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.”

cleve west
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.

cleve west
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.

cleve west
‘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.

cleve west
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

Cotswold gardening talks 2017

Gardening experts are heading to the Cotswolds this year offering advice on everything from early spring bulbs to the meaning of flowers.

Want to know how to build a pond and plant a bog garden, or perhaps pruning trees is a puzzle. Workshops, lectures and a garden festival will give gardeners ample opportunity to pick up tips and advice.

Here’s a round-up of the gardening talks on offer.

Allomorphic

Stroud-based home and garden shop Allomorphic is also the setting for a series of day courses and lectures with lunch.

Award-winning designer and RHS judge Paul Hervey-Brookes will be sharing his design expertise in three courses covering planting for winter, gardening in a small space and the basics of creating a show garden.

Cotswold talks
Paul Hervey-Brookes on his gold medal garden at Hampton Court

Other courses include how to make beautiful hand ties, summer door wreaths or arrangements to suit every celebration.

The ‘Queen of Herbs’, Jekka McVicar will be sharing her knowledge of plants medicinal and culinary while container planting expert Harriet Rycroft will explain how to have pots that look good all year-round.

Dates, details and prices here.

Gardens Illustrated Festival

The magazine’s second festival at Westonbirt School has a line-up of some of the gardening world’s best-known faces.

Designers Cleve West, Tom Stuart-Smith and Arne Maynard are among those who will be looking for paradise, exploring the health benefits of gardens and the use of beautifully crafted materials in gardens, while Sarah Raven will be showing how to combine colour in borders.

cotswold talks
Westonbirt School hosts the Gardens Illustrated festival

The roses of Sissinghurst, how to be a green gardener, and the canals and water gardens of Birmingham are just some of the subjects that will also be explored during the two-day festival.

The event on March 25-26 also has tours of the garden and a plant and design clinic alongside the gardening talks.

For details, see here

Highgrove

The Prince of Wales’ garden is hosting a lecture and lunch with Shane Connolly, floral arranger for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding.

cotswold talks
Highgrove is the setting for talks and workshops

He will show how to create arrangements that convey particular sentiments while explaining the historic symbolism of flowers.

The garden at Tetbury also has courses with Caroline Tatham and Kate Durr of the Cotswold Gardening School on planning and planting borders, container gardening and garden design.

cotswold talks
Caroline Tatham of The Cotswold Gardening School

For more details, see here

The Generous Gardener

The Generous Gardener near Cirencester is launching a new series of evening lectures alongside the usual daytime gardening talks.

Among those speaking at the evening events at The Coach House Garden are Bob Brown, of Cotswold Garden Flowers, with advice on new garden-worthy plants and Helen Picton talking about growing asters.

The lecture days, now in their fifth season, include two speakers and lunch. Among the double acts are Alan Street from Avon Bulbs talking about early spring treasures and Tony Kirkham, head of Kew’s arboretum, giving advice on everything to do with trees.

Cotswold talks
A series of lectures are being held at The Coach House

Leading designers Julian and Isobel Bannerman will take you through the making of their gardens while Derry Watkins, of Special Plants nursery, will tempt you to grow plants that are borderline hardy.

Designer Rupert Golby shows how to bring the garden indoors and writer and plantsman Stephen Lacey will suggest plants to introduce scent.

Bog gardens, ponds and how to create and plant them is explained by Timothy Walker, former director of Oxford Botanic Garden, while Telegraph columnist Helen Yemm will be choosing plants for a stunning summer show.

Plantsman Roy Lancaster shares his lifelong passion for plants and Helen Dillon will give an insight into the making of her famous garden in Ireland.

For dates, prices and more details see here

Cotswold Talks
Bob Brown is one of the speakers

Cheltenham Horticultural Society

Renowned plantsman Nick Macer, of Pan-Global Plants, will be the speaker at a special anniversary lecture in Cheltenham in October.

‘Things that turn me on – confessions of a plant freak’ is being organised by Cheltenham Horticultural Society as part of its 75th anniversary celebrations.

Nick, who is also on the BBC Gardeners’ World presenting team, will be talking at Balcarras School in Charlton Kings.

Tickets will be on sale later in the year. For details, see here

• Enjoyed this? Do leave me a comment and share this post via Twitter, Facebook or email.