Cleve West on the secrets to gardening success, Chelsea Flower Show and designing something special

PUBLISHED: 16:53 22 May 2012 | UPDATED: 20:19 23 May 2014

Surrey gardener Cleve West

Surrey gardener Cleve West

A six-times RHS gold medal winner, CLEVE WEST, who is based in Hampton Wick, is one of the country’s most respected garden designers. Here, we find out the secrets of his success and discover what advice he has for other Surrey gardeners

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine January 2012

Words and photography by Leigh Clapp


AS ONE of the country’s leading garden designers, Cleve West oversees projects far and wide, but is never happier than when he is working right here in his home county.

“I travel all over the country and abroad, but it’s nice to work in Surrey as the landscape is both beautiful and varied,” says Cleve, whose garden design business is based in Hampton Wick.

“We are always looking for interesting projects, but if they are in Surrey then even better, as local work also means sleeping in your own bed at night, which is always nice!”

Design ethos
Often known as ‘the quiet man of gardening’ for his reserved, calm nature, Cleve came to public attention with his first show garden at RHS Hampton Court Palace in 1994, which won silver gilt. Three golds followed at Hampton Court shows before another silver gilt and then a gold at Chelsea brought him to even higher prominence.

Then, in 2008, his gold medal winning Chelsea garden was awarded RHS People’s Choice and last year not only was it another gold at Chelsea but he also scooped Best in Show with a contemporary sunken garden, partly inspired by the Roman ruins of Ptolemais in Libya.

“I enjoy the contrast between old and new elements – for example, putting modern sculpture in a more traditional setting,” says Cleve, who will be back at Chelsea again this year designing a garden for Brewin Dolphin, one of Britain’s largest investment firms. “The 2011 Chelsea garden has helped show how successful this approach can be.”

Another essential characteristic of his designs is the use of fine quality materials, such as stone and timber, and often the addition of other eye-catching elements.

“I find gravel gardens particularly interesting – they have an energy about them that is hard to beat,” he says. “And I also love the surreal nature of topiary gardens too.”

Cleve discovered a passion for gardening after tending to his aunt’s garden as a way of keeping fit. He had studied art and sports science at Brunel University and his original aim was to represent the country in the long jump.

However, a sporting injury changed his direction, firstly to working for a fine art publisher and then to garden design.

It seems only fitting that a visit to the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, a place that would later see him achieve such acclaim, was the final catalyst that gave him a clear career path, and after completing a Design Course at Kew with the renowned John Brookes, he began designing gardens in 1990.

“John was a great influence on me, both for his understanding of outdoor space and also the way that he encouraged students to experiment on top of sound design principles,” adds Cleve.

Back at home in Teddington, another passion of Cleve’s is his allotment in nearby Bushy Park where he spends time whenever he can, growing an array of vegetables.

“Our home garden is very small, mostly evergreen and only needs clipping back twice a year, so in some ways is rather unfulfilling from a hands-on gardener’s perspective,” he says. “We enjoy eating in it if we get chance, but that is rare because the allotment can take up huge amounts of time, though it’s rewarding on so many levels.

“Ideally, I’d have a garden big enough to grow food at home but until we move house the allotment will more than suffice.”

Local landscape
For now, he’s happy pottering around his vegetable patch among the other allotment holders and bringing his own special touch to the gardens of Surrey and beyond.

“I just like the variety that there is to be found in Surrey,” he concludes. “Thames Ditton Island is where I lived as a child, so I’m always drawn to the River Thames and River Mole, but I love walking too so I’m particularly fond of the Downs.”

  • Get in touch: Cleve West Landscape Design, Navigator House, 60 High Street, Hampton Wick KT1 4DB. For more information, call 0208 977 3522, send an e-mail to or pay a visit to the website at


Cleve’s tips and trends for 2012

  • As ever, the golden rule is keep it simple. Over-complicated designs that try to cram in too many elements come across as being too fussy and discordant.

  • Try to think in broader terms of space, scale, proportion and light before focusing too intently on the plants themselves.

  • If you are planning an extension to your home, think carefully about how much space you want to steal from the garden. Too many extensions are out of scale with the land they occupy making it difficult to create harmony between the house and garden.

  • The grow-your-own fad is showing no sign of letting up, with long waiting lists for allotments, so more people will consider turning some of their own garden over to fruit and vegetables, although it’s often more work than they bargain for! It may even spark more garden-sharing where people who can’t manage their garden for whatever reason allow neighbours to use the space.

  • In light of the continuing problem bees are facing with pollution and disease, I’m hoping that people will have a better understanding of the food chain and appreciate that all insects have a role to play in the garden and are important to the health of the environment.

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