“I’m back at Chelsea but this time it’s for charity” says Cleve West

Cleve West interview RHS The Garden May 2023 on his Centrepoint garden RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Gold-medal-winning designer Cleve West is returning to RHS Chelsea Flower Show this May, after seven years away, with a garden that highlights homelessness. He has won six Gold Medals for his show gardens at RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival and RHS Chelsea Flower Show. He is the only designer to win Best in Show two years in succession and he also designed a multi-award-winning Horatio’s Garden in Salisbury.

What’s prompted your come-back to Chelsea this year? After 11 years of creating show gardens, I’d decided I wouldn’t do another Chelsea garden unless it was for charity, so working with Centrepoint ticked a few important boxes. The garden is funded by Project Giving Back too, which means the charity doesn’t have to pay for it.

Why Centrepoint? It’s a charity I really support. Their mission is to give young homeless people the steer they need to navigate their lives in a better way, and get them back on their feet. Their initiative, Independent Living, involves building one-bedroom homes at centres in London and Manchester, helping the youngsters find a job and rent these homes at very affordable rates – never more than one- third of their wages. The cost-of- living crisis will result in many more homeless people so homelessness is a key message to get across right now.

What will the garden look like? The design’s based on my step- daughter’s Victorian town house in south-east London. It’s a visceral metaphor for homelessness – a demolished house, with lots of interesting layers creating habitats for wildlife, too. Nature is slowly taking over the destroyed house, with weeds you’d see on a site that’s been abandoned for several years. It’s nature’s way of healing.

People are starting to see that nature is part of us and we are part of nature, and the only way we can really save ourselves is to acknowledge that we’re not the most important species on the planet. We depend on so many other life forms to keep us alive. Gardeners are going to have to allow more space for wildlife.

In this garden the rubble piles have become habitats for invertebrates and other creatures, so although at first glance it has a ruinous look, it’s actually a thriving ecosystem. Low walls reveal the footprint of  the building, including a hearth in the basement, a symbol of family life. There’s a lot of artistic licence to convey the overall message of fragmentation and being uprooted – symbolised by a fallen silver birch, which offers another habitat for wildlife in its decay.

Silver birch saplings of different heights will feature and a front garden bearing relics of the original garden – Cordyline australis and plants that don’t look 100% perfect. It’s quite difficult trying to find lacklustre- looking plants! There will be buddleia and hopefully elderflower too.

Will the garden have a life beyond the show? The garden depicts a ruin, so we won’t be lifting it lock, stock and barrel to rebuild somewhere else, but we’ll use all the plants in various locations around London, to keep the mileage down. And the legacy pot of money from Project Giving Back is reserved for a new Centrepoint site in Manchester.

How does this garden contrast with your previous show gardens? It’s more in tune with environmentalism and biodiversity – working with, rather than against nature. It’s nothing I’ve tried before and I’m a bit nervous about it, but relishing the challenge. I’m too long in the tooth to panic about gold medals now. People will either love it or hate it, but as long as they are talking about it, that’s fine by me.

This feature originally apeared in The Garden January 2023

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