A mythological figure symbolising nature inspires Cleeve West. In the last of her series on gardens of the future, Helen Chappell meets an eco-modernist who aims to balance wild and artificial
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The Independent Culture
IT IS SURPRISINGLY comfortable to sit down on the barbaric-looking bench at the bottom of Cleve West's garden. It may look like a cross between Fred Flintstone's sofa and a piece of surreal scenery from a Krazy Kat cartoon strip, but the chunky fire-blackened wood fits the body and you find yourself hugging the large wooden ball which serve as arm-rests. Dreamt up and made by his collaborator, Johnnie Woodford, the bench is one of the key objects which set the style of this backyard. Primitive yet elegant, this garden is a stimulating blend of the hard and the soft.

There is no shortage of plants in this tiny plot in Teddington, Middle- sex. A giant 4ft phormium bulges from a raised bed faced with beaten copper, fatsias and yuccas burst out of pots, a loquat tree (Eriobotrya japonica) and a standard holly loom over beds full of alliums, acanthus and spiky grasses. "I've got a bit of a thing about grasses," says Cleve West, a slender young man in baggy shorts and T-shirt, "There are so many amazing species that I have to try not to cram too many in. That one is Carex testacea and the one over there is Calamagrostis "Stricta" - it looks a bit tatty because the cat likes to eat it." There is even a carpet of lawn grass on the roof of the black-stained shed cum archway. The cat likes that too because it attracts unwary sparrows to peck it for worms.

Entitled "Homage to the Green Man", a version of this garden won the RHS silver-gilt medal and the George Cooke Memorial Award for the most innovative garden design at the Hampton Court Flower Show last summer. Ever since, people have been politely enquiring if he will create an "ecological" or "environmental" garden for them too. But it would be quite misleading to stick such a narrow label on his work. "This garden is as much theatrical as ecological," he points out. "Although we never use pesticides we don't make a big fuss about it." What he has achieved in his own garden - rebuilt from the Hampton Court materials in a more enclosed space - is much more interesting. While planting may be lush, the shape and texture of each leaf and stem has been carefully considered for artistic effect. The hard landscaping is quite modernist in its geometry of line and proportion.

The inspiration for his garden features is happily eclectic. Stepping on to the patio, you are confronted by a copper monolith trickling water, via a trio of mysterious wooden gourds, into a rectangular pool. "I think Johnnie might have been partly inspired by the monolith in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey," he says, reaching down to one of a pair of strange black eggs sitting in the paving. He opens it up to reveal, instead of a baby dinosaur, another comfortable garden seat. These seats, he confesses, are a touch reminiscent of the space monster pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. At the same time, I decide, they remind you of African tribal art.

Nothing is straightforward in the rest of the garden either. To reach it, you must cross the rectangle of water that stretches between the ivy- clad fences. Water nuzzles the edges of a large stepping stone and sparkles between (mortar-less) blocks of rough-hewn granite. "Granite is the heaviest stone you can get," he explains. "So I wanted to make it look as if it were floating."

Under the archway and just in front of the copper-clad raised bed is a symbol of one of his most cherished inspirations - a sculpture of the Green Man. It was made by his friend Jennifer Cox for the Hampton Court show and represents a character from ancient European mythology. Leaves and stem grow out from the mouth and engulf the head of this alarming figure. It is a symbol, he tells me, which has cropped up in art and folklore for centuries - from the stone carvings of gothic cathedrals to the ceremonies of Morris dancers. "The Green Man is a reminder of our strong link with the natural world, a link which we are constantly trying to kill. I think we should enhance rather than destroy it."

He frowns nervously "I'm also a vegetarian and I hate killing anything, even a greenfly. But I don't want to sound like some wacky New Age hippie."

Nor does he wish to ally himself with the extreme eco-puritan wing of contemporary garden-making. Few of the plants here are wild or native British species. There are no rolls of mouldy old carpet to mulch the flower beds, no rotting heaps of kitchen waste and even the rainwater butt has been ingeniously resited underground to improve the view. His partner (she's an artist and print-maker) also appreciates this emphasis on eye-appeal. "The thing is to set a balance between the wild and the artificial," he points out. "For me, the eco bit goes without saying, we don't use pesticides and chemicals and I do include plants which attract wildlife and still look good if they get nibbled by snails. Gardeners have been hoodwinked by advertising and the chemical companies for too long." At the same time, he is a strict believer in the principles of good design. The garden deliberately echoes the clean lines of his modern Sixties-built house and everything in it serves a function as well as being good to look at.

This side of his nature has been influenced by his training at Kew Gardens under the eminence grise of modern garden design, John Brookes. From him he learnt the secrets of harmonising the line and proportion of the layout with the shapes, colours and textures of plants. Cleve West's original degree had been in fine art and physical education - an odd-sounding combination which actually makes good sense for anyone who builds as well as designs gardens. This career had not been a burning ambition, however. After graduating he had drifted into garden construction and maintenance "because there weren't any teaching jobs about at the time". Luckily, he found it more creative than he had thought and decided to study it more formally. When John Brookes introduced him to the sculptor and woodworker Johnnie Wood- ford, the creative juices really began to flow. Since the combination of Woodford's garden furniture with his own design and planting won medals at Hampton Court, his career has been poised for take-off.

"It's so exciting when Johnnie and I work together because the possibil- ities seem infinite. I draw plans of various layouts and he crafts the objects and puts his personal spin on them. We're always impatient to try new ideas." Working from a rented field near Brighton, Woodford turns recycled timber (from trees felled because of Dutch elm disease) into the bizarre garden features which perfectly complement West's eco-modernist gardens. "What we need now is an adventurous client with a bit of money," he says, "and we could really get going."

His contemporaries certainly see him as someone to watch. "He desperately wants to break out of the mould and develop a new line of thought," says Andrew Wilson, chairman of the Society of Garden Designers. "His Green Man garden at Hampton Court came out of a need to show people that gardens can be different." While conceding that he is not a fantastic - or trained - horticulturist, the designer Jill Billington believes he "uses plants sensitively". He is adaptable to new materials in the garden and achieves a rare synthesis of art, ecology, plants and sculpture. "The effect is very lush, green, friendly and warm." Accord-ing to the experienced designer David Stevens, Cleve has evolved "his own palette of plants which he uses very well".

Cleve West is in turn an ardent fan both of his mentor John Brookes and fellow Young Turk designer Dan Pearson. He also admires the bold use of plants by the American-based designers James van Sweden and Wolfgang Oeheme. "They use banks and banks of ornamental grasses which look almost edible," he enthuses. The Brazilian Roberto Burle Marx is also on his list for pioneering the use of greenery as living sculpture. In this country, though, he fears that garden design lags behind, especially in its attitude to planting. "So many people think no further than traditional bedding plants," he complains, "and they use colour without any thought. I sometimes give up on my planting plans because clients insist upon sticking in all the wrong plants as soon as you leave. People forget that green is the most relaxing colour of all."

So how does he see the garden of the future? Will he be creating his bizarre backyards to challenge or to reassure the clients to come? "I'm really most interested in keeping people sane," he says, "by providing a retreat - a place to feel safe and relax in. You don't need to imitate nature and plant a wild meadow in a tiny town garden. It's more a question of fusing nature and culture." The ancient philosophy, in other words, of the Green Man, jazzed up and recorded for the 21st century.

"Gardens are going to become more and more important to people in the future, as noise and stress and pollution take their toll on all of us. We're going to have to give this a lot of new thought." As if on cue a jumbo jet roars overhead on its way to Heathrow Airport, shattering the peace for several minutes.

"See what I mean," he says.

! Cleve West can be contacted at 20 Blagdon Walk, Teddington, Middlesex TW11 9LN (0181-977 6470)