I loved Cleve West's Exmoor-inspired, dappled shade garden more than any other at Chelsea this year. It was naturalistic, soft and romantic and conjured up good memories for me.
Last winter Adam and I rented a cottage in the Quantock Hills on the edge of Exmoor and I fell in love with the combination of short twisted oak, with bright blueberry domes in an undulating carpet beneath. Cleve's garden was a cultivated, garden version of this wild landscape and I think we should all copy parts of it. If you have lots of shade, go for swathes of his natural looking plants, or if only a patch or two, choose one or two of his mixes. I’ve always been inspired by the Nuttery at Sissinghurst, planted not by Vita, but the 1960’s-90’s head-gardeners, Pam and Sybille (along with advice from the then, National Trust garden’s advisor, Graham Thomas). For me, last week, Cleve’s woodland floor tapestry became another model of shade gardening.
Below mature and elegant Japanese-style blueberry bushes, he had the little pale yellow foxglove, Digitalis lutea growing with Gillenia trifoliata, true valerian, (Valeriana officinalis) and the purple shade-loving, native Wood Cranesbill (Geranium sylvaticum). This was good in May and with the Gillenia and valerian, would go on being so through the summer.
Then there was Zizia aurea (or Golden Alexanders), a native prairie plant of North America. I am a sucker for acid-green foliage background plants such as Euphorbia oblongata, dill and bupleurum, but this, along with Smyrnium perfoliatum wins the day. Both flower for ages and don’t only do well in full sun, but grow happily in light shade. Zizia is fairly easy to grow and, although short-lived, will self-seed. It is also apparently an important plant to a number of short-tongued insects that are able to easily reach the nectar in the small yellow flowers, so this is spot on for pollinators too.
Edging the main and cross paths was an about-to-be-fashionable, nature-with-a-twist plant, the pretty white Herb Robert. This is delicate and unusual, like Cleve’s whole garden, and definitely a contender the Chelsea 2016 most popular plant. I heard so many people talking about it. I love the smell and look of the usual pink Herb Robert, often at its best self-seeding all the way down the edge of a railway track, but the white is even nicer. It was a good contrast to the spring flowering, shade-happy Phlox divaricata ‘Clouds of Perfume’ and one of my favourite plants, Amsonia tabernaemontana var. salcifolia, (with foliage almost as good as the ice-blue flowers) which Cleve had it with.
I also loved the mix of the perennial honesty, Lunnaria rediviva with the brilliant shade-tolerant Acanthus ‘Rue Leddan’, which - unlike its sun-loving, Mediterranean brother, does not get mildew even in a dry year. I have lots of this in our shady beds here and love it more and more. Beside them was the pretty, blue on blue, Aquilegia aplina, which is so easy to grow from seed. And then another top plant in many show gardens, the soft, gentle early spring yellow Aquielgia chrysantha combined well here with the matching Trollius x cultorum ‘Cheddar’.
You turn away from this chunk of almost Exmoor and feel you’ve seen a slice of nature enhanced. To me that’s what gardening should be about and in shade that’s doubly difficult. Cleve’s garden will stay with me.
Thanks for reading!