Photograph by Chaz Oldham
If you know of Cleve West as a top garden designer, you may be surprised to see him here! Cleve is very highly regarded in his profession, with six Chelsea Flower Show gold medals, two Best Show Garden awards and a People's Choice prize to his credit. The Horatio's Garden he made for Salisbury Hospital's Spinal Treatment Centre was the first of several such projects, all by acclaimed designers.
But alongside all that, Cleve is a passionate advocate for animals and a committed vegan – on social media you’ll find him talking about animal campaigns more often than about gardening. His recent book The Garden of Vegan covers a range of topics from food production and diet to wildlife-friendly gardening.
He is also famous for the delicious onion bhajis he makes for allotment open days, and another sideline is the entertaining Three Men Went to Mow sketches he films with fellow garden designers Joe Swift and James Alexander-Sinclair.
Find out more from his website, and on social media:
Facebook Cleve West
and Instagram cleve_west
LN: You've been well known for years as a top garden designer. Now it seems that standing up for animals has become as important as your design career, if not more so. What triggered that change?
Cleve: 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 or 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 and our awareness of how pandemics are almost certainly going to become more prevalent (and even more deadly) due to zoonotic spillover, there is still reluctance to engage with these issues that are making the future increasingly uncertain for our children.
Linda: Which campaigns have you been particularly involved in?
Cleve: I can’t compare myself to activists who spend a significant amount of their free-time campaigning for animals, but in the past I’ve been involved with raising awareness at some local slaughterhouses, particularly a chicken slaughterhouse near the Olympic Park in Stratford. People often say they’re cutting down on red meat and eating more chicken. If only they would take a minute to see the conditions these animals live in and how they meet their end, it’s the stuff of nightmares. I don’t care what colour that animal’s flesh is, it still belongs to a sentient being that wants to live.
The campaign to rid the world of fur is ongoing. We banned fur farms in the UK back in 2000 but so much is still being imported and it’s depressing to see so much of it still being used as accessories such as fur trims and pom-poms.
These days I’m trying to focus of encouraging horticultural organisations such as the Royal Horticultural Society and Kew to shift to plant-based menus at their establishments and events. People are beginning to understand the negative effect that animal farming has on the environment, so sometimes it’s easier to focus on that than the moral argument against hurting animals unnecessarily.
There’s also the Vegan Land Movement, a great form of crowd-funded activism. Supporters help buy back land from the dairy industry for rewilding. It’s in its infancy but has already purchased two plots in Somerset and looking to buy a third. This is a fantastic way of giving land back to nature. Find out more from their website.
Linda: Are there some areas where you’ve already seen change for the better?
Cleve: Well, for years the RHS hasn't engaged with me on the subject of plant-based catering, probably because I was too noisy and bombarded them with so many facts and figures that they clearly thought I’d lost the plot! I’m delighted to say that dialogue has been resumed and it’s very positive, so we’ll see what comes of that and I’ll keep you posted.
Elsewhere there's been a gradual shift towards plant-based food in supermarkets and other outlets, so the stigma attached to being vegan is quickly being eroded. If you’d told me five years ago that I would be eating a vegan pie (and a good one at that) before a game at Brentford Football Club I’d never have believed you.
Linda: Could you tell us about the work you’re doing with primary school children on your allotment, and what you hope they will take from it?
Cleve: Yes, Christ Church CE Primary School is Battersea are pioneers in outdoor learning. They have access to a walled garden near the school and I helped them with a veg plot within the school grounds. The gardens are used for all lessons in the curriculum - the children learn about the natural world and gardening from their first day at school. Most importantly they're taught about the importance of other life forms and that they shouldn't be harmed unnecessarily. Pre-COVID, a small group would visit the allotment each year to see how we garden veganically, but that’s been put on hold for now.
There are also plans to hold cookery events at the school where children, parents and staff can learn how to cook fresh, organic, healthy and affordable food. I’m looking forward to seeing that work and picking up a few recipes.
Linda: With The Garden of Vegan, was your aim to reach people whose main interest is gardening?
Cleve: Indeed, the intention is to inspire gardeners to adopt a plant-based lifestyle. 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, 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.
Linda: It seems that your allotment and the community there are very important to you – perhaps as a sanctuary, and as a contrast to the gardens you design for others?
Cleve: Yes, our garden at home is small so the allotment is very precious to us and really did live up to its sanctuary status during the lockdowns. Of course, there’s an element of design and intervention, but you’re right - it does feel like a complete antithesis to the gardens I design, especially with our ‘relaxed’ approach letting nature have more of a say. There’s a shady area under trees at the back, part of which we try not to disturb - just looking at it brings a sense of calm and fascination. Having said that, nature has a way of taking back much more quickly than you think, so if we want the plot to be productive it has to be managed. If we wanted to be self-sufficient we’d have to be a lot more organised and efficient with our given space.
Linda: What changes would you most like to see in the next ten years to the ways we treat animals?
Cleve: Too many to mention! Certainly a ban on hunting in the UK and the import of fur would be a good start, and with the way the hunting fraternity has shot itself in the foot lately it’s very much a possibility. It would also be great to see the end of animal testing and the import of fur.
Getting Oxfordshire County Council to acknowledge the damage that animal agriculture is doing to the climate and the environment and shifting to plant-based food* was a landmark achievement that's got to happen on a broader scale if we want a real chance of providing a more secure and stable future for the next generation. At the very least schools and hospitals should ditch animal products for the nation’s health and the health of our children.
Educating children about the value of life (from the ant to the elephant), the truth about how animals are farmed and the interconnectedness of all life forms will help future generations to understand and accept that their survival and the health of the planet depends on how we treat and respect others. In the meantime we have to get politicians to accept that plant-based systems will give us the best chance of repairing some of the harm we’ve caused and figure out a way of helping farmers transition away from animal farming. I’m not optimistic that this will happen within a decade but I think there will be a substantial increase in the number of vegans in the UK.
*This refers to the Feed Our Future campaign which is urging councils nationwide to commit to plant-based catering.
Killed at Newfields Abbatoir, December 2017: portrait by Christine Eatwell
Linda: Anyone involved in animal activism will inevitably come across gut-wrenching images of horrible cruelty. How do you strike a balance
between keeping yourself motivated on the one hand, and on the other, becoming so sickened at the scale of brutality that you feel like giving up?
Cleve: 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.
Linda: Your wife Christine’s sketches of animals destined for slaughter were an excellent (but of course very sad) addition to The Garden of Vegan. Do you plan to work on another book project together?
Cleve: I don’t think so - mostly because I’m such a slow writer! I wouldn’t mind updating The Garden of Vegan at some point, as it would be great to highlight the link between intensive animal farming and pandemics. It'll never be a best-seller (a pity, as all my profit goes to animal sanctuaries and vegan organisations) but perhaps gardeners will find it useful as more of them make the connection.
Cleve's famous onion bhajis at an open day at Bushy Park Allotments - a fundraiser for the Disasters Emergency Committee's Nepal Earthquake Appeal. He made more than 600 bhajis that day, helping towards a total of £1100 raised and donated.
Linda: What advice would you give to any young person who wants to be a campaigner for animals?
Cleve: I think be flexible to begin with. Join some social media groups and maybe go to a few demos, vigils or outreach events to get a feel for the different types of activism. There is no one right or wrong way, as everyone is different and the public responds in different ways too. What might turn someone off might make another go vegan in a heartbeat.
Of course it’s good to get out of your comfort zone from time to time but if you can apply some of your activism to your work or your interests (art, media, cuisine, etc) the more effective and satisfying your activism will be.
Linda: Finally – the Three Men Went to Mow sketches you’ve been performing with Joe Swift and James Alexander-Sinclair are very entertaining – I especially like the clever way of meeting the lockdown challenge in Digging a Hole! How did they start, and are you planning more of them?
Cleve: I can’t remember whether James or Joe came up with the idea first. They’re both luvvies and very much at home in front of a lens whereas I tend to cringe in front of it. Clearly though, I’m easily led! My favourites are the ones with Alan Titchmarsh at Chelsea, another doing a bake-off at Mary Berry’s house and The Good the Bad and the Ugly spoof with Penny Snell, ex-Chair of the National Garden Scheme.
They take a fair bit of time to put together so once I started spending more time doing animal activism it sort of fizzled out, but as you mentioned, we did one for Horatio’s Garden during lockdown, so who knows what the future holds? Ideally we could do a Clockwork Orange spoof where they go vegan after being tied up and forced to watch the films Earthlings, Dominion and Land of Hope and Glory back to back - in fact, that’s such a good idea I'm going to get some eye clamps fabricated just as soon as possible!
Linda: Thank you very much, Cleve, for answering my questions, and for everything you do to raise awareness of how we treat animals and how we could do far better! Let's hope that the coming year will see more steps forward.
The Garden of Vegan is published by Pimpernel and is available from bookshops including those at RHS gardens, or you can order it here from Bookshop.org.
Watch THREE MEN WENT TO MOW: the National Gardens scheme, in which Cleve, James and Joe attempt to make cakes to impress Mary Berry ...