Shot! The RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2018

My five floral favourites from the world’s most famous flower show

First things first, this is not a comprehensive review of this year’s Chelsea. Rather, it’s a collection of impressions — my personal highlights if you will, gleaned from spending a few hours in the showground on press day, my eighth Chelsea in a row.

Having closely followed the show’s build-up on social media during the months leading up to May, I arrived without a great deal of anticipation for any single show garden. Based on what I’d read and seen, none of the ten on Main Avenue really had me that excited.

Not long ago, there were over twice as many show gardens, but finding sponsorship clearly remains a big challenge for garden designers and the RHS alike.

For a variety of reasons, the financing of most show gardens nowadays fall into five principal categories: those sponsored by a tourist board, those sponsored by a charity that aims to tell the story of a medical condition, those celebrating some kind of anniversary, those which commonly focus on something based around ecology and those inspired by a food or drink item.

It’s no surprise therefore that there’s a fair amount of sameness in how today’s show gardens are conceived…and what they end up looking like.

This year’s crop sounded all too predictable. Four of the ten were themed around destinations, repeating the oft seen notion of bringing a slice of somewhere else to Chelsea. And most important, there wasn’t one that appeared overly ambitious in its conception.

Even if it’s just with a single show garden, having some kind of wow factor is surely essential for an event as prestigious as Chelsea, but this year it seemed like anything out of the ordinary was absent from Main Avenue.

So what caught my eye on press day? Well, of the show gardens, just three got my attention. Top among those was the David Harber and Savills Garden. Designed by Nic Howard, more than anything else, it was a showcase for some of sculptor David Harber’s most eye catching artworks. Without doubt, it was Chelsea’s most ‘instagrammable’ garden.

Its main feature was Aeon, a curvacious turquoise monolith wrapped around a golden sphere made of gleaming rods.

Whilst it may have been inspired by a plant, to me Aeon looked like a huge eye.

Iconic to look at and fabulous to photograph, it was undoubtedly the visual highlight of this year’s show, especially when seen from the front through the ‘wormhole’ created by various curved metal panels. I particularly liked the copper-coloured ones with their laser-cut geometric patterns. I assumed they were corden steel — something that was almost omnipresent on most of this year’s show gardens — but in fact they were made of weathered mild steel.

This was also the only show garden I got to go on. Stepping foot on the hallowed gardens is usually reserved for celebs and BBC presenters, but it’s the only way to really appreciate the design and get the shots that others can’t.

Despite my admiration for the garden, the judges clearly weren’t feeling the same way, deeming it worthy only of a lowly bronze medal, one of just two show gardens to receive such faint praise.

One that was a shoe-in for a gold was the M&G Garden seeing that M&G has been the sponsor of the show for the past eight years. In truth, it deserved gold as, just like last year’s Best of Show M&G Garden by James Basson, it was great to photograph and similar in concept. Designed this time by Sarah Price, the garden was inspired by her visits to the Mediterranean, and in particular the Maltese island of Gozo.

Curiously, Gozo was also the inspiration for last year’s M&G garden. Both also featured strong geometric forms. Then it was a beige-coloured quarry, this time, it was tan rammed earth walls and stacks of reclaimed tiles.

Both hues provide an excellent backdrop to the planting and so make for good photos.

I particularly liked Sarah Price’s choice of trees, especially the Crepe Myrtle and Pomegranate.

When I was there, there was an artist on the garden, but unless you’d been told by one of the M&G staff that the planting had been influenced by Monet I doubt you’d ever have made the connection. It was yet another example of the narrative being in the designer’s head, whilst the garden is seen by visitors as simply nice to look at.

I would have loved to have got some shots on the garden itself, but unfortunately that was never possible when I was photographing it.

The third show garden that appealed to me was the Trailfinders South African Wine Estate garden. Designed by Jonathan Snow, it was inspired by a Stellenbosch vineyard, and was everything you’d expect it to be. And, if one was being honest, everything we’ve seen before as gardens sponsored or inspired by vineyards are a regular feature at RHS shows.

More than the Western Cape homestead facade complete with thatched roof, what made this one stand out was it featured the most exotic planting of any show garden and colours not seen anywhere else.

It also used 40 tonnes of golden quartzite stone (sourced not from South Africa, but from Scotland) to recreate the landscape of the Cape Fold mountains.

Divided into three planting themes, the one that appealed most to me was the scorched Fynbos landscape, where many of the plants had deliberately been charred to reflect the fires that regularly occur in this part of South Africa.

Having seen what Main Avenue had to offer, I headed into the Great Pavilion to see the Interflora installation, always one of my highlights of Chelsea. In all the years I’ve been coming to Chelsea, it’s been one of my favourite things to shoot.

Interflora’s contemporary take on flower arranging sets them apart from the majority of floral displays at Chelsea. So imagine my disappointment when they were nowhere to be seen. I’ve no idea why and for me, it left a big hole in this year’s show.

Fortunately, I found something that almost filled the gap. It was an exhibit called ‘The Floral Market’ and what immediately appealed to me was a stunning vertical floral display.

I also loved the creative squares of planting within the slate paving, with each patch consisting of a single variety.

More single varieties of tulips and chrysanths were displayed tightly packed in wicker boxes. My two favourites were a stunning chrysanthemum called Ludo and the vivid green Coco Bamboo.

I was on the exhibit for around fifteen-minutes — and had even spoken with one of the exhibitors — before I realised the company behind it was Marks & Spencer. Their branding was so subtle, you’d never have known. It was unquestionably my favourite pavilion exhibit and thoroughly deserving of the gold medal it was awarded, M&S’s 4th consecutive gold.

Created and designed by Simon Richards, the retailers Product Developer for Horticulture, the inspiration was to celebrate British flower markets, such as Borough Market, Covent Garden and The Floral Hall.

The one other Chelsea garden that got my attention was Kazuyuki Ishihara’s Omotenashi artisan garden. Once again, the Japanese designer had packed a tiny space with a huge amount of detail in a style that’s become his own.

The garden’s name – Omotenashi – refers to the Japanese concept of wholehearted and sincere hospitality, although to be honest, nearly every show garden provides a hospitable place to sit and relax.

The tiny plot was filled with maples, irises and pincushion moss, rocks, a waterfall and a pool as well as a traditional Japanese garden house.

Unfortunately, my efforts to shoot it were hampered by the BBC, whose camera crew were all over it minutes after I arrived.

So that was my Chelsea. While 2018 won’t go down as being the most memorable, it did have its moments. I’m just pleased I managed to capture some of the best of them.

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 using available light only. Shooting on press day is always a challenge – there’s not much time (you have to leave at 3) and there’s a lot to cover. For me, it’s about quickly assessing what I like and then looking for ways of getting images that won’t be the same as the hundreds of other photographers who are there. As judging also takes place on press day, access onto the gardens tends to be restricted to the BBC and celebrities, so it’s always challenging to find one of a kind compositions. The weather also plays a big part and this year – while it wasn’t always sunny – for the most part, it wasn’t too bad. More than anything else however, it’s also about timing. To get the best pictures, you have to be in the right place at precisely the right time and often that just comes down to luck. Despite the challenges, I think I came away from Chelsea with a crop of images that I’m really pleased with. Shot in London on 21 May 2018.

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