Urban gardener, Cleve West: School's out

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The Independent Online

The sculptor Johnny Woodford once gave me the nickname "Reckless West". While I loved the punk era of the late Seventies/early Eighties (which fuelled an early desire to use shock tactics in gardens), my conservative dress code and pathetic constitution for drink or drugs failed to ignite the wild-child within.

The name crossed my mind at the end of April, when I planted several tomato plants outside at the allotment, a good month before any self-respecting horticulturist will advise. It wasn't so much being reckless, more desperate to make space in my greenhouse where the good weather had caused an unprecedented surge of growth. Lettuce, coriander and basil were already being harvested from containers and we needed space to start the next batch of successional salads, not to mention our beans and cucurbits. Something had to go and, as we had gone slightly overboard with our tomatoes (largely because of the success with our outdoor tomatoes last year), they seemed perfect for the job. If they were damaged by frost then there were plenty of others lined up to replace them.

Six plants also found their way to a teaching garden I've designed at RHS Wisley, and I've since learnt that more than one eyebrow was raised. I don't blame them. Bad gardening practice must surely be frowned upon in a garden that is trying to promote learning. But, if the tomatoes survive, there's an obvious educational point to be made here about climate change, so I left it to the discretion of Andrea Fowler, who has recently taken charge of the garden, as to whether they should stay.

The garden, together with Wisley's stunning new glasshouse (behind which the teaching garden sits), will open later this month as an educational tool for visiting primary schools. In comparison to the drama of the rock feature and "Root Zone" within the building, it is quietly understated. A mud wall with a sound pipe is probably the most exciting element you'll find in the garden (it's the bit I'm fond of, anyway), though I suppose the shed with an eye-shaped window might advertise the fact that it's been designed for children.

Teaching gardens are perhaps the more challenging projects. They have to address a whole list of issues that relate to education (ie, what children, teachers, steering groups and sponsors would like to see) without detracting from the most important rule of thumb from a design point of view - keep it simple. We agreed from the outset that it should be more of a garden than a theme park. Disneyfying it with bright colours, play-structures and buttons to press for information ignores the one thing that children have an infinite supply of … imagination. The only button to press in this garden will, I hope, be somewhere in the mind. The garden, therefore, is meant to give a flavour of what Wisley has to offer and provide enough inspiration for teachers to formulate a lesson-plan for any subject in the curriculum.

Choosing enough different plants to make it interesting from a teaching point of view meant that huge brush-strokes of planting were impossible, and I have been guilty of looking rather enviously over our mud wall at the bands of perennials that have been orchestrated by designer Tom Stuart-Smith.

Naturally, my palette has been influenced by colour, shape, texture and scent; whether the plant has any use (medicinal, culinary or practical); or simply, as in the case of Abelia grandiflora, because they are the first in the plant index - for the garden isn't just about horticulture. Teachers will use the space to inspire learning in any subject, from biology to art and poetry to domestic science. Needless to say, the spectre of climate change will be accentuated because the tomatoes survived my touch of recklessness. Whether this will be the norm from now on, who knows? What the children visiting the teaching garden may reap in the next 50 years is anyone's guess. Without wanting to sound too morbid, let's hope they learn from our mistakes.

Wisley's new greenhouse and teaching garden is now open. For more details, call 0845 260 9000 or visit www.rhs.org.uk/wisley