Raise your hand if you’ve ever strolled around Oakland Cemetery and thought, “my goodness, these gardens are stunning!” Or maybe you’re not a gardener, per se, but regardless of your appreciation of flora you still had the sense that the symphony of plants around you was something special. Still a lot of hands up, I see. Maybe you came to Oakland for a different reason – a Love Stories tour, a dear friend’s wedding, Capturing the Spirit of Oakland, or just because it was a pleasant place to go while you waited for your table at Six Feet Under—but you left enraptured by the gardens and came back time and time again. Perhaps your reason for visiting Oakland was for a celebration of life or visiting long lost loved ones. You probably noted the care with which the grounds are tended, and felt good knowing that the final resting place of your ancestors and so many of Atlanta’s pioneers were in such great hands.
If you’ve been visiting Oakland for the last 15 or so years, you’ve seen the gardens evolve and grow, not just seasonally, but into new areas of the cemetery heretofore unrestored. By the end of 2024, Historic Oakland Foundation’s preservation and gardens teams will have preserved and began caring for nearly 20 acres of the cemetery’s burial plots, each one treated like its own unique garden. Though she would never claim credit for it, the person responsible for leading the transformation of Oakland’s gardens is our dear Sara Henderson.
Sara came to Oakland first as a board member of the foundation around 2006. Known for her skill and knowledge of southern gardens, Sara’s wisdom was the right thing at the right time for HOF. She worked with fellow board and committee members to consider the future of the gardens and established guidelines for their design and care. After several years it became clear that HOF needed Sara’s leadership on a more regular basis, and she was hired on as Director of Gardens. According to now-Emeritus Director David Moore, Sara “helped lift landscape up to a more prominent, valued, and appreciated element of Oakland.” Sara’s gift to Oakland was her ability to balance appropriate and authentic site design with context clues from the hardscape features and with sympathy for families, whether known or unknown to us. HOF Executive Director Richard Harker notes, “I admire how thoughtful and detailed her design was and how she really tried to think about the families as well as the history.”
Sara also established Oakland’s plant sales as a fundraiser for the gardens. What began as a way to make a little extra money has grown into a serious revenue generator that many gardening enthusiasts and community members look forward to each year. Sara’s thoughtful leadership and design aimed to bring in plants that one wouldn’t typically find at a commercial nursery in the Atlanta area. From buying trips to Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, and anywhere else across the southeast that had something unique and special to offer, Sara was able to procure truly spectacular plants for happy buyers.
Sara impacted much more than the gardens in her time at Oakland, however. As her team notes, she built the gardens from nothing, and that includes forming the talented team of horticulturists we’re fortunate to have today. Her colleagues know Sara as a larger-than-life character, an excellent plantswoman, a detail-oriented designer, a fine gardener, and a great friend. Sara is a talented teacher whose lessons resonate with the staff and volunteers she led. HOF Board members recall that Sara has been a joy to work with and share many stories that reflect her passion for Oakland.
The gardens at Oakland Cemetery, without a doubt, would not be where they are without the blessing of Sara’s leadership. The entire community that is fortunate to enjoy this beautiful and inspiring place owes her a debt of gratitude. Personally, I am better for having worked alongside Sara for many years. She has always been a true and caring friend above all, and I’ll celebrate her many contributions to Oakland for years to come. Cheers to the “founder of the gardens” and best wishes in your retirement, Sara! We all look forward to seeing you here as often as we can.