Interview - David Richardson, director of horticulture, Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Interview - David Richardson, director of horticulture, Commonwealth War Graves Commission - image: CWGC
Interview - David Richardson, director of horticulture, Commonwealth War Graves Commission - image: CWGC

David Richardson recently became head of horticulture for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, one of the world's biggest employers of professional gardeners. He has been there since graduating 25 years ago from the University of Bath with a degree in horticulture and an eagerness to travel. He has done tours of horticultural duty in Turkey, the East and, of course, France, the commission's biggest commitment and a moving reminder of the enormity of war and remembrance.

Q. Just how big are the commission's responsibilities?

A. We look after cemeteries in every continent, bar Antarctica, and every possible climatic zone from the desert of north Africa to temperate regions closer to home. We have a presence anywhere that British and commonwealth troops fell, which puts us in 23,000 memorial locations in 153 countries. The commission started in 1917 to commemorate those who died in World War One and World War Two.

Q. How many staff does it take to look after all that?

A. We use some contractors in the UK but most of our staff are directly employed and we have around 900 gardening staff worldwide. We are probably the biggest single employer in grounds maintenance and global coverage. This has training implications and we are looking at developing an apprenticeship scheme. We already do lots of in-house training and are big on continuing professional development.

Q. Is it a challenge to keep the relevance of what you do fresh in people's minds?

A. The relevance of remembrance never dies and the feedback we get from the public every year is good. This is not just a British thing - other nations such as Australia are incredibly in tune with the need to remember their fallen. Television shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? may help but you can never underestimate the importance of what we do and why we do it. In terms of design, there is nothing dated about our work. I was struck at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show how similar many of the cemeteries and memorials are to some of the show gardens - formal structures and planting, pleached beech and hornbeam and luscious planting.

Q. How are the cuts affecting standards of upkeep?

A. A lot of funding comes from the Ministry of Defence and this is not a time of luxury in horticultural maintenance. But we have specific qualitative standards such as frequency of mowing to ensure excellence and consistency. We are looking at herbaceous plants, alpine grasses and hardy shrubs. I'm not obsessive about battles and battle lines on maps. I'm a horticulturalist and like formal design but I also enjoy the work of Piet Oudolf and less formal prairie-style planting, so I'm open-minded how our planting schemes evolve.

Q. How do you intend to meet future challenges?

A. Some solutions can be reached through public consultation and we aim to do this a lot more in future years. This will enable us to find out the expectations of visitors to the cemeteries and hone down to what standards must absolutely be maintained and where we can be flexible.

Q. What are your priorities and goals?

A. I'm keen to enhance the professionalism of our garden staff and deliver consistently high standards. This is a big job given the environmental challenges, with ageing irrigation systems and water becoming an ever more precious resource. We are also trying to reduce our carbon footprint, we have cut fertiliser use and are looking at integrated pest management techniques. But we already do lots of good. We have tens of thousands of trees and maintain heather and grasses. We know all about dry weather - in Israel, we changed planting to drought-tolerant species, while in Turkey we worked with limited water in a Mediterranean climate with cold winters.

Q. Do you have any interesting war stories to tell?

A. I did a spell working outside Europe, which saw me replanting cemeteries destroyed in civil wars in Lebanon and Sri Lanka. I was also caught up in a coup in Sierra Leone and could hear gunfire from my hotel, but having grown up in Northern Ireland, it was strangely reminiscent."

Q. What is your biggest career highlight to date?

A. Managing excavation of a mass grave of troops killed in the Battle of Fromelles, northern France, in 1916. A brand new cemetery was built, our first since World War Two, and opened in July 2010. Remains of 250 soldiers were DNA tested to try to establish their identities and all the turf and plants were pre-grown in duplicate in case of problems. The job involved governments, archaeologists, contractors and commission staff doing confidential excavation with the world's press watching.

1986-88: Horticulture supervisor, Commonwealth War Graves Commission,
1988-91: Local supervisor, Turkey
1991-97: Horticulture manager, UK, Ireland, Iceland
1997-2006: Manager for West Africa and parts of Middle East
2006-08: Horticulture manager, France
2008-10: Project manager, Fromelles
2010-12: Special projects leader, UK
2012 to date: Director of horticulture

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