Gardens Illustrated
Designer Cleve West
© Charlie Hopkinson

Cleve West: the Chelsea gold-winning, vegan designer behind Horatio's Garden

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The down-to-earth and modest designer on the benefits of working alone, the importance of gardening with a light environmental touch, and why he’s happiest outside working on his allotment. Words, Annie Gatti, portrait Charlie Hopkinson

Cleve West, winner of six gold medals and two Best in Show gardens at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, is one of the UK’s most admired and influential garden designers so I was expecting his studio to be bristling with desks, work schedules and ringing phones. Instead Cleve leads me down to a basement room with a single drawing board, computer screen and plan chest. The only accessories are pieces of flint on the windowsill, and a framed embroidered rose, a gold medal award for one of his early RHS Hampton Court Show gardens.

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This is how this self-deprecating, down-to-earth designer has always liked to work. “I don’t want the responsibility of an office full of people,” he explains. “Also I’m probably a bit of a control freak.” What he really means is that he’s a perfectionist, and that he needs to be involved in every step of the design process. At his stage in his career – he has been making private gardens since 1990 – he can, by and large, choose his commissions. “I try to work with clients who have the same values as me, who are interested in the environment and in the process of making a garden rather than having it as a showpiece.” But one of the limitations of running a solo studio is that he doesn’t have the resources to enter public competitions and so much of his work remains unseen.

The time of our first show gardens was a bit like the punk era of gardening

Cleve studied art and PE in London with a view to becoming a teacher, which he tried but didn’t have the patience for. A coach at his athletics club – who has since become a lifelong friend – was a professional landscaper and taught him about hard landscaping. He’d also been helping an aunt to keep on top of her large garden, so eventually the young Cleve drifted into garden maintenance, and found that he really enjoyed working outdoors – he still does, and chafes at being in his office when he can glimpse a blue sky through the window.

The first show gardens he made, with sculptor Johnny Woodford, used architectural, often exotic plants and whacky pieces of art. “It was an exciting time: we were exploring, expressing ourselves. It was a bit like the punk era of gardening.” It was Chelsea that brought Cleve’s designs to a wider public, and where he honed his mastery of exquisite, relaxed planting, beautifully detailed hard landscaping and bold sculptural elements. The appeal for Cleve was the freedom it gave him to experiment. “As a designer, Chelsea is the only chance I get to do something without having to compromise. On a site you’re either governed by the nature of the site, the client’s taste or the budget.” For several years his Chelsea gardens featured the massive concrete sculptures of Serge Bottagisio and Agnès Decoux. In 2012 he designed his own stone sculpture as a focal point of the topiary-rich garden – gratifyingly this was the Chelsea garden that afterwards generated most enquiries. One of his favourite Chelseas was infused with his teenage memories of the Exmoor landscape where he lived for a year. “That was a fun, heartfelt garden to do.

Being a designer is OK for earning a living but what legacy will you leave behind?

Increasingly he is bothered by the waste of both materials and plants in making a show garden. In his 60s, Cleve is immersed in ethical considerations. There are the environmental repercussions of designing a garden to think about – “You go in with diggers and dumpers and excavators and you’re ripping out ecosystems and biodiversity that’s taken a long time to establish” – and then there’s the matter of what contribution garden designers should be making to the world. “Being a designer is OK for earning a living but what are you going to do for the environment, what legacy will you leave behind?” he asks. It’s a rhetorical question, but one to which he urgently wants to find a satisfactory answer.

He passionately feels it’s his job to persuade the rest of us to remove animal products from our diet

The commission to design the first Horatio’s Garden – accessible gardens in NHS spinal injury centres – for Salisbury District Hospital powerfully showed him the therapeutic role of good garden design. “When I started I didn’t fully appreciate what Horatio’s Garden was going to bring to people in terms of hope and sustenance and realigning their lives to cope with life-changing injuries.”

Most of Cleve’s practical gardening is done on his allotment, which he shares with his partner Christine, and chronicled in his 2011 book Our Plot. Here, since he became vegan, he has been experimenting with growing fruit and veg without using any animal products. Like many converts, he passionately feels it’s his job to persuade the rest of us to remove animal products from our diet, partly for environmental reasons, partly for moral ones. The intensity of his arguments suggests that this is a cause he will never desert. Meanwhile he continues to make gardens that, he hopes, capture an essence of sanctuary. “I’m trying to create a place where you can relax and where you can contemplate,” he says. “For me, that’s what gardens are all about.”

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Useful information Cleve West Landscape Design, Navigator House, 60 High Street, Hampton Wick, Surrey KT1 4DB. Tel 020 8977 3522, clevewest.com

Authors

Annie Gatti is an award-winning garden writer and co-author of the RHS Your Wellbeing Garden

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