Horticulture in graveyards, churchyards and cemeteries

Perhaps the first organisation you think of which has responsibility for horticulture in cemeteries is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). There is considerable effort required to maintain 23,000 cemeteries and memorials in 150 countries, particularly turf care in often difficult environments. Many sites are maintained to a high horticultural standard with floral displays in and around the graves, with careful thought given to plantings that prevent inscriptions from being obscured and reflect the nationalities of the fallen.

The largest CWGC site in the UK , Brookwood Military Cemetery, adjacent to what was once the largest cemetery in the world, Brookwood Cemetery (featured in the Museum Crush blog), is in Surrey, not too far from Woking’s Peace Garden which was, until 1969, a CWGC site. The Cambridge American Cemetery, administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission, is another large military cemetery with highly detailed design and landscaping. For more about the horticulture at CWGC sites, see the Telegraph’s gardening article from 2014.

The rise of the garden cemetery

During the industrial revolution, the population of towns and cities across the UK exploded. An increasing population, poor quality housing and food, and rampant disease and squalor also led to an explosion in the death rate. Churchyards quickly ran out of space and new non-denominational sites were urgently needed. Sites outside the city/town centres were found, marking the rise of the ‘garden cemetery’ inspired by Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Almost all were created from design competitions, creating formal, semi-formal or grand landscapes reminiscent of Brown, Repton et al. J.C. Loudon had firm ideas on the design of cemeteries as pleasure and botanic gardens and arboreta, as described in his ‘An Encyclopaedia of Gardening’ (1822) and in the Gardener’s Magazine (1832): he even reported an absence of cemetery gardens in Ireland.

Wherever you live in the UK, particularly in England, you won’t be far from one of the garden cemeteries. The north of England accounts for over 50% of cemeteries on the Register of Parks and Gardens of Historic Interest – particularly in the industrial heartlands of Lancashire and West Yorkshire. While some of these cemeteries have now been converted into parks and amenity spaces (for example, St James’ Park in Liverpool – formerly St James’ Cemetery, and St George’s Field in Leeds – formerly Leeds General Cemetery), many still exist, most notably London’s Magnificent Seven (Abney Park, Brompton, Highgate, Kensal Green, Nunhead, Tower Hamlets, West Norwood).

Re-imagining the humble churchyard

Of course, our oldest and often gloomiest graveyards are found around parish churches – the ones that were ‘over-flowing’ in the early 19th century. Many ancient yews are found in churchyards including the Beltingham Yews and the Fortingall Yew but generally churchyards are rarely considered as horticultural havens. After all, we’ve all walked past a neglected churchyard with crumbling gravestones and grass that might get strimmed once a year – often badly. There are, however, quite a few that are worth a second look.

If you have ever visited Perennial’s York Gate Garden in the spring, you will probably have walked through the churchyard of Adel Parish Church with its multitude of spring bulbs. Then there’s Bolton Percy’s Cemetery Garden in North Yorkshire with its naturalistic look of self-sown perennials and trees, a long established gem.

Many churchyards have been adopted by local Wildlife Trusts to create wildlife oases, sowing wildflower meadows among the graves. The Living Churchyard project by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation operates around the world while Caring for God’s Acre has created resources specifically for UK churchyards and burial grounds. Others are adopted as community gardening spaces, such as St John’s, Waterloo, Heavenly Gardens in Norwich and many more across the country.

The Garden Museum has created gardens, designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole and Dan Pearson, in the churchyard of the former church, providing a new purpose for the site.

Burial sites around the world

British churchyards often find their way into the top cemeteries to visit in the world – more frequently for their architecture and monuments than their horticultural merit. Nevertheless, there are many around the world that are well worth a visit if you are passing including Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery and New York’s Green-Wood, which inspired the creation of Central Park.

So why not pop into your local cemetery this All Hallows’ Eve and take a look at what it has to offer – whether it be ancient yews or community allotments – to celebrate the ‘Japanese Knotweed of festivals’!

Other resources:

Prepared by and for PlantNetwork, October 2019

[Main picture: Peace Garden, Woking; Other image: example of a parish churchyard]