Shot! The Perennial Sanctuary Garden at the 2017 RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

I may be a harsher critic than most, but for me there was no one stand-out garden at this year’s Hampton Court. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some good things to see on the show gardens, just nothing truly exceptional. And certainly very little deserving of commendation.

Of course, that’s subjective. But ultimately it’s a matter of opinion, and mine clearly differed from the judges, who in their usual munificent way managed to reward every single show garden with a medal of one colour or another. Receiving one now seems almost a given for taking part, rather than a recognition of outstanding planting, design or conception.

In fact, this year the RHS awarded 141 medals to exhibitors, which included no less than 57 golds, 47 silver-gilts, 29 silvers and eight bronzes. That more gold medals were handed out than any other colour surely only devalues the prestige of winning one. Receiving a gold medal should be reserved only for the truly outstanding.

I really struggled to find more than a handful of gardens that caught my eye, let alone that I wanted to spend time photographing. In the end, I focused on just three, which for different reasons, seemed worthy of their story being told. I’ve already reviewed The Oregon Garden, a naturalistic tableau of that state’s diverse scenery and flora, which struggled to fully convince due to its small size.

One of the biggest at the show was the work of one of the new breed of garden designers, 31-year old Tom Massey. It was a rapid return for Tom who only twelve months previous won a Gold for his ‘Border Control’ garden that he designed in collaboration with John Ward. Inspired by the refugee crisis. it just looked desolate and unattractive. When I first saw it I remember thinking it was more of an art installation with a political message, than a garden.

Tom Massey on his Perennial Sanctuary Garden (Created using Prisma)

This year, Tom’s garden was way less bleak, and way less conceptual even though it was part of a new category introduced by the RHS this year called ‘Gardens for a changing world.’ Apparently, this was all about reflecting the more sustainable direction gardening is taking worldwide and meeting the challenges we face in our ever-changing, uncertain world. I’m not exactly sure what that’s all about, nor do I understand quite how this garden fitted that brief. What I do know is I liked it. I liked it for the simplicity of its design and its celebration of colour. But more than anything, I liked it because it was good to shoot.

In plan it was a circle within which there was an S-shaped spiral path. Unlike most show gardens, this one actually encouraged people to walk on it. As you did so, the colours and height of the planting changed from low and hot, to high and cool as you approached the centre.

Of course, like so many show gardens, there was a story attached to the concept: it was supposed to depict a journey from chaos to calm. And like so many before it it was sponsored by a charity — in this case, the charity for those working in the horticultural trade. To be honest, like most people, I just want to appreciate a show garden for what it looks like, not the story it’s trying to sell.

Helenium Moerheim Beauty

That being said, what appealed to me more than anything else about it was the planting. With its blocks of colour, mainly created by massed planting of the same species, and the contrasting curved buff-coloured pathways, it was arguably the most photogenic of all the gardens at this year’s show. Two plants in particular stood out for me.

Helenium Moerheim Beauty

First was the Helenium Moerheim Beauty aka sneezeweed. With its vivid red petals and brown flower boss, it looked fabulous against the beige path. And the Agapanthus ‘Navy Blue’ looked equally good en masse.

From a photographic perspective, it meant you could get a lot more creative with your compositions than on other gardens.

Agapanthus ‘Navy Blue’

When you look more closely at Tom’s planting, you can see he uses a lot of grasses to create density. These work particular well in photos as they evoke movement and provide layers of visual interest.

Inula Helenium and Helianthus Annuus aka the common sunflower and Kniphofia ‘Lemon Popsicle’

Sadly, the one perspective I wasn’t able to capture, would have been the most impressive and that was an aerial view of the garden. In so many ways, this shouted out for some kind of high viewing platform, as without the benefit of height, the design concept was somewhat lost.

On press day, a photo-op had been arranged with two body painted models posing on the garden. In these situations, usually I avoid joining the scrum of photographers vying to take take the same shots as each other, but this time there wasn’t much of a press pack and I thought the models would make for some good pictures. I liked the floral body painting, but was disappointed that the female model kept her bra on!

In my review of The Oregon Garden I commented that whilst it made for good photographs, I wasn’t sure it was good enough to merit the silver gilt the judges gave it. Exactly the same could be said of the Perennial Sanctuary Garden as it too received the same award. If I had to rate one above the other, I’d have to say this was the more successful of the two. That said, if the plots had been transposed, I’m sure The Oregon Garden would have looked better bigger and Tom’s concept wouldn’t have worked if constrained within a 7m x 7m plot.

It goes to prove the perennial adage: that when it comes to show gardens, size matters.

Helenium Moerheim Beauty

Behind the image: All these images were shot handheld with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and either the 12–40 2.8 Pro or the 75 1.8 lens. Getting good shots of entire show gardens is almost impossible as there are so many things that get in the way, from pink signage, white tents, other gardens or trade stands, other visitors and not forgetting other photographers. This was the very first garden I shot and whilst I went back later in the day to shoot some more, I wish I had spent more time photographing it. But time is always a premium on press day and with so many gardens to look at, it’s simply not possible to cover even the ones you like to the level you wish you could. Despite my limited time, I’m really pleased with these set of images, I particularly like them because they’ve come out looking quite painterly. Shot at Hampton Court on 3 July 2017.

Dahlia Mystic Enchantment

See my review of The Oregon Garden here

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Gary Marlowe

Gary Marlowe

Creator of images that are out of the ordinary, reviewer of live music and live events and interviewer of interesting people