Cleve West’s gold medal-winning “M&G” garden is another that just fills me with joy and blows me away with its skill. The second I opened an image of it from the lovely House and Garden photographer, Claire Takacs (who had a sneak preview to the preview on Sunday!), I was hooked. I loved it within the space of a nanosecond; I’m sure before my eyes had really swept from left to right across the screen.
The really, really world-class designers get it so right you don’t really have to process any thoughts. You just fall in love from the off. And I’ve realised over the space of this week that good design supersedes all preferences I have for any particular style of garden. It’s like I can feel the skill in my bones and that excites me more than any other factor.
Great design is restful and satisfying, almost a relief to set eyes on: it’s so harmonious and balanced and ‘right’. You just feel happy and content to be encapsulated by it. As if your brain can slow down and not have to try, because there is nothing jarring, nothing shouting at you, nothing that you want to get up and move, nothing that just doesn’t feel quite right.
And Cleve’s garden is another that you can stare at for hours (days?, months?) and still keep finding new sparks of joy. It’s human nature for our eyes to be drawn to the ‘odd-thing-out’ but when everything is ‘in’, you just see the whole picture. Beautiful, yet subtle, fitting details come to you when you least expect it; you can’t believe you hadn’t notice them before.
And this is another garden where I, amazingly, loved the hardscaping at least as much as the planting. I’m quite transfixed by this stone wall, for example. Just look at it. It is absolute genius. A perfect example of harmonious contrast: interest without dominance. The old stone work sits up against newly manufactured pavers, but this tension is released through Cleve’s unifying, contemporary arrangement of stones within the wall. Enough uniformity in the width of the smaller rocks to bring cohesion with the pavers, but enough variation in colour and irregularly of the larger blocks to excite. I can’t imagine how he came up with this, let alone how he found just the right pieces and then, ultimately, constructed it with a rock necessitating machinery to move it, perched perfectly horizontally upon a weak, sloping platform of perfectly sized stones. The brain boggles.
My second favourite aspect of the hard landscaping was the fence. I hate fences. Can’t bear to see a single centimetre of them. Even the silhouette of my fence in Sydney, entirely clothed by the very vigorous Boston ivy, offended me. I just don’t want to know there is a fence there.
The funny thing about Cleve’s fence, is that I didn’t even see it the first time I viewed the garden. And yet it is pretty much exposed the whole way around its two sides of the garden; in fact directly in front of you wherever you stand. How can I possibly not have seen it?
Again, designer-genius. He chose an oak timber, the same as all seven trees on his site; a relaxed, natural pattern; subtle colourings; and a perfectly proportioned height. It feels part of the garden, not an add on and shows how possible it is to create something that feels expansive and evokes all the right emotions, in a very small space.
If I had a pound for every time I’d heard people say that you need a large area to create a meadow effect, I’d be a very rich lady. But here, in front of my eyes was the living proof. The likes of Cleve West, Andy Sturgeon and Dan Pearson have their designs oohed and aahed at non-stop, and yet I wonder if they feel quite isolated in their work. Most of us don’t really understand the half of what’s behind their designs and I wonder if we can we truly appreciate them, if we don’t truly understand them?
And so again, bizarrely, we come secondly, to the planting. There are two keys features that I adore here. Firstly, as with the hard landscaping, it’s that combination of the new with the old. The craggy, leggy blueberry bushes and wind-swept, gnarly oak trees sit alongside the fresh, delicate, perfectly-formed spring growth of perennials and grasses. Such a delightful combination, each the better for their opposite.
Cleve made a video of the design process for the garden, showing him walking through Exmoor National Park – the playground of his youth which inspired his design – where he talks of his ability to now ‘read’ the landscape in a way that he couldn’t as a child. To pick out the defining features, distill the natural processes and patterns and to translate and magnify them into what we think of as a garden. It’s a really fine balance to be able to keep the essence of the wild, whilst producing something that decisively feels like a true garden.
Which leads us to the second feature of the planting that I loved; the combining of plants in a naturalistic fashion. It really does look like it’s been growing here for years. ‘Plant communities’ and ‘landscape naturalism’ are almost becoming clichéd expressions, but Cleve’s garden explains why we are so in love with these ideas.
He has chosen plants that mingle perfectly together, just as they do in the wild, and planted them using the patterns of nature. We inherently know it looks right, that it looks natural, but few of us can replicate the subtleties and details of nature in anything like this way.
I do wish I could surround myself with this level of skill and beauty every day; I genuinely believe it affects your quality of, and outlook in, life. But for now I’ll just continue to wallow in the elation that the Chelsea Flower Show has brought me this year and try my best to learn, learn, learn, as much as I possibly can, from these inspiring, almost superhuman, creators.