Urban gardener, Cleve West: The only way to travel

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The Independent Online

I'm in receipt of the following e-mail from a Mr Russell Spencer: 'If you are interested in a piece of nostalgia, there is an old white Transit van with your business name written on it that appears to have been abandoned near my house.'

The van was indeed once mine but friends have questioned the wisdom of admitting to be an ex-white-van-man. Hardly the sort of vehicle a garden designer should be driving, it would seem. I did graduate to silver-van-man well before the papers were making a fuss about silver being the new white, but the stigma will undoubtedly stay.

The white van that had my name emblazoned on the side, accompanied by an art nouveau flower motif, was a reliable workhorse right up to the time I gave it to Gillian, an actress friend, who needed a runaround for a thriving children's theatre she was running. Thereafter I would often get reports from friends and strangers whenever it was spotted around the country. Even the police called once after someone saw it being parked at speed and the occupant fleeing. 'Oh that's Gillian,' I said calmly, 'she'll have been late for an appointment ... but her entrance will have been worth it.'

Annoyingly, all the years I sported 'Cleve West Garden Design' on the white van I never got one enquiry, yet the day after I bought my silver van from a plumber, two people, having noticed the Corgi sign on the side of it, stopped me in the street to ask if I could service their boilers. Armed with just a pair of secateurs and an onion hoe, I was badly equipped to help, though, oddly enough, very tempted to have a look just so I could charge them a call-out fee.

A van is a useful vehicle, without a doubt; something that doesn't go unnoticed by friends (or even worse, friends of friends) who are always asking to borrow either it, or both you and it, to get rid of their garden waste. Garden rubbish, for urban gardeners at least, is a perpetual problem. Even for those who compost, shred and recycle, there will always be a surfeit of hedge clippings or woody material that will take an age to rot down. Pernicious weeds and diseased material too are often difficult to deal with. Not everyone has the space to leave piles of debris to rot naturally, or to just leave as a five-star habitat for insects, and bonfires in town are much more anti-social than in the countryside.

On an educational project where recycling is high on our list of objectives, there is just enough space for some mini-beast towers. These columnar wood-stacks will be infilled with thicker garden clippings to serve as a suitable habitat for insects while inheriting (I hope) the sort of sculptural quality a termite mound affords. I'll also build one or two at the allotment and report back on whether it might be a useful way of dealing with such debris.

Trips to the tip in those early days took their toll on the white van. It eventually became so riddled with rust that debris that had found its way into various pockets eventually rotted to humus and began sprouting vegetation from bird-seed to fragments of bindweed. A policewoman who inspected the van during a random check suspected that the roots from some of the plants, together with cobwebs from a whole host of spiders that found the van to be an ideal food source, were actually keeping the van together. I'm sure my placating smile looked as feeble as it felt.

Meanwhile, with my office nearby and London Transport at my fingertips, I'm seriously thinking about ditching the silver van as soon as a stuntman friend of mine has found a suitable film in which to give it a good send-off. I will then rely mostly on a Pashley bicycle, a present to myself after the Chelsea Flower Show this year. Hand-built, English and satisfyingly heavy, one couldn't want for more, apart from maybe a wicker basket and side saddles. Both are on my festive wish list and I'm hoping they'll arrive early enough to show off leeks, parsnips, carrots and sprouts picked early Christmas morning. If you've got it, flaunt it.

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