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'Everyone needs a bit of luck'

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Sally Nex Sally Nex | 19:30 UK time, Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Sometimes the only difference between a garden that wins Best in Show at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, and one which 'only' wins a gold medal is a hefty dollop of good luck. That, and the talent and skill to make the most of it.

The Daily Telegraph Garden

Certainly Cleve West, winner of this year's top accolade and possibly the most coveted crystal decanter in existence (Cleve says he's going to fill his with olive oil) with his garden for the Daily Telegraph, puts much of his success down to being 'very lucky'.

His dramatic sunken garden, punctuated with iconic pillars and paved with cobbles, melds modern sculpture with ethereal, jewel-like plants that seem to dance in the air. But it wasn't supposed to be like that.

First, the weather conspired to ruin his plans to use delicate Iris setosa, Verbascum phoeniceum and alliums – all flowered and finished long ago in this year's exceptionally warm spring. It forced him to look elsewhere for his planting scheme.

Cleve West

Cleve West

'Editing those out I think has improved the garden, because if they'd been available it might have given that usual sort of 'Chelsea' look,' said Cleve. 'Without them, people are thinking, 'Wow - that's different.'

Then he hit on the idea of using the bark from the plane trees towering above the site as a template for his planting scheme.

'There's nothing to relate the garden to at Chelsea except the trees, so I looked at the trees and saw the bark and thought, there's a plant plan written for you right there!' So I took a picture of the bark, overlaid it on the plan, and used that as a starting point. It gave me exactly the artless, natural look he was after.

Last-minute flashes of inspiration may have given his garden the edge, but the concept has been coming together for some five years now. The seed of the idea was planted on a visit to Libya in 2006, when Cleve saw the 'magical' Roman ruins at Ptolemais.

'It was only after I designed the garden and put the columns in that I realised I was actually subconsciously referring back to a memory [of Libya],' he reflects. 'And once I'd made the connection, that then informed what I was going to use for the stone and the general feel of the space.'

The Daily Telegraph Garden

The planting is something of a departure for Cleve: known for his naturalistic style, this year the garden has a gentle, pretty feel, full of bright, intensely-coloured cornflowers, Achillea 'Taygetea' and lime-coloured euphorbias sprinkled amid feathery bronze fennel and daisies. There are one or two typically quirky touches: most remarkably, he uses the striking umbels of flowering parsnips to add their acid-green starbursts to the mix, courtesy of his allotment.

'We dug them up in winter and potted them on and hoped for the best, and then the warm spring came. Normally they flower two weeks later than Chelsea, but they're right on the money this year,' says Cleve.

Stealing the show is exquisite Dianthus cruentus, its glowing claret jewels bursting through the planting in sparkling clusters like fireworks. 'It has an amazing, luminous quality even when it's dull – we were here at twilight last night and it was still pulsating and resonating against the yellow of the parsnip,' says Cleve. 'The lime green against that red isn't an immediate colour association you'd put together, but they really work.'

Cleve might put this sort of thing down to luck, but it's not everyone who would see the vibrancy in such a combination and dare to put it together in the first place. And it's not everyone who would think of putting Roman ruins together with parsnips and planting plans inspired by tree bark, either. Something tells me winning at Chelsea may require a little more than luck after all.

Sally Nex is a garden writer and blogger and part of the BBC Gardening team.


  • Comment number 1.

    I see that Dianthus cruentus seems to be sold out everywhere. Is Cleve to plants what Delia Smith is to ingredients ?

    I prepared a virtual tour of Cleve's garden over on the enduring gardener blog which might be of interest to readers unable to get to the show. Here's the link :

  • Comment number 2.

    The Chelsea Flower show – ‘the world’s most famous flower show’

    Thank you Enduring Gardener for that lovely link. Its very useful for someone in my situation.

    What was my highlight you ask? I can’t tell you, because I didn’t go. I couldn’t go. You see, I am a father of young children and so I am prohibited from attending.

    Children under 5 are not allowed. Period. I quote from the RHS website; ‘For reasons of comfort and safety, children under five, babes in arms, pushchairs and prams are not admitted to the show under any circumstances.’

    Ok so the RHS have one of the best flower shows in the world but I cannot take my 4 year old daughter who loves all things gardening.

    Check out my full rant at

  • Comment number 3.

    That seems a bit unfair mucky gardener. The world is really not a a child/parent friendly place anymore.


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