Urban gardener, Cleve West: Shock of the new

Click to follow

Friends who own a perennial nursery have remarked that they can guess the name of a garden designer from his or her plant list. I wasn't sure whether to be alarmed or comforted. I know we all have our favourite plant associations, but I wonder now if there's a danger of becoming too complacent, of relying on the tried and tested?

Designing gardens from the relative sterility of an office environment can be tricky sometimes. Photos, or even film of a garden can help jog the memory and stir the imagination; but there's nothing like being on site to get a feel for a place, for its various comfort zones and sightlines. When it comes to planting, aspect and soil conditions - not to mention the existing flora and the client's preferences - are taken into account before a list of suitable plants can be drawn-up. Of course, there's nothing wrong with relying on the usual suspects - they may be old-hat from a designer's point-of-view, but quite often they are new to a client. It's important, too, not to assume that rare plants will always make a garden better. Common plants have often earnt their ubiquity by doing a good job! Even so, using the same plant palette over and over is slightly suspicious.

If familiarity with your plant base is breeding, if not quite contempt, but a lack of enthusiasm, it's time to visit a specialist garden or nursery where you can rub shoulders with a much wider range of plants. Seeing plants in a garden setting can be as inspiring as the very first time you became hooked on horticulture.

This is exactly what happened at Spinners Nursery near Lymington in the New Forest a few weeks ago. We'd come to buy an elusive cherry, Prunus rufa, for the teaching garden at Wisley. Its reputation as one of the most intimate and interesting woodland gardens also had me thinking about a project in Dulwich, south London, where a client wants a taste of woodland (albeit on a much smaller scale).

The owner, Peter Chappell, gave a tour of the garden and introduced us to some of the plants that had inspired him since he started work on the garden with his wife, Diana, some 46 years ago. Hot on our heels, by sheer coincidence, was Anna Pavord, who'd come with a friend to buy Paeonia wittmanniana; while we enjoyed the bonus of being able to chat for longer than the usual snatched hellos/goodbyes at flower shows, we scrutinised each other's baskets in case there had been something we'd missed.

Both of us agreed that gardens boasting unusual plants often lack sensitivity in their effort to spell things out. Not here. Here there is treasure, not arranged as a showcase, but carefully placed to suit each plant and its neighbour, making the associations appear as natural as possible, the harmony effortlessly achieved. Erythronium, trillium and ferns did their best to ignore six weeks of drought, while early flowering rhododendrons and a magnificent stewartia had us so enraptured, the main reason for coming was almost lost amid thoughts of how to transport some of this magic to our own small town-garden.

Bringing woodland to the city might seem a little odd (if not cruel to the plant in question), but many urban backyards dogged by shade provide just the right conditions for woodland plants to flourish. So it wasn't long before a snowdrop tree ( Halesia carolina) was sitting in our trolley. It may not have the dynamics of the phormium we plan to replace, but its beautiful, late-spring blossom will add a new level of interest and anticipation.

At the informal checkout, our trolley was full: Illicium floridanum, Stewartia sinensis and a Hydrangea aspera ' Peter Chappell' looked shifty together as if to say, 'I just know he hasn't the space'. But Michelia yunnanensis, a magnolia-related, medium-sized shrub that Peter hailed'a plant of the future!'looked confident. And why not? With its beautiful, long-lasting and delicately scented white flowers with yellow boss emerging from an almost edible looking brown-velvet indumentum (the hairy casement), it will be a talking point on its own, displaying a versatility that other plants can only dream about. Where to put it wasn't a concern. My only worry was filing my copy before Anna.