Sunday 7 June 2020

Special feature: Q & A with garden designer Cleve West on THE GARDEN OF VEGAN

"It’s not a subject you can really ignore any more, especially now mainstream media is making the connection between animal agriculture and climate change, not to mention the link with pandemics."

Photograph by Chaz Oldham
Cleve West is a highly-regarded garden designer, with six Chelsea gold medals and two Best Show Garden awards to his credit. Recent projects include his Horatio's Garden for Salisbury Hospital's Spinal Treatment Centre (the first of several, all by leading designers) and work with primary school children, bringing them to his own allotment and helping them to set up gardens at their schools. He is a passionate advocate for animals and a committed vegan, both of which inform his gardening practice. The Garden of Vegan covers a wide range of subjects: personal reflections, sustainable gardening and farming, ecosystems, animal abuse, the nutritional and environmental advantages of a plant-based diet, and even his own recipes. As well as photographic illustrations the book includes poignant portraits drawn by Cleve's wife, artist and printmaker Christine Eatwell, of animals photographed as they await slaughter.

Cleve West answers questions from Linda Newbery.

Find out more about Cleve's work and campaigns from his website, and on social media: Twitter @clevewest Facebook Cleve West and Instagram cleve_west

LN: You've been well known for years as a top garden designer. Now it seems from your social media activity that your animal advocacy and championing of the vegan lifestyle have become at least as important as your design career, if not more so. What triggered that change?

Cleve West: It was the shock of seeing the horrors of animal agriculture and the damage it’s doing to our health and the environment. Not speaking out about it felt like complicity. I spent a lot of time wondering whether I should use different social media platforms to keep my advocacy for animals separate from work, but that felt like an apologist approach. I may have lost followers/clients as a result but I’m only showing and speaking about the realities of animal agriculture and the threat it poses to life on earth. If people can’t handle the truth they can look away or keep scrolling until they find a photo of a pretty flower! What’s alarming is that, given the current circumstances, there is still reluctance to engage with these issues that are making the future increasingly uncertain for our children.

LN: In the introduction to your book you say that you'd begun to question the importance of your design work, in spite of (or because of?) having achieved such outstanding success. But you write movingly about the Horatio's Garden you designed at Salisbury, and since then you've brought school groups to your allotment and worked on gardens projects for their schools - in all of which plants and gardening contribute to the wellbeing of others. Does this mark a change in your work ethic?

Horatio's Garden
CW: Yes. Before I was vegan, while I understood the therapeutic value of gardens, I’d often consider my worth as a garden designer in terms of what I actually contribute to the world. Being vegan has accentuated that and made me question Thomas Church’s maxim that “gardens are for people”. I realise it’s impossible not to harm things unknowingly as we build our homes and gardens, but now that we understand more about the many other life-forms that share the garden with us (and that arguably they're more important in keeping things ticking over) it seems fair that they should be given consideration when planning our interventions. Horatio’s Garden and the Bee Kind Garden for Christ Church School have helped me understand how we can garden for both humans and non-human animals alike, but the emphasis is still from an anthropocentric point of view. Natural gardens or gardening for wildlife is still quite challenging as an aesthetic. I don’t have all the answers, so I suppose the short answer is that I’m still learning.

LN: Do you think the horticultural industry has been slow to embrace sustainability? What changes do you applaud, and what changes in attitude are still needed?

CW: Yes, I had a conversation about sustainability with Geoff Hamilton in 1994 when I built my first show garden. It’s disappointing in that almost twenty five years later people are still using herbicides, pesticides, slug pellets and peat products in their gardens. Revelations by Dave Goulson in his brilliant book The Garden Jungle about how chemicals in the plants we buy from nurseries can harm bees are really alarming.

As with transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle, convenience seems to play a major role in stopping consumers from making ethical choices. Profit is also a big factor for nurseries, so I hope that the current crisis will focus the industry on what they can do to create more sustainable products and practices.

LN: I love your book but need little persuading, as I'm already vegan and a veganic gardener (though I hadn't heard that term before!) Are you hoping to reach out more widely - to people who haven't considered veganism and in particular how it might relate to their gardening?

CW: Indeed, the intention is to inspire gardeners to adopt a plant-based lifestyle. When I first started speaking out for animals I used a lot of graphic footage to raise awareness about the cruelty involved in animal agriculture. Naturally, most people looked the other way, so it was a revelation to me when I realised that vegans and gardeners share the same USP… plants. As gardeners we all love plants. We love growing them and eating them, so if a plant-based diet can help us mitigate climate change, reduce the chances of future pandemics (I’m kicking myself for not including that in the book!), feed an ever growing population and relieve the pressure on the NHS by keeping us healthy, it’s a win-win situation on so many levels.

BUPA Garden, Chelsea Flower Show 2008: Gold Medal and BBC People's Choice Award
LN: It's clear on your website that you want your ethos to be evident in every garden you design. Have you ever had to curtail a project because the client wanted something you felt unable to deliver on principle, e.g. because it would destroy a habitat?

CW: To be honest I’m still finding my feet on that one. One or two current projects involve a fair amount of earth-moving which is something I’m feeling increasingly uncomfortable about these days. I’m encouraged by conversations I’ve had with prospective new clients about things like wildlife and biodiversity. People are beginning to acknowledge the importance of the environment and to be interested in enhancing the natural world in their own small way. What I keep reminding myself is that if I walk away from a job, then someone else is going to do it and that person may not be as sensitive to a site nor make any effort in mitigating disturbance to habitats, etc.

LN:  In a recent interview you said that the fire has gone out of you as regards making show gardens. But are you being offered chances either to create show gardens or to take on longer-lasting projects to demonstrate your principles? You're probably in a unique position to influence others by showing the way.

CW: There’s a vegan-inspired show garden on the back-burner (a collaboration with Darryl Moore and Heywood-Condie) but it needs a suitable sponsor. I’d prefer to concentrate on real gardens for now and will be happy to work with clients who appreciate the bigger picture, or indeed to encourage those who haven’t considered the wider environment before but are willing to learn. I’m sure there will be others joining the dots now - it’s going to be interesting to see how the Covid-19 experience will inspire the next generation of designers at future shows.

LN: Anyone involved in animal activism will inevitably come across harrowing evidence, much of it photographic, of gut-wrenching cruelty and abuse. How do you strike a balance between keeping yourself motivated on the one hand, and on the other, becoming so thoroughly sickened at the scale of brutality that campaigning seems hopeless?

CW: Yes, the reality and scale of the oppression, violence and exploitation is beyond anything we can imagine - if you dwell on it too much it can break you. I limit the amount I look at these days but use it to keep the fire stoked and help me remember that while using levers such as the environment and health to persuade people to go vegan, the main reason is to put an end to the unnecessary harm and suffering we cause to sentient beings.

LN: How is your campaigning zeal seen by your garden design peers? Are you seen as extremist / eccentric, or are they willing to listen to you and consider veganic principles in their own work?

CW: That’s a good question. To begin with, when the shock of watching films like Earthlings, Cowspiracy, Forks Over Knives made me try and turn the world vegan in a day, I think many of them thought I’d lost the plot and they were right, I had. A couple of people have called me an extremist but interestingly won’t watch films like Earthlings, Dominion or Land of Hope and Glory. If they did I’m sure they’d understand the true meaning of the word ‘extreme’. It’s difficult being patient when so many animals are slaughtered every second of each day, but over the years I’ve had enough encouraging messages from designers and gardeners (who have either gone vegan or are getting close to it) to feel encouraged, and have stood shoulder to shoulder with a couple at vigils and protests which is great. Of course, there are still quite a few who find the whole subject too challenging or inconvenient to take on board, but it’s not a subject you can really ignore any more, especially now mainstream media is making the connection between animal agriculture and climate change, not to mention the link with pandemics.

LN:  A question about the writing of your book. It's so wide-ranging, comprehensive and fully-referenced that I wonder how on earth you combined work on this with your design business. Did you set aside dedicated time to write, or were you fitting it around your other work?

CW: My assistant at the time, Ruth Lewis, did a great job keeping the design work on track so I could concentrate on writing. I tried to keep it personal to make it more digestible and to help readers relate to it. The fact-checking was a real pain and frustrating (my editor at Pimpernel Press, Nancy Martin, was brilliant at double-checking and keeping me on my toes) because I knew it would be out of date by the time the book was published with new studies and reports (not to mention pandemics!) coming to light. Some people might still look for loopholes or argue with the facts and figures, but even if they were only half-true they should still be more than enough to persuade anyone with an open mind to consider a vegan lifestyle.

LN: Finally, what gives you the most hope that attitudes towards animals will change?

CW: I’m not known for my optimism as far as the human race is concerned but I was buoyed by the heartening messages I received when the book was launched. That said, it’s a challenging read so it’s not going to fly off the shelves! I think economics, the threat of climate change and future (potentially far worse) pandemics will be the main drivers to a substantial shift to a plant-based world but, in the meantime, I’ll keep encouraging gardeners to join this important movement - plants might just be able to save us from ourselves.

LN: Thank you so much for this interview, Cleve. I hope your book will fly off the shelves, and give gardeners and others new insights and inspiration.

Killed at Newman's Abbatoir on 13 December 2017: drawing by Christine Eatwell
The Garden of Vegan is published by Pimpernel Press.

Also: find out more about Horatio's Gardens here, and see a short film about the Salisbury Hospital one (with Cleve talking about it) here:


Cindy Jefferies said...

Thank you for this. What a fascinating man, and a brilliant way to encourage veganism. And I love the new word veganic. I shall use it from now on as often s possible!

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