We gardeners all love the challenge of making our plots beautiful wildlife havens. But can you imagine doing this across thousands of sites all over the world, in all sorts of climates?


That’s the inspiring job of today's guest on the BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine podcast, as we mark the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings with this special edition speaking with David Richardson, Director of Horticulture at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission about how he’s future-proofing our war graves for wildlife, pollinators – and above all future generations the world over.

Just scroll below for a few edited and abridged highlights representing what David had to say – and to hear the man himself in his own words, just listen to the podcast above, or on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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So David, I guess maybe this is the world's biggest horticultural environment in terms of overall space?

I think we describe ourselves as one of the world's largest gardening organisations. We have 850 people working in every continent except Antarctica. We manage about 650 hectares of gardens and grounds, with 490 of those being fairly intensively gardened. Our work spans 150 countries and territories, but we focus on around 2,500 plots with significant horticulture, so it's big, it's scale, and it's very spread out.

Today we’re marking the 80th anniversary of the D Day landings. I expect you've had quite a lot of challenges on your hands getting ready for this moment in time?

We plan years in advance. For D-Day 80, we started preparing three years ago. We looked at grass, tree planting and necessary renovations well ahead of time. This way, we can manage the impact of unpredictable weather better. If we'd had a really dry spring and done significant planting this year, it would have been a real problem.

How has the recent weather affected your work?

It’s been tough. We had the wettest winter on record in Belgium and Flanders. Managing sodden grounds and trying to garden in such conditions is challenging, especially with lengthening days and more sunlight. Grass cutting has been particularly difficult with the ground so wet.

Memorial at Bayeux World War 2 Cemetery, France

Biodiversity is a huge concern – and you have a huge opportunity, don't you?

We’re aiming for a net zero target by 2050. We’ve reduced chemical use by about 90% and are moving towards organic fertilisers. We’re also introducing bug hotels and nesting boxes, and focusing on diverse, pollinator-friendly plants. I think diversity and colour, and pollination is something that perhaps we don't think about enough when choosing plants.

Extreme weather, plant diseases and pests are huge challenges now for most gardeners. How are they impacting you?

Extreme weather events, plant diseases like box blight and ash dieback, and pests like the pine shoot beetle are significant challenges. Water management is also crucial – ageing infrastructure and the high cost and limited availability of water are big concerns.

What about saving water – is that a major focus going forward?

We have around 270 sites with irrigation. In hot places, maintaining green lawns all summer is water-intensive. We’re working to reduce water use and explore more sustainable practices, but it’s a complex and costly transition. Even in desert locations like El Alamein, where there are wonderful bougainvilleas and agaves and all sorts of succulent and cacti growing, we still have to use water.

We read about floods and extreme weather all the time these days. How are these things impacting your sites?

Coastal erosion, flooding and changing weather patterns pose significant threats. In the Gallipoli Peninsula and Freetown, Sierra Leone, we’ve seen major floods and erosion. We’re constantly adapting our practices to these new challenges. We're seeing a lot more storms and heavy winds, which affect our mature trees.

Trees can make a massive difference both for carbon and biodiversity. What’s your approach here?

We’re going to be setting ambitious targets for tree planting over the next 20 years, focusing on areas where we can add planting to enhance biodiversity. Even small changes can make a big difference in biodiversity enhancement. Trees are incredibly valuable for their ability to absorb carbon and support insect life. I was at a seminar recently and they talked about trees being meadows in the sky. I think that's a really interesting way to look at it.

Is it tricky to balance the heritage of closely clipped gardening with modern environmental practices on your sites?

We’re evolving our approach, moving away from the traditional stripy green lawns to more biodiverse grasslands. We’ve raised grass cutting heights and use mulching mowers. We’re also more accepting of different species in the grass. While we still maintain beautiful lawns, we're embracing a more natural look with daisies and other species. This reflects a subtle shift rather than a radical change.


We want to create spaces that honour the past while embracing the future. Engaging younger generations and encouraging biodiversity are key. We’re subtly tweaking our practices to ensure these sites remain beautiful and sustainable. This includes reducing mowing in some areas to let natural grasslands flourish, and integrating more trees and pollinator-friendly plants.