Gardening: Enchanted gardens: Lobsters of inspiration: A crustacean on a lawnmower, a Cosmic Tree of cable drums - surrealistic symbolism blooms beside the passion-flowers in a Hampshire plot. Helen Chappell slips through the looking-glass

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU are not very careful when starting your tour of Ivan Hicks's 'Garden in Mind', a 6ft Mediterranean artichoke will biff you on the head. It will send you reeling off the path and into a grassy pit at the bottom of which are the legs of a shopwindow mannequin sticking out of the earth, suggesting some poor soul descending into the underworld. 'This garden symbolises the game of life,' explains Ivan Hicks, as we inch our way around the rim of the pit.

The tortuous Serpent Path leads away from it to the 'Human Condition' area. Here you are dwarfed by 12ft ornamental grasses and surrounded by iron sculptures made of machinery. Summer bedding consists of a bed full of sticks topped by rusty springs, and a chunk of rock on a plinth constitutes a rock plant.

There's no point being sensible in such a dream-like place. Nothing is what it seems inside this half-acre plot in the grounds of Stansted Park in Hampshire. Everything symbolises something else. The three-tier box topiary tree symbolises a wedding cake which symbolises fertility. Dangling prisms twinkle like diamonds. A red lobster from a fishmonger's display sits on an old lawnmower, symbolising the surrealist poet Gerard de Nerval who used to take one for a walk on a lead.

Lobsters are a good clue to the main inspiration behind Garden in Mind. For as long as he can remember, garden designer Ivan Hicks has admired surrealist artists like Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali and Giorgio de Chirico. 'I love all those paintings full of melancholy viaducts and strange towers,' he says.

The influence of surrealism is everywhere as you look around this garden. The colourful, artistic planting is interrupted by visual jokes and weirdly puzzling images. 'This is Derek,' says Hicks, pointing out a naked shop dummy painted with a fantasy landscape including a maze, medieval tower and a classical temple reminiscent of Stourhead garden, in Wiltshire. Derek's mate Claudia is a female mannequin, painted with blue sky, fluffy clouds and the vapour trails of aeroplanes.

This skyscape appears on many other objects here. A giant painted- sky ball hangs from the roof of a bower smothered in Russian vine. There are pieces of sky in the shape of violins, electric fans and flying ducks. 'We call those Art Ducko,' confides Hicks's wife, Angie, wheeling baby Oliver in a pram and trailing daughters Alice, aged seven, and Lydia, five. Fitz, a vast black dog, brings up the rear, snorting. 'Ivan will construct a garden out of almost anything,' she explains, 'including objects found in junk-yards, in skips or donated by visitors.'

It is this ability to see the untapped potential in ordinary places and things which attracts clients to his new garden design service. 'Many people want something classic and conventional, which is fine,' he says. 'But others are more adventurous.' He has a growing reputation for building exotic landscapes and persuading the stuffiest gardeners to look at their plots afresh.

When the BBC challenged him to create a garden from scratch for the TV series Dream Gardens, the opportunity to be truly surreal was irresistible. The garden was completed in just four months. Two years later, here it is, maturing nicely and attracting a stream of visitors. Hicks has long-term plans for it. He has planted slow-growing trees in bizarre positions all over the place - blue atlas cedar trained over the path to grow into an arched footbridge, a circle of purple beech designed to form a leafy 'Rapunzel Tower' with floors, windows and a viewing platform, Betula jackmandii trained together to make a gothic arch over a piece of old church window frame.

'Trees are my thing really,' he says. 'I'm part tree myself.' He is also part artist, making intriguing 'boxes' full of golden eggs, old sheet music, bells and feet for exhibition in London art galleries. The other two quarters of his personality are divided between expert plantsman and freelance mystic.

It's hard to keep up as he dashes from place to place to explain his garden, talking incessantly layering meaning upon meaning and stopping only to smell the flowers. In no time at all we have established that the garden falls into three sections that symbolise birth, life and death (or experience, understanding and wisdom).

Not only that, it is a maze, a Buddhist mandala and a Cosmic Tree, representing the universe with its roots in the subconscious, its trunk in the conscious or axis mundi and its branches in heaven. Then there are the 13 trees of the celtic tree alphabet (birch, oak and yew denoting the turning points of the year) and the spiral symbols of the white goddess of fertility. We haven't even touched on numerology yet.

His esoteric knowledge is all the more surprising for someone from

a family of eight children who had a tough south London childhood. He never liked school much and spent most of his time playing truant. But unlike most of his fellow truants, he didn't spend his illicit hours nicking sweets or frightening old ladies. Instead, he would travel to the Tate Gallery or the Victoria and Albert Museum to marvel at their collections of treasures. 'I remember being almost the only one there, having all these vast paintings and strange wooden cabinets all to myself.' After a spell of travelling and drifting in his twenties, his lifelong love of trees was turning into an obsession. So he studied arboriculture at Merrist Wood college and looked around for some way of using his passionate expertise.

Then he spotted a job advertisement for a head gardener at the West Dean estate in Sussex, owned by the eccentric millionaire and surrealist art collector Edward James. In the 1930s James was famous for being the earliest patron of artists Magritte and Salvador Dali. By the mid-Seventies, however, he was notorious for his irascible behaviour, wild schemes and whim of iron. True to form, he 'interviewed' Hicks by vaguely wandering through the gardens and asking him the name of the occasional plant. When Hicks was stumped by one of them and bothered to look it up, his patron was vastly impressed. The job was his, and for the next 15 years, his life was transformed. When he was not helping James with his fantasies at home in West Dean (these included vast wooden palm trees attached to the house and classical music blaring through loudspeakers) he was dashing around the globe.

Hicks's life as head gardener was closer to Monty Python's Flying Circus than Gardeners' World. One week he might be required to smuggle peacocks across the Irish border, the next he would be summoned to James's Mexican retreat in Xititla, a Daliesque fantasy in the middle of the jungle, complete with sweeping staircases and gothic columns. For another home, in Italy, James demanded bamboo plants; in his Mexican garden he wanted English roses.

His instructions were communicated to Hicks in rambling letters 20 to 30 pages long, decorated with intricately painted sketches and poems. 'People warned me he was impossible to work for,' Hicks recalls, 'but I thought he was a wonderful man - intuitive, funny and intelligent. He muddled everything up and lost his temper with everyone, but I learned just to go with the flow. I had real sympathy for him and when he died I missed our bizarre horticultural games.'

Edward James died in 1984 and for a while Hicks stayed on at West Dean. He met and married Angie, who was a wood-working student at the craft college founded there by James. A couple of years ago, he felt the urge to branch out on his own. He had to leave behind his first surreal garden with his gardener's cottage, but was offered the chance to live in a beautiful Regency lodge at Stansted Park as well as the use of one of the old walled kitchen gardens for his Garden in Mind.

The espalier pear trees still growing against the bricks were the only live plants in the place at the time. Today, the beds are filled to bursting with dramatic specimens such as ornamental rhubarb, contorted hazel (Corylus 'Contorta') and the towering silver orthopogon thistles which brush our faces as we squeeze past them. Hicks is heading for a collection of objects on the other side of the path. I am trying to keep up.

'I call this The Future of Offices,' he says, waving at a broken- down wooden desk painted with more sky and clouds. The in-tray and drawers overflow with pieces of broken glass, while a female mannequin tries to make sense of it all. Her secretarial duties also include answering a telephone growing out of a flower pot and taking dictation in a chair balanced on top of a 10ft pole.

White lamium and passion-flowers twist around her feet, while the office pet (another lobster, painted with skyscape) glares at her from the top of a filing cabinet sprouting house leeks. 'It's meant to be a pun on Magritte's painting The Future of Statues,' Hicks says airily.

We are joined on the path by an errant peahen from the grounds of Stansted Park's stately home. She is trailing a brood of tiny chicks. Fitz the dog is more than a little interested in these and has to be restrained.

But we have a loftier purpose. Turning left past a bed full of trembling young aspens and lollipop-shaped Paulownia imperialis, we enter the heart of the garden. A grassy mound cut in a spiral pattern appears, decorated with huge Tannoy speakers ('our celestial trumpets') and surmounted by a white, pagoda-like tower.

'The Cosmic Tree,' announces Hicks. 'Seven layers representing the seven spheres of heaven. I made it from old cable drums.'

It looks like a cross between a piece of scenery from Fritz Lang's Metropolis and a Buddhist shrine. Angie and the children are playing happily beneath it. Fitz yawns

and snorts. Whatever the tree means it is, like the rest of the

garden, quite inspired.

Ivan Hicks's garden is within the grounds of Stansted Park, near Portsmouth. 'Garden in Mind' is open to the public on Sundays, 2- 6pm, from the start of May until the end of September. Entrance is pounds 1.01 or a lobster, large shell, mirror, prism or any other largish, suitably surreal object. Ivan Hicks can be contacted at Garden House, Stansted Park, near Rowland's Castle, Hants P09 6DX (tel: 0705 413149).

(Photograph omitted)