He is blooming in Belgravia: florist's fans include royals, Posh, Kanye and Joan Collins... and Gaga has flown him all over the world
Thousands of visitors will flock to the annual RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London this week. One local man taking part is Neill Strain from Co Armagh. He tells Karen Ireland about turning his passion for horticulture into a top business in the capital with big celebrity following
He counts Victoria Beckham, Dame Joan Collins and Lady Gaga among his celebrity clientele, but Neill Strain (33), who is originally from Mullaghbawn outside Newry, has his grandmothers to thank for his success.
The acclaimed florist, who owns Neill Strain Floral Couture in London's exclusive Belgravia, says it was growing up in Co Armagh and playing in both his grandmothers' gardens that instilled a love of blooms.
Neill, who will be hosting a special exhibition at his business to coincide with the Chelsea Flower Show, says: "Growing up we had a beautiful garden at home and both my grandmothers always had beautiful flowers fresh from their garden or a neighbour's garden in their homes, and that is when it all started for me.
"When I was 14 I was lucky enough to get a job in a local flower shop near my home and I learnt all about flowers and putting together arrangements."
After leaving school Neill decided to pursue a career in floristry and studied floral art at Greenmount Agricultural College.
"I then moved to London in 2002 to study set design and film techniques, which I also had an interest in, but the love of floral design kept pulling me back and I did further courses and worked in various florists in and around London," he said.
In 2008 Neill decided to open up his own shop in one of the capital's most exclusive districts - and he hasn't looked back.
"I work with the best flowers money can buy and am fortunate that my clientele can afford to pay for the best," adds Neill, who counts royalty - British and Middle Eastern - among his customers.
"Most of my clients, we will go in and dress their home twice a week with flowers. They are a necessity for them," he explains.
This week throughout the show Neill's clients will be visiting a special exhibition at his store.
"I used to compete in the show every year and now I do something a little bit special and have one flower exhibition. Last year it was roses, when I showcased over 65 different varieties. This year it is orchids, when throughout the week the shop will be dressed in hundreds of orchids of over 35 different varieties.
"This is a real spectacle for clients new and old to come along and see as part of the show week. The front window is dressed spectacularly and a dramatic doorway (which has won awards in the past), and also inside there are lots of different exhibits.
"I have always championed the orchid and the more you learn about these flowers the more fascinating they become.
"I love to share my knowledge with customers and industry insiders.
"The highlight of the week will be the unveiling of the doorway.
"All business owners in the vicinity will be devising some special, memorable decorations to mark the Queen's 90th birthday.
"I also take part in the Chelsea Fringe, which runs from this week until June 12."
The Chelsea Flower Show is the horticultural spectacular of the year and has been running since 1913.
This year a special floral arch has been created to mark the monarch's birthday, but the show, as ever, promises a breathtakingly wide look at all things with even a passing connection to gardens.
In the Great Pavilion visitors will view the exhibits of more than 100 specialist plant breeders, and world-famous percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie has inspired an acoustic garden that plays musical notes. A pink green-tipped chrysanthemum has been developed by Dutch firm Deliflor in honour of the youngest royal, Princess Charlotte.
Her brother Prince George had his own daffodil two years ago.
A poignant tribute to the fallen of all wars has been erected in the gardens of the Royal Hospital Chelsea with a stunning vista of 300,000 individually crocheted poppies.
In total there will be 550 exhibits at the show, and visitors can also marvel at gravity-defying stone sculptures and an 'invisible' greenhouse.
The really well-heeled can pick up an outdoor kitchen or a garden cinema, while a floating bench may stretch the pockets of us lesser mortals.
But one thing you will not see is a garden gnome.
The decorations have only been allowed into the show on one occasion in 2013, as the organisers say they distract from the botanical exhibitions.
Neill gets most of his flowers fresh from Holland and says he always buys the rarest and most beautiful he can.
Bouquets start at £10, and go up to £10,000 for an arrangement.
"My clientele include Middle Eastern royalty from Abu Dhabi and Dubai who love their flowers and are willing to pay the price for the rarest.
"I also have a huge celebrity clientele, many of whom are confidential, but people like Victoria (Beckham), Dame Joan Collins, Kanye West, Donatella Versace and Lady Gaga have all tweeted about me in the past."
Such a fan is Lady Gaga, she has flown Neill all over the world to do arrangements for her at various events.
However, despite his celebrity following, Neill says his biggest fans are his parents Aidan and Leonitia, who closely follow all his work.
"Mum and dad are so proud of me and what I have achieved here and they love to come over to London and see the store in all its glory," he said.
With 10 siblings on his mum's side and 10 on his dad's, Neill says there is always a family wedding or event that requires his services.
"I love getting back home and come back to see my family every five or six weeks.
"Being so busy it is hard to carry out all the family events, but I try to help out when I can."
When told he must be the perfect dinner party guest, Neill is quick to correct me and say that floral etiquette would dictate that you send a bouquet the day after an event.
"To bring one on the night of the event is to inconvenience the host as they have to unwrap the flowers and place them in water.
"It is better to send one the next day as a token of thanks and appreciation, and this also means you have seen around their home and are aware of tastes and colour schemes, and know what to select."
As to his own favourite flower? Neill adds it depends on the season and his mood at the time.
"In spring I love old-fashioned flowers that you would find in your granny's garden, such as tulips or daffodils."
Neill says his studies in film have helped him in his chosen career path as it has added a theatrical dimension to his work, particularly when he is covering events.
"I love my work, and the rarer the flower the better," he adds.
"I love seeing a piece come to life with lighting and even music and backdrop. Floristry is a real art in itself."
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show will be open to the public from tomorrow until Saturday