Urban gardener, Cleve West: Variations on a theme

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The Independent Online

Themed gardens don't quite hit the spot for me. I'm not talking 'wet', 'dry', 'sun' or 'shade', where local conditions dictate a certain style, and nor do I mean a preference for specific colours or ranges of plants. It's the slavish adherence to a national or

period style, completely out of context with its surroundings, that leaves me cold. In extreme cases, the air of artificiality is accentuated by cheap props and cheesy attempts at trompe l'oeil.

The French influence in our garden at Chelsea this year was fairly evident and many of the plants we used would have been happy in a Mediterranean garden. But I did my utmost not to fashion it around La Mortola or the gardens of Cap Ferrat and gave strict instructions to everyone involved to club me senseless with a mattock if I ever so much as glanced at an olive, cypress or agave.

Themed gardens have their place, of course; there's nothing like seeing the real thing in situ. And large estates with themed gardens showing plants within a certain geographic or historical context more than justify their existence by saving avid garden spotters thousands of road and air miles. But how many times do you have to see them? What I'm really getting at is: are they necessary at shows? Show gardens are meant to display the wealth of design talent we have in this country. With our incredibly rich heritage of gardens that are open to the public, do we really want to see them elsewhere ad nauseum? I have a nasty feeling that the resounding answer to this is yes. Such gardens keep many people feeling safe and secure and that is precisely what gardens are about ... a place of sanctuary.

If you are happy to live in this 'comfort zone', fair enough, but it begs the question of whether we have become a nation of lazy gardeners. Gertrude Jekyll (if not secretly chuffed) might well be alarmed at the way her borders are endlessly replicated, rather than being used as an inspiration for others. My observation is that a theme can kill a garden by giving you precisely what you expect and leaving nothing for the imagination. A homeopathic-like approach, therefore, ie. a distillation of the real thing, is usually more effective.

I remember my first visit to Barcelona and being enraptured by Gaudi's unique take on architecture and landscape. Sketches of amoebic terraces, sinew-like supports for pergolas and serpentine walls soon littered the drawing board, waiting to be assimilated into the next project, where even the smallest art nouveau detail would have been my excuse to unleash a torrent of organic hard-landscaping.

Fortunately I saw the error of my ways before embarrassing myself and realised that, should the situation arise, an essence of art nouveau would be enough, especially in England where the style is less pervasive than say, France and Belgium, where it flourished on the back of the Arts and Crafts movement. If I were asked to make an art nouveau garden then unless the architecture of the house were emphatic enough to influence the hard-landscaping. , it would be enough just to use plants to hint at the theme rather than slavishly replicating something seen.

Umbellifers, ferns, ivy and acanthus; honesty, thistles, arums and water lilies were all used as art nouveau decoration and can be used effectively to acknowledge the style without going overboard; many of these plants work extremely well in an urban setting. The Japanese anemone ( Anemone hybrida) also evokes the spirit of art nouveau. The clump that I planted in our garden last autumn has been slow to establish, which is normal for anemones that (like ours) have been brutishly divided. But next year the delicate array of luminous white flowers will be perfect against the dark backdrop of our ivy-clad boundaries where, without getting overly sentimental, they'll remind me of a late relative's house and garden that had distinct Arts and Crafts overtones. No need to replicate it, particularly as we have a 1960s townhouse - just a hint is more than enough. The rest is in my head.