Spring Study Day 2014

SPRING STUDY DAY – Saturday February 15, 2014

Cleve West – “The Road to Chelsea”

Cleve West is a garden designer who trained with John Brooks in 1990. He took away from that experience that garden design should be an extension of the home – the transition between the garden and the house should be seamless.

But Cleve’s interest started well before the course with John Brooks. He was born in Somerset amid the most wonderful natural landscapes in Britain and feels that gardening was in his soul and just needed to be nurtured. One of his first experiences gardening was purchasing seed-potatoes for dinner from the market and when his mother pointed out the mistake he planted them and they grew. He also met a future inspiration in the garden – a tortoise . . . but more on that later.

One of his first employers was a publisher and as a result of that job he became acquainted with contemporary artists and their works. This influence will show up later in his garden designs. Cleve would have lunch with his aunt as she lived close by and he became very familiar with her garden where he felt that his interest in gardens was awakened. His aunt, when she passed away, left Cleve with an inheritance that enabled him to enroll in a design course with John Brooks.

Cleve has taken his past experiences – garden design and the use of contemporary art – and married the two together, giving his designs a fresh approach with contemporary art in classical settings of the garden.

Best in Show 2012

Turning to the Chelsea Show, we find out that Cleve has won six Gold Medals and back-to-back Best in Show 2011/2012. We also find out that the cost of a display garden can be upwards of a quarter-million pounds. The show gives designers a chance for recognition and hopefully commissions for future projects. The gardens are theatre: there is nothing realistic about the displays but the ideas created can be duplicated by the home-gardener in their own gardens.

Cleve took us through a series of digital images showing plant-selection, storing of the plants prior to the show, the space-allocation, the machinery used to manipulate the site, the mud and mayhem that is churned up and the final design. . . a perfect retreat for Cleve to get away from the Chelsea crowds for a moment of quiet time.

We are getting a clearer picture of how Cleve designs. He loves to see art in the garden. He is looking for an organic feel with stones, timber, water, etc. We were shown an image of stone-pavers that gave the illusion of them floating in water, tadpoles were added and it became a tadpole maze. We are finding out that Cleve collects ideas and these ideas are revisited again and again but always approached in a refreshing new design. He has come to the conclusion that it is all about harmony. Using materials wisely – colours, textures, e.g. yuccas with grasses. Think of the space, there is a fine balance between hard materials such as sculpture to plant materials. We were treated to a series of photos of gardens. A traditional home in Normandy where he placed a collection of very large pyramids . . . it magically worked and the client was very pleased. Cleve returns again and again to using art pieces in the garden: wonderful set of doors by Johnny Woodford and a water-feature that matched the client’s chickens, to name a couple of examples.

In one garden he was faced with the client’s leopard sculpture and how to nestle it into the design. He planted Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’. First year, it looked sparse. Second year, it looked terrific and in proportion. Third year, the grasses obliterated the sculpture. Even designers can have their “What was I thinking?” moments.

We were shown more images mixing the contemporary with the formal and it was pleasing to the eye. He experimented with open-weave balls in a field – beautiful – but then paths were mown and it became – fantastic. Taking large-scale inanimate objects into smaller garden spaces creates drama. Small gardens can handle large objects, especially if they are very tactile and textural.

Back at Chelsea, the judging of the display-gardens was becoming very stodgy and not evolving with the times, so Cleve became a RHS judge in order to sow the ideas of change. Taking the criteria from no-soil-showing to allowing hints-of-soil or even gravel to show between plants. Instead of every flower in full bloom, have flowers in bud to create anticipation of flowers to come.

Still, Chelsea is a very artificial environment with extreme waste of plant material and manpower as every project is dismantled at the end of the show. Cleve has been lucky with a few of his displays as they have been rebuilt in new locations.

In 2008 his Bupa Garden was moved to a Health Care Facility treating Parkinson’s and Alzheimer patients. A huge concrete ball was integral in this installation. During the move the strapping on the ball broke and he had visions of the ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ flash before his eyes.

We were given insight into the designer’s mind as we worked our way through the process of developing The Telegraph Garden 2011 from paper to finished garden. A quick peek at Eel Pie Island and a private garden before he told us about the Horatio Chapple project: a garden designed for the Cornwall Spinal Treatment Centre with very special criteria. Patients had to be able to access the garden even if they were bedridden. The garden has been very successful and gives the patients the opportunity to come outside and enjoy the fresh air, the plantings and the views.

Next, we were treated to the development of the Brewin Dolphin Garden at Chelsea where he used formal clipped topiary and a well-head stone. He faced many challenges with this garden as he wanted the stone to be upright but a garden at Chelsea has one important criteria . . . nothing must fall on the Queen!

This was a wonderful presentation and I could go on for many more pages.

In his closing slides Cleve treated us to a preview of his display-garden for 2014. The theme is a contemporary version of the ancient Persian Paradise Gardens. Some of the hardscape pieces may be sporting a stylized tortoise . . . .

~ Colleen Martin

See some of Cleve’s work.

Richie Steffen -“Designing with Ferns for the Northwest Garden”

Richie Steffen gave a delightful and informative presentation on “Designing with Ferns for the Northwest Garden”. Richie is the Curator of the Elizabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden near Puget Sound and he runs the Great Plant Picks program which is funded and administered through the Miller Garden. He also sits as a Director on the Board of the Rhododendron Species Foundation and the Hardy Fern Foundation.

Richie began by reiterating a question that he is asked over and over. What is it about ferns that you find so fascinating? For Richie, “it is the endless variation and diversity of fern fronds from spore formation in our natural woodland setting. The woodland setting in the Pacific Northwest is such a natural habitat, where the spore hits the ground a fern is established and thrives, and it’s the hidden details on the underside of each fern which makes them so fascinating!”

Richie recommends the rule of thumb in garden design, alternating by thirds the colour, texture, and size of plants to create interest. According to him, ferns are the masters of the colour green in any garden- or woodland-setting. Here are some of his examples of fern colour, texture, and size used to enhance the garden setting:

• The Eared Lady fern (Athyrium otophorum) adds a cool mint-green colour to an otherwise dark space in a garden.

• The Plumose Soft Shield fern (Polystichum setiferum ‘Plumosomultilobum’) blends beautifully with the foliage of hellebores.

• Southern Lady fern (Athyrium asplenioides) contrasts beautifully with the small round leaves of wild ginger (Asarum canadense) and cyclamens.

• Autumn fern or Dryopteris erythrosora looks stunning juxtaposed with the narrow-leaved grass Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’.

• Dryopteris x complexa is the largest and hardiest fern we can grow in the Pacific Northwest. Hardy to -20 F. this beautiful hybrid grows up to five feet in height and looks stunning in pots

Richie’s knowledge and enthusiasm spilled over into the theatre as he enticed us with photos of licorice ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) tumbling out of hanging baskets, miniature vignettes of the natural woodland in small concrete troughs and fern tables, grottos built into the hillside layered with Woodsia polystichoides (miniature sword fern) and the native Asplenium trichomanes (maiden hair spleenwort). Ideas abound for ways to grow and celebrate the fern: hardy ferneries, stumparies, fern tables, and even “the mink log trough in the Miller Garden.”

Richie is a superb photographer and is building an archival image collection at the Miller Garden. His photos can be seen on the Miller Garden website and for a more complete list of ferns and growing cultures go to the Great Plant Picks website.

~ Ronda Tuyp

John Greenlee – “The Meadow Revolution: The Role of Grasses in North American Gardens”

Can you hear it? The breeze dances through the grass. Bending in the wind, the seed-heads rustle and as the sun sets the grass is alive with light and movement. Grasses can bring us pleasure, and are a delight to the senses when we thoughtfully place them in our gardens.

John Greenlee has inspired me with his use of grasses in the landscape. I was lucky enough to have visited a grass ecology he designed for Westridge Farm in Langley; unfortunately, the garden is no longer there and as John said, “Herbaceous gardens are moments in time.” The garden was created, it was enjoyed and now it is gone. Since the day I visited the garden I have carried John’s book The Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses as inspiration and on this visit he graciously signed it for me.

John Greenlee has been creating grass gardens of all sizes throughout the world since 1984. He showed a slide of a grass ecology emerging from the mist in the Napa Valley and gave a nod to Thomas Hobbs (who was in the audience) that it was “Shocking Beauty.”Throughout his presentation John sprinkled in recommendations such as Carex pansa can be used as a lawn substitute – it only needs to be mown four times a year. John is realistic about grasses and knows we have to find varieties that stay green with the least amount of water as they tend to go brown and dormant during the summer.

We were then taken on a trip to England and Europe to discover how grasses are being used in some of the gardens. At Great Dixter he found a remnant grass ecology site directly across from Christopher Lloyd’s famous perennial border. Meadows appear to be simple landscapes but on closer inspection have at least 30 varieties of plants. Amusingly in the grass was a sign “Keep off the Long Grass.” John felt that the flowering perennials were trying to escape to play in the grass across the path. He recommended Christopher Lloyd’s book Meadows.

Taking this idea of combination plantings, John is now working on grass ecologies with treats sprinkled throughout but having it look as natural as possible. He feels that a balance of native species with plants such as iris, orchids, etc., can create very appealing effects. A real benefit to using native plants is the encouragement of native insects, thus working toward a balanced ecology.

At Kew Gardens, John was not impressed until he visited a display of edible grains, which triggered the thought that he would love to find a client who would commission a “Bread Garden.”

On to Wisley Gardens where he was inspired by grasses incorporated into borders by Piet Oudolf and an annual cornflower-meadow giving a one-season display. Seeds are sown in fall, winter or spring with the resulting waves of colour appearing over time. These types of gardens are not easy as working with seed is a science itself.

Next, Knoll Gardens, Ferndown Common, and then across the channel to Piet Oudolf’s Dutch village and home where grasses are highlighted in the garden designs. The key to a fabulous design is to keep the grass combinations to one or two as the seed heads may compete and muddle the effect. John is a true fan of Piet and it is here that he saw meadows morphing into more ornamental gardens with the introduction, for example, of helenium, daisies and yarrows with Festuca mairei. John encourages us to look beyond pampas grass, experiment with new varieties, try Molina grass with ferns, a fantastic combination when they intermingle; plant bulbs among the grasses for added interest. Succulents and grasses – another ideal combination.

Just before we viewed photos of John’s operation in California illustrating the plugs used for planting meadow ecologies he shared a tip: grasses 2-3 feet are welcoming for people; however, at 4 feet they become scary and anything taller is only for lions and tigers to frolic in.

We were then treated to a succession of images of important framework grasses such as Carex remota; Bromus benekenii for dry shade; Sesleria ‘Greenlee’s Hybrid’ used on The High Line in NYC by Piet Oudolf and – creating a buzz from the audience – Muhlenbergia ‘White Cloud’. To successfully grow natural-looking grasses along the edge of a border or pathway, place plants well into the bed so that they are not sheared to clear the path, which would result in destroying the integrity of the natural shape of the plant.

John had many more inspiring slides on grasses, meadows and their respective ecologies. Concluding the presentation he feels that we cannot just decorate the planet, we need to be saving it: we need to be mindful of how we move forward with garden designs.

Magic, light and movement . . . words to describe grasses.

~ Colleen Martin

View some of John’s designs.

 

Cleve West – “Our Plot”

Cleve West gave a second talk in the afternoon entitled “Our Plot” about his allotment near Bushy Park in South West London. The Bushy Park site, according to Cleve, is unusually rural. It is well protected from the outside world by a fine old brick wall that runs along the main road to Hampton, and by huge trees that mark the boundary of Bushy Park behind. It has the “tied together with string quality” he says with eclectic sheds, strange plant supports, sagging raised-beds, plenty of recycled plastic, and a sense of refuge and freedom.

The renowned landscape designer contrasts the design work he does at the RHS Chelsea Garden Show as “staged and artificial” compared to the salt-of-the-earth gardening he does at the allotment he shares with his partner Christine. The plot, Cleve says, is “life thrown together in a big melting-pot, where the power of food and family take precedence over the formality of Chelsea.”

Cleve’s new book “Our Plot” follows the progress over 12-years of the allotment where he gardens organically, producing fresh vegetables and delicious food. The first addition to his allotment was the proverbial shed, which has evolved over the years and with its beautiful sedum roof, has become the focal point of life. A sand-and-clay pizza oven has recently been installed in the old shed and “has become the best invention of all” Cleve says. The fresh garden pizzas they bake are mouthwateringly delicious, drawing friends, family, and neighbours from all over. The pizza oven has become the hub of the allotment community!

The Plot has also become a retreat where Cleve finds solace, a place where he can take the time to sit and talk to people, to enjoy the “slice of life” which is a stark contrast to the high pressure, staged, professional side of life creating gold medal garden designs for the rich and famous.

In his book, a strong sense of community emerges as the dominant theme with plenty of information on how to grow the usual allotment crops. Most engaging though, is the way the book celebrates the allotment spirit: tolerance, humour, and a willingness to help out when fellow plot-holders are hard-pushed.

“Our Plot” by Cleve West, is published by Frances Lincoln. To view some of Cleve’s professional work visit his website.

~ Ronda Tuyp