Cleve West is designing the M&G Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. With several Golds and two Best in Show awards under his belt, this will be one of the gardens to watch at this year’s show
Did you enjoy gardens as a child?
I wasn’t really interested in gardening as a child, but then we moved to Exmoor when I was 14 because my parents were running a hotel there, and the whole landscape became our back garden. The landscape is so diverse down there – you’ve got the sea, marsh, woodland, moorland, all rolled into one, so I was very lucky in that respect. Just being in that landscape, looking at nature, going for long walks, must have sowed a seed of some sort. The memories of that landscape have influenced the design of my Chelsea garden this year.
How did you get into garden design?
When I was young, I was into sport, doing premier league athletics, mainly short-distance running. But I got to about 20 or so, having put my all into it, and then you know what it’s like, I just didn’t quite have it. You realise you haven’t got long enough legs! So I had to find something else to do. I ran a gym for a while, then went into fine art publishing. My aunt lived nearby and I would go round at lunchtime to help in her garden, and as she got older she needed more help. I really enjoyed the gardening, it was much more creative than I had thought, and realised that I could make a living out of it. I enjoyed being outdoors. I started off just by doing a garden maintenance round, and then started learning about hard landscaping, building walls and laying patios.
I’m definitely not trying to recreate the landscape – I keep warning people that it won’t look anything like Exmoor!
What prompted the move into design?
I started going to the Chelsea Flower Show, and got to meet John Brookes. I read all his books and started to get interested in design. Then when my aunt died she left me some money, so I used that to join a course at Kew with John Brookes. In 1994 I decided to do a show garden at Hampton Court, which is literally round the corner from where I live, and hooked up with Johnnie Woodford, who’s a sculptor. We ended up doing three more gardens at Hampton Court and then one at Chelsea. Then I branched out on my own and have designed private gardens as well as more Chelsea gardens.
Tell us about your Chelsea Garden this year
The Chelsea garden is a reinterpretation of what that Exmoor landscape meant to me. I’m definitely not trying to recreate the landscape – I keep warning people that it won’t look anything like Exmoor! I suppose it’s just paying homage to something that has influenced me, but in garden form. There’s one very potent memory that has influenced the garden and that’s Shilletts Wood on top of Porlock Hill. It’s an ancient wood, and because it’s at a higher altitude, the trees don’t grow that tall, and they’re quite gnarled and characterful like an enchanted forest. So the stars of the show garden are the trees – seven oak trees, Quercus pubescens, chosen for their sculptural shapes. I suddenly realised something quite serendipitous about the trees: I asked the nursery how old they were, and they said between 40 and 45 years old, and that’s precisely the time I was living in Somerset. So at the same time the seed of nature and landscape was being sown in my head, the seeds of these trees were germinating.
What are the other elements of the garden?
There is a pool of water, a more contemporary sunken terrace made from sawn sandstone, and some large boulders, which will be engulfed by planting. There’s a path leading you through the garden – to represent the journey I’ve made through my career. The planting is a mixture of shade-loving plants – not the wild plants you’d find on Exmoor, but plants that I like that recreate the same sort of atmosphere: ferns, acanthus, epimediums and umbellifers, which I’ve always loved. There are some unusual umbellifers including Molopospermum peloponnesiacum, which no-one including me can ever say, and Bunium bulbocodium. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished thing – I don’t think anyone who designs a Chelsea garden ever knows exactly what atmosphere is going to be created until it’s built. You try and imagine it in your mind, but you never quite know what it will be like, and that’s quite exciting.
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