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Emma Townshend: Is Cleve West's octagonal 'paradise' plot the shape of gardens to come?


'Don't ever do an octagonal garden!" Cleve West, garden-maker extraordinaire at this year's Chelsea Flower Show, has one main piece of advice for our readers; and it's all about geometry.

He's normally an easy-going chap, even at times of stress. But on the day I visit, as Chelsea prepares to wow the world for a week, even the casual observer could tell that the man is tired. "It hasn't been too bad," he says, not really sounding convinced. "The latest I've gone to bed? I've been trying to get to bed before midnight, and I've only failed twice. And the earliest I've got up is, er, five." You cannot fault him for at least trying to look on the bright side, that's for sure.

West's garden for M&G Investments occupies a glossy corner plot, the first on Chelsea's Main Avenue. It's a lucky plot for West; as well as this year's gold medal, it's been the site of many previous wins: "My very first one," he remembers fondly, "2001, Silver Gilt. For Merrill Lynch. That was good for a first time at Chelsea!" he laughs.

Then, in 2011 and 2012, West really hit a winning streak, taking home Best in Show two years running. So now he is a seasoned old hand, and he's offering a delicious West version of the "paradise garden", that enclosed sanctuary traditional in dry countries. Two thirds of the garden is green and lush, but the front is a big surprise: "This is the wilderness outside," he elaborates. "The hostile desert landscape, but Englished up in a big way."

And I have to say, I love his Englished-up desert. Full of unusual annuals such as bluey-green Cerinthe major, the pink Papaver lecoqii and the poppy with the weirdest spelling ever, Eschscholzia (this one is "Red Chief"). West enthuses about the (orange) "Red Chief" poppy in particular, planted alongside the pink Papaver for vibrant colour effect. "I saw them, and I loaded the garden with them. It's a little Christopher Lloyd thing when you put pink and orange together. 'Red Chief' comes out red, and then when it's fully open turns orange."

Is Chelsea less fun when you've won before, and you know there are heavy expectations? "There is a sense of responsibility to your sponsor. But also there's your team," says West, who is full of praise for his. "All these people put an extraordinary number of hours into it. And it's not like they get all the glory at the end of it. Yet they buy into it, big time. They put their whole life and soul into it. The drivers from Hortus Loci, our plant suppliers, came in yesterday and they were pleased as punch just to be in the garden. We were just like, 'Thank-you for doing all that looking after the plants.'"

It was the loyal team who had to deal with West's paradisical dream of a pain-in-the-bum eight-sided fountain, on which the garden is centred. "Swatton, our main man with contracting, he's just been incredible – the amount of detailed stuff he's had to do. Because with anything octagonal, there are eight axes, so move it a millimetre out one side, and it's 20 out on the other. And stonemasons to do the gargoyles, Steve's team to do the flint-napping, Lichen Garden Antiques who cut all the stone from a single boulder. It's all handmade. We could have easily gone out and bought something," he ends wryly.

None of it's happened without a lot of hard work, though. So I wonder, have you got any tried-and-tested staying-awake methods? Any special drinks? And like a true Londoner, he comes to life with great enthusiasm: "I've got chai! I make the best chai in west London. Salt, pepper, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, sugar, milk and water and teabags. I've made it every single morning for the past three weeks." Have you converted any of your team, then? "There's a guy who used to work with us, who this year is building Hugo Bugg's garden, and he's from Nepal. The deal used to be I'd make him a flask of chai if he drove me up to the show. And he's still driving me up to the show in return for the chai."

A very successful exchange.