ISSUE 82  |  Dog Days of Summer

Off Hours: How Chelsea Flower Show Star Cleve West Survives His Day Job

July 25, 2013 3:00 PM

BY Kendra Wilson

What does a top garden designer do to relax? He gardens, of course–but not exactly where you’d expect. Cleve West, winner of two consecutive Best in Shows at Chelsea last year and the year before, spends his free time tending to a plot that couldn’t be more different from the conceptual spaces he creates for clients. Not especially private and the opposite of chic, his patch is in a West London community garden (in the UK it is called an allotment) and has been his personal project for a decade.

Cleve’s 2011 book Our Plot, part memoir, part manual, part state-of-the-world discourse, takes us through the highs and lows of allotment life. Meanwhile, we’ve been invited for lunch:

Photographs by Andrew Montgomery.

Above: Cleve West is the Gary Cooper of the garden design world. Modest, sincere, assured, he is admired by all. Did I mention that he can cook? Besides growing vegetables, fruit and flowers, Cleve does a surprising amount of entertaining in the allotment that he shares with his partner, Christine Eatwell. They use a variety of garden-side cooking contraptions: a grill, a gas-fired oven, and a hand-built pizza oven.

“The oven is like a hearth bringing people together,” says Cleve. “It has made me love the plot even more.”

Above: “Many hours are spent not growing vegetables,” admits Cleve, shown here with his grill, picked up in Normandy, and the impressive pizza oven, which has a brick base, mud and sawdust dome, and bottles placed in the middle to stop the heat from going down. After much experimentation, Cleve followed Kiko Denzer’s instructions in the book Build Your Own Earth Oven.

Above: “Allotments are not always that attractive from a Chelsea judging point of view,” says Cleve. His plot, which is on the large side at over 2,700 square feet, is designed around a series of raised beds.

“Some people think that the word ‘design’ is a little too pretentious and would rather their garden ‘evolve’ over the years,” says Cleve. “But how you arrange your plot, whether you draw it on paper or not, is design.” His intriguing wild tangle–I mean design–contains a rotation of vegetables including squash, beans, leaks, artichoke, onions, and gladioli by the shed.

Above: Cleve West’s client-based designs are characterized by sculptural forms and so, too, is his allotment. Wigwams made from coppiced hazel are finished off with heavy duty chains instead of insubstantial twine. They support beans and gourds, and last for about a season. Also shown here: corn, cabbage under netting (to keep out pigeons), and, in the foreground, gauzy purple verbena bonariensis, always a favorite at Chelsea.

Above: Recycle, improvise, and modify. This is the heart of the British community garden ethos. “If I had control over all the allotments, I would ban pre-fabricated sheds,” says Cleve. “I’d urge people to make their own in the name of local distinctiveness and individuality.”

This shed, with its old corrugated iron roof and reclaimed door, is armed with a lock, which is perhaps its main point. There is no formal security in allotments so essential items are kept under lock and key.

Above: Cooking at the plot intensifies the enjoyment of fresh food. Basic ingredients–seasoning, spices, oil and vinegar–are kept in one of the sheds, but key elements, such as pizza dough, are made at home and carried in.

True, cooking and entertaining without electricity and hot water involves extra work, but chopping and frying onions is far preferable out of doors than in. Cleve, shown here, prepares bhajis, Indian vegetable fritters, from a recipe handed down from his grandmother who was born in Calcutta. Both she and Cleve’s mother were in the movies, which may explain some of Cleve’s star quality.

Feeling inspired? Here’s Cleve’s recipe for a simple relish made on a barbecue or makeshift grill. He promises that allotment cooking “doesn’t get much easier.” Pair with naan or pita bread for a quick lunch.  

Blackened Eggplant Chutney

Serves 2-4

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium eggplant
  • A handful of green tomatoes
  • Some chopped fresh chili (up to half a teaspoonful)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • Small bunch of cilantro
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Good squeeze of lemon juice

Instructions:

Put the eggplant and green tomatoes on the barbecue or open fire and char them until they are black and “all squidgy” inside. Then cut along the middle and scoop out the contents of both eggplants and tomatoes. Mash, add the rest of the ingredients, mix, and eat!

Above: Bonfires are considered anti-social in summer, but in autumn and winter they are common practice as a way to burn garden waste. Cleve suggests using these fires as a feast opportunity: roast chestnuts and freshly-dug potatoes amid the embers. Nothing will ever taste so good.

For more allotment bounty, see Bounty From a North London Allotment.