parakeets or whatever.”
“In the back on my mind, I thought we need to create a peaceful spot where you can come and have nice fond memories of your pet.”
Brownfield envisioned a small garden with a patio of engraved pavers — pavers that people could buy as a memorial to their lost pets. She reached out to Modern Gardeners Garden Club for collaboration, as well as a local granite company to do the specialized pavers. The response was very supportive, and Modern Gardeners quickly applied for a beautification grant for the garden.
“The Rotary is the driving force,” said Cindy Rader, Modern Gardener club member and chair of the project. “They came up with this idea for the garden and the pavers, and they asked Modern Gardeners if we would design a garden to go around it. The garden club got an award from Plant America, and we used that thousand dollars to buy these plants.”
The Rotary Pup Memorial Garden is small but meaningful, with an 11-by-17 foot concrete slab framed by two large granite benches. The pad will soon start to fill up with engraved granite pavers that will soon be installed. The pad will consist of black granite and grey granite pavers and will be a mix of images and text, depending on the sponsor or the donor.
“The black granite pavers are for all our sponsors and our Rotary Clubs,” Brownfield said. “And then people are donating $100 for a Mount Airy granite paver. One of our great granite companies in town Acme Stone has donated all the engraving, and they will do the installation of all the pavers.”
Modern Gardeners club members put their heads together to come up with plant ideas for the full-sun space, choosing low-maintenance perennials and shrubs that pack a big punch. After their brainstorming, garden club member and master gardener Cheryl Ward designed the garden using specialized software.
“It really was collaborative because there were four or five of us down here throwing out ideas,” Ward said. “I just wrote them all down and turned it into a design.”
Behind the memorial garden is the back side of a grocery store that Ward aimed to block out by planting fast and large-growing ‘Nellie Stevens’ holly. Although still young, they’ll grow quickly once they’re fully established. Other plants in the garden include panicle hydrangea, ‘Kaleidoscope’ abelia, panicum, ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum and a generous handful of other perennials.
“There were a lot of us contributing to what plants to put in,” Ward said. “I’m a native plant person, so I drove the native plants — whether it was the echinacea, the black eyed Susies, the switchgrass, the phlox. Some of the other folks were interested in more ornamentals, like the abelia and hydrangea. But we made it all work together.”
The Rotary Pup Memorial Garden is at its height of summer color right now and has grown considerably since its installation. Once the memorial pavers start to go down on the patio, the garden will be filled with a unique sense of place.
The Rotary Pup Memorial Garden is at 597 W. Independence Blvd. in Mount Airy. Those interested can buy and design a personalized memorial paver at rotarypup.com. The 12-by-12 inch paver is tax deductible and is a great way to honor a lost pet.