James Alexander-Sinclair talks Chelsea, design and some lucky falls

Rosa ‘Mutabilis’,” says James Alexander-Sinclair decisively when I ask for his favourite plant. He then adds that yesterday it was Salvia confertiflora while last week it was tulips that had stolen his heart. It is, of course, an impossible question for any gardener – my own choice changes like the weather – but it’s something I like to throw into the mix as you can learn a lot by the way people react.

James’ answer, given with barely a pause yet far from predictable, shows why he is in demand as a writer, compere and speaker while the gentle ridicule is typical of someone who doesn’t take himself or his achievements too seriously.

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Tulips were James’ favourite last week – next week, who knows?

Despite his position as a noted designer, award-winning writer, RHS council member and judge, he describes his career as a “collection of fortuitous trippings” that has seen him fall into first landscaping, then garden design followed by writing and broadcasting; he’s a regular contributor to magazines and newspapers, presented Small Town Gardens and was a judge on the The Great Chelsea Garden Challenge.

It could have been so different if he’d followed up on early success as a waiter or selling trousers, or changed his mind about estate agency as a career.

“It was really what people used to do when they didn’t have any qualifications or any particular idea of where they were going.”

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James’ is a regular compere at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival

Instead, a plea from his sister to get off the sofa and “dig the garden or do something useful” saw him turning over her tiny London garden and the realisation that it “was fun”.

Teaching himself how to pave, put up fence panels and lay turf, James started his own landscape business. Design came about when he decided “there must be an easier way to earn a living than through heavy lifting”.

As with the landscaping, he is largely a self-taught designer although his father sent him on a course at the Inchbald School of Design when he was starting out: “I didn’t turn up for most of it – which was unfortunate – because I had other things to do.”

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An illuminated rill snakes through James’ design for a central London garden

His writing started because of ‘old rectory syndrome’: “Somebody would ring me up and say ‘Can you come and look at my garden?’ and I would say ‘Marvellous’ and it would be The Old Rectory and I would go ‘Oh God, not another one.’ I wanted to do something else.”

Broadcasting followed, giving him a career that embraces just a few of what he describes as the tentacles of gardening, a profession that can range from landscaping and photography to scientific research and raising plants.

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James built one of the Radio 2 Feel Good Gardens at Chelsea this year

“It’s nice to be busy in as many of those different spheres as I can possibly manage.”

This opportunity is something he believes should make gardening an attractive career for school-leavers.

“Gardening when I started was considered the last refuge of the unemployable and it isn’t any more.

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James used hostas, persicaria and thalia along the stream in this country garden

“It has enormous breadth to it and is something that can provide somebody not only with a satisfying life but also with a satisfying living.”

And he dislikes the idea that because it’s a popular hobby people underestimate the worth of professionals.

When to comes to designing, James works by three guiding principles: what the house looks like; what the views are; who’s going to live in it.

“It’s a matter of making sure you’re making gardens that are not only appropriate for the place but also for the people.

“You’re making a garden for people to use, to love and to enjoy and to make their lives better and happier so it has to work with the way that they live.”

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Water was central to the Zoe Ball Listening Garden

It was this sense of fun that came to the fore in his BBC Radio 2 garden for Zoe Ball at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show where water in weathered steel troughs vibrated to the bass beat of music.

The five gardens celebrating the 50th anniversary of the radio station were a last minute addition by the RHS when show garden numbers fell short, thanks in part to post-Brexit referendum jitters. They proved popular with the public, partly James believes due to their size, and gardening on that scale is something that is likely to be repeated at the show.

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Bass notes in underground music caused ripples in the pools

Yet, he believes there’s still a place for the “great big theatrical experience” of Chelsea.

“Chelsea always throws up something that’s exciting,” he says. “You go to Chelsea and you will be entertained, gobsmacked and educated. You will leave there inspired by something.”

As for his own Oxfordshire garden, it’s constantly evolving: “It’s a work in progress and always will be because that’s the way gardening is. Nobody in the world has got a finished garden.”

Allomorphic in Stroud is hosting a lunch and audience with James Alexander-Sinclair on Friday November 10, followed by a talk in Painswick on garden design hosted by Painswick Gardening Club. Tickets are £45 for the lunch and talk, limited to 24 places. Tickets for the talk only are £15. For details and to book, see the Allomorphic website.

Hunting out the planthunter: a chat with Nick Macer

Ahead of his Cheltenham lecture, Nick Macer talks about design, Gardeners’ World and why gardeners deserve better

Britain may be a nation of gardeners but as far as Nick Macer of Pan-Global Plants is concerned we’re all being short-changed.

Uninspiring stock at garden centres, dull planting schemes and the dumbing down of gardening programmes, all are targets for his criticism.

Nick Macer
Salvia dombeyi is one of the many unusual plants Nick stocks at Pan-Global Plants

We meet at his Gloucestershire nursery and talk surrounded by the rare and unusual plants that make his business a popular destination for serious gardeners.

Yet he’s keen to dispel the idea that he puts rarity ahead of good design. For him, the two are equally important.

“I’m interested in gardens that are not just beautiful but interesting,” he says. “I think if a garden is beautiful but it has no interesting botany in it, it’s missing the link.”

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Nick Macer

Likewise, he dislikes what he describes as plant nutters’ gardens where collecting is more important than design.

“You don’t often walk into a plantsman’s garden and get that emotional response to the drop-dead, gorgeous piece of artistry that are the best gardens.”

Partly, he believes, dull gardens are due to the limited range on offer at garden centres and the fact that most people are unaware of the diversity of available plants.

“Generally, people buy in a garden centre rather than in a proper, interesting nursery run by interesting people.”

Nick Macer
You’re unlikely to find Helianthus ‘Capenoch Star’ in a garden centre

Nick, who grew up in Stroud, got into horticulture almost by accident. By his own admission, he was a “rebellious youth” who more or less dropped out of school at 14 and ended up working with a local landscaping company just to earn some money.

“During that time, I suddenly wanted to start learning what all the trees were,” he recalls, “and I became absolutely obsessed.

“From that point on I’ve been learning and I’m still learning. In this game, you learn until you’re dead. It goes on and on, it’s wonderful.”

Nick Macer
Trees were Nick’s first love and an Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’ is a feature at the nursery

An arboriculture course followed with his year in industry spent at Hillier Arboretum and Westonbirt.

“Before working there I used to visit Westonbirt for four or five hours at a time and stand and identify everything I could. I used to go there really excited and come away feeling sick of it because I was doing too much.”

Next was a job running Cowley Manor garden, including working with Noel Kingsbury on a perennial planting scheme, before he decided to set up a nursery, first at Painswick Rococo Garden and, for the past 16 years at Frampton-on-Severn.

He travels the world every year on plant-hunting expeditions, but says regulations have put a stop to seed collection. Instead, he gets new plants from other collectors and nursery owners.

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Nick collected the seed for Agave ovatifolia in Mexico

Last year, he did a stint as a presenter on Gardeners’ World, which, although he enjoyed, he’s unlikely to repeat: “My angle horticulturally is not Gardeners’ World’s angle.”

He’s critical of what he perceives as a “dumbing down” with “everyone treated as a newcomer”.

“I like to think I’m at the cutting edge of horticulture here. I know it’s for everyone but I don’t think there’s enough education in Gardeners’ World.

Nick Macer
Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ is grown for its beautiful foliage

“People that are just starting out should at least have the opportunity to go to a higher grade.”

Meanwhile, he’s exploring the idea of making his own gardening programmes. One thing’s for certain, they will be far from run-of-the-mill.

Nick Macer is the guest speaker at Cheltenham Horticultural Society’s 75th anniversary lecture on Friday October 6, 2017. He will talk about planthunting in ‘Plants From Around the World’ at Balcarras School, Cheltenham. Tickets cost £6 and can be bought on the door or in advance: contact Yvonne Gregory on yvonnetgregory@yahoo.co.uk

For more information on Pan-Global Plants, visit the website

Gardeners celebrate their wartime roots

There will be more than a hint of wartime spirit this weekend as gardeners celebrate Cheltenham Horticultural Society’s 75th anniversary at the annual summer show.

cheltenham horticultural society

The present society was founded in the midst of the Second World War in 1942, partly in response to the Dig for Victory campaign although there had been a horticultural society in Cheltenham since at least 1832, which ran until the outbreak of the First World War.

And special classes at this year’s show will pay tribute to the gardeners of the past.

“We have tried to include items in each section that reflect the food that was grown, the food that was prepared and items made during those difficult times,” explains Cheltenham Horticultural Society chairman, Dot Ward.

These include contests for a low sugar and low fat carrot cake, a pair of parsnips and an embroidered tray cloth. Other wartime-themed sections include a loaf of potato bread and carrot tops grown in a bowl or dish.

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Growers will be showing off their best roses

The Pittville Pump Room will be decorated with bunting knitted by society members and there will be a display to explain the society’s history.

Among the special classes will be regular favourites including contests for roses, annuals, cut flowers, pelargoniums, runner beans, carrots and tomatoes.

There are also craft, photography and floral art sections and special competitions for youngsters.

As well as the exhibits, there will be plants for sale from both society members and local nurseries, homemade cakes and refreshments.

“We’re planning to make it a 75th anniversary show to be proud of,” added Dot.

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Nick Macer is the speaker for the anniversary lecture

The show runs from noon to 3.30pm at Pittville Pump Room on Sunday August 20, 2017. Admission is £2 with free admission for children under 16.

On Friday October 6, the society will host a special anniversary lecture at Balcarras School, Charlton Kings, Cheltenham.

Gloucestershire nurseryman and BBC Gardeners’ World presenter Nick Macer of Pan-Global Plants will talk about ‘Things that turn me on – confessions of a plant freak’.

The doors open at 6.30pm for the sale of refreshments and the talk starts at 7.30pm. Tickets are £6 and must be bought in advance as there will be none on the door; email Yvonne Gregory for details: yvonnetgregory@yahoo.co.uk They are also available from Dundry Nurseries. For more information, visit the Cheltenham Horticultural Society website.

Get some show garden style

A little bit of show garden magic will be coming to the Cotswolds this weekend as leading designer Paul Hervey-Brookes sells plants from his gold medal-winning design at RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show (pictured top).

Hostas, beautiful blue chicory, Verbena bonariensis, asters, myrtle and some large shrubs that last week were being admired by the Hampton show crowds are among the plants on sale. The Garden of Discovery, for Viking Cruises, won Paul his ninth gold medal, six of them consecutively.

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Chicory will be on sale

The plant sale is raising money for the Dogs Trust in memory of Paul’s husband, Yann Eshkol, who died a year ago.

“Yann was always very keen on animals and them being cared for and our dogs are all rescue animals,” says Paul, who is based in Stroud.

The Dogs Trust was chosen because Yann died just weeks after last year’s Hampton show where Paul won gold with a dog friendly garden for the animal charity.

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The 2016 Dogs Trust garden

Slad Valley House in Stroud is hosting the plant sale as part of two National Garden Scheme open days on Saturday and Sunday July 16 and 17.

The one-acre informal garden is set around an 18th house and is gradually being restored by the owners, Debbie and Michael Grey.

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The garden is being restored

“The garden is interesting because it’s turning what was a mill owner’s house back into a home after being used for a variety of different things over the past 40 years,” says Paul. “It is bringing a garden back to life.”

What was a lawn at the front of the house is now a flower garden, there are mature trees and shrubs.

“It also has some challenging terraces to garden on.”

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Slad Valley House is hosting the sale

Some of the Hampton Court plants have been added to the garden this week and it also features elements of Paul’s earlier work, namely two sculptures by Andrew Flint that were used on his 2013 Chelsea show garden for Brand Alley.

While some plants were sold in the traditional end of show sell-off at Hampton, many have been brought back to the Cotswolds.

“It seems right to bring them back to where we made our home and where people have been so supportive over the past year,” says Paul, who runs garden and home shop Allomorphic in Stroud. “The whole thing feels right, not as though we’re doing it for the sake of it. It has got a good purpose.”

Slad Valley House, Stroud, GL5 1RJ, is open for the National Garden Scheme from 2-4.30pm on Saturday and Sunday July 16 and 17, 2017. Admission is £3.50. There will be homemade teas for sale.

Sheep, music and plants help charities’ fundraising

Hidden sheep, live music and lovely gardens will be raising money for good causes in the Cotswolds in the next few weeks.

There are several village garden events and the chance to see one of the Cotswold’s beautiful large gardens.

Ozleworth Park

On Sunday June 18, 2017, Ozleworth Park will be the venue for an open day in aid of Stroud district Citizens Advice.

Mixed borders, a rose garden, orchard and water garden are just some of the features of this large and varied garden near Wotton-under-Edge.

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Ozleworth water garden

Nailsworth Silver Band and Panache, a steel band, will perform and there will be teas and plants for sale.

The event runs from 2pm-5.30pm and entrance is £5, free to children under 16. No dogs are allowed, except guide dogs.

Prestbury Open Gardens

There will be gardens of all sizes open in Prestbury, Cheltenham, on June 17 and 18, raising money for St Mary’s Church and The Butterfly Garden charity.

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One of the Prestbury gardens

The event runs from 2-5pm on both days and includes plant sales, nursery stands and cream teas.

Admission is £5 for adults, accompanied children enter free. You can pick up a passport for the gardens at St Mary’s Church or at any garden with the Prestbury Open Gardens sign.

Chedworth Open Gardens

Chedworth is holding an open gardens and flower festival on June 24 and 25, 2017 from 11-5pm on both days.

As well as around 13 gardens to wander around, there will be cakes, plants and produce for sale, and refreshments. Admission to the gardens is £5 for adults and there will be a shuttle bus from the village hall.

The money raised will go to the Friends of St Andrew’s and other village charities.

Sheepscombe

ozleworth

Youngsters at Sheepscombe School have been making sheep ready for the village’s open gardens trail.

The sheep will be hidden in the 12 gardens taking part in the open day on Sunday July 2, 2017 with a competition to find them.

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One of the formal gardens that is open

Among the gardening attractions will be formal borders, cottage-style planting, water features, a Japanese garden and wild flowers.

There will be cream teas available at either end of the two-mile trail and all profits will go to Sheepscombe Primary School.

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The Japanese-style garden

“You can take in as many or as few gardens as you like while walking through the surrounding woodland and countryside in this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty,” says one of the organisers Sachi Hatakenaka.

Combined entrance to the gardens is £6, free entry for children and the Sheep Hunt is £1 a sheet.

Cotswold gardening events

There’s plenty going on in the Cotswolds next month with village gardens open and a display by specialist cacti growers.

Succulents and cacti are enjoying a rise in popularity as houseplants become fashionable again.

There’ll be the chance to see a wide range in Cheltenham when enthusiasts stage their annual cacti and succulents show.

Agave, aloe and euphorbia will be among the wide range on display with classes for individual plants or groups.

The event, held by the Gloucester and district branch of the British Cactus & Succulent Society, is at Shurdington Social Centre, Shurdington, Cheltenham, on June 3, 2017. It runs from 11-4pm and admission is £1.

There will be plants for sale, growing advice and refreshments available. More information on the website

There’s a few chances to combine a day out in the Cotswolds with a bit of garden-visiting.

Gardeners in Bisley are planning to open around 10 plots on Sunday June 4, 2017.

There will be a range of size and styles and entry is £1 a garden, or a combined entry fee of £5.

The event, from 2-6pm, is raising money for Bisley WI Village Hall and there will also be refreshments and live music.

There will be gardens of all sizes open in Prestbury, Cheltenham, on June 17 and 18, raising money for St Mary’s Church and The Butterfly Garden charity.

The event runs from 2-5pm on both days and includes plant sales, nursery stands and cream teas.

Admission is £5 for adults, accompanied children enter free. You can pick up a passport for the gardens at St Mary’s Church or at any garden with the Prestbury Open Gardens sign.

Chedworth is holding an open gardens and flower festival on June 24 and 25, 2017 from 11-5pm on both days.

As well as around 13 gardens to wander around, there will be cakes, plants and produce for sale, and refreshments. Admission to the gardens is £5 for adults and there will be a shuttle bus from the village hall.

The money raised will go to the Friends of St Andrew’s and other village charities.

Plants, history and contest plans

Gardeners in Cheltenham are hosting a plant fair and getting an insight into the history of vegetable growing.

Tomatoes will be among the plants at the fair

Lynda Warren will be talking about her father’s experience and her own research in ‘The Wartime Kitchen Garden’.

The talk is being hosted by Charlton Kings in Bloom, a voluntary group that promotes gardening in the Charlton Kings area of Cheltenham.

Members are also planning a plant fair outside the King’s Hall on May 13 from 9am to noon with vegetables, including tomatoes, annuals and perennials.

And the annual garden competition will take place later in the year.

The talk will be held at the Stanton Rooms, Charlton Kings in Cheltenham on Friday April 28, 2017. It starts at 7.30pm and tickets are £6 to include refreshments. They are available from The Forge newsagent (01242 523729).

For more details about Charlton Kings in Bloom, visit the website.

Alpine show and plant sale

alpine show

Alpines will be on show and on sale at an event in Gloucestershire on Bank Holiday Monday.

Members of the Cotswold and Malvern Alpine Garden Society will be showing their plants at Maisemore Village Hall on April 17, 2017.

Classes include primulas, saxifrages and dwarf conifers and there are contests for photographs, paintings and drawings.

There will also be a chance to buy plants at the event, which runs from noon to 4pm. Admission is £3, free to under-16s and AGS members.

For more details, visit the website

Digging into garden history

The history of gardens and allotments in Gloucestershire will be explored at a day-long series of talks this month.

Gloucestershire Local History Association is hosting its annual Local History Day on Saturday March 18, 2017, with three guest speakers.

Dr Jan Broadway will talk about the history of gardening societies in the county, Dr Jeremy Burchardt, from the University of Reading, will discuss Gloucestershire’s place in the early allotment movement and Michael Brown will present ‘Ghastly Gardening: Horticulture’s Horrible History’.

The event at Churchdown Community Centre, Churchdown, will include displays by Gloucestershire Archives, the County History Trust and the Gloucestershire Gardens & Landscape Trust.

Doors open at 10.30am and the event closes at 4pm. Admission is free and there will be refreshments available for a donation. A full timetable can be found at the association’s website .

The day has been sponsored by The Midcounties Co-operative Community Fund through the Gloucestershire Community Foundation.

Cleve West talks about gardens, health and turnips

Leading designer Cleve West is coming to the Cotswolds next month to talk about the importance of gardening to health. Ahead of his visit, we chatted about designing, turnips and whether
he makes a difference.

It’s a cold, miserable February day and Cleve West is heading for his allotment when I catch up with him. It’s not the most appealing weather to be outside but that doesn’t seem to matter.

“It’s the dullest day you could ever imagine,” he says “and already I could stay down here all day.”

His allotment, he explains, is a place he and his partner, Christine, use as somewhere to escape.

“This is where we unwind. It’s our 17th season coming up and it would be quite a difficult wrench if we suddenly lost this little bit of sanctuary.”

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Cleve on his 2016 Chelsea garden

Yet, across the country, allotments are being seized for building land, something Cleve deplores.

“We should be protecting allotments,” he says. “They’re part of our heritage and for some people they are their only access to a garden.

“The benefits are incredible, not only for the food, but for the exercise and peace of mind. They are a place to come and relax.”

It’s these health benefits – both physical and mental – that have made him appreciate the importance of gardens and his role in creating them.

“I always wondered what use we are as garden designers and I came to the conclusion that we weren’t too much use,” he admits. “But reflecting back on some of the gardens I’ve done and then doing Horatio’s Garden, suddenly the penny dropped.”

Cleve was responsible for designing the first of the Horatio’s Gardens, set up in memory of sixth former Horatio Chapple, who was killed by a polar bear on the Norwegian island of Svalbard.

Set in the grounds of spinal injuries, they aim to help the recovery of patients by allowing them access to the natural world.

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The first Horatio’s Garden at Salisbury

Cleve’s garden is at Salisbury Hospital, a place he knew well as his best friend had been a patient there. Another garden has since been built at Glasgow, designed by James Alexander-Sinclair, and fundraising is taking place to build a third, designed by Joe Swift, at Stoke Mandeville.

It was the reaction of patients to Cleve’s garden that made him “rethink” his work.

“Some [patients] just burst into tears because they had been locked indoors without a place to go for several months.

“To get that opportunity just to go outside and feel fresh air, sunshine, rain, snow, whatever and connect with nature again. It’s such a simple thing but we all just take it for granted.

At first, he planned to fill the garden with low maintenance shrubs to keep down costs for the charity – “people don’t really appreciate the fact that it is all very well doing these gardens but they need looking after,” he observes.

But it was soon decided that perennial planting that gave a sense of the changing seasons would be far more stimulating for patients. A strong volunteer network and regular fundraising help to fund the head gardener and new plants.

It’s experiences like this that will underpin Cleve’s talk at the Gardens Illustrated Festival at Westonbirt School in March.

“It really is going to be very personal,” he says. “It’s based on my observations and experiences.”

He will cover all types of gardens from those based on healing plants to what he describes as “a more spiritual level” where a garden can help with emotional trauma such as grief.

Cleve also believes gardening is important to the wider issue of biodiversity and protecting the environment, something that he feels passionately about.

If the realisation that he does make a difference came slowly, then so did his love of gardening.

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‘Tree Spirit’ by Simon Gudgeon in Salisbury’s Horatio’s Garden

He was introduced to growing by a great aunt who lived in Chiswick, London.

“I used to go to see her and potter around the garden with her,” he recalls. “Then she got too old to do it and I took over.

“Slowly but surely I got bitten by the bug.”

A garden maintenance round in his early twenties, followed later by a design course with John Brookes at Kew, paid for with a legacy from his aunt, started a career that today sees him working both with private clients and designing award-winning show gardens.

Both have their stresses. While he designs with reference to the house and surrounding landscape, compromise is sometimes necessary with a client who has fixed views.

“It’s not always an easy job,” he admits. “That’s why I quite like show gardens. Stressful as they are, it’s the only chance you ever get to do something exactly the way you want it.”

Even so, he’s glad to have a year off from Chelsea and the other RHS shows giving him the chance to concentrate on his private work and beloved allotment.

It will be, he says, a “catch-up year”, a chance to reclaim areas where weeds are out of hand – probably by planting lots of potatoes and squash – and with time to grow a full range of fruit and some flowers.

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Tomatoes are one of Cleve’s main crops

Which brings us to turnips. Dinner with friends recently converted Cleve to their taste and he’s growing them for the first time this year.

His main ambition though is to build a polytunnel for his favourite crop, tomatoes. An oak is now casting shade over the greenhouse and an alternative is needed.

“It’s going to be a tomato tunnel,” he says. “Fresh, hand-picked organic tomatoes – lovely.”

It’s a sentiment that’s hard to argue with and as strong an argument for the importance of gardens as any.

Cleve West is one of the speakers at the Gardens Illustrated Festival on 25-26 March 2017 at Westonbirt School, Tetbury. For more information see website

There are three Horatio’s Gardens or more information about Horatio’s Garden see here