Meet Jimi Blake, the garden obsessive who became gardening royalty
New book shows all sides of this Irish horticultural genius and his beloved Hunting Brook in west Wicklow
Jimi Blake in his west Wicklow garden, Hunting Brook. Photograph: Sean Jackson
He’s been described by the Telegraph newspaper as one of the world’s “new plant gurus” and is chums with Monty Don (the mellifluous-voiced presenter of BBC’s Gardeners’ World). So perhaps it’s not surprising that when I tell people that the Wicklow-based gardener Jimi Blake and I are horticultural flatmates (we share a polytunnel), it’s if I’ve confessed to sharing a sock drawer with the Queen.
This is, of course, because Blake is what could be described as gardening royalty. Ever since he worked his special magic as a young graduate of the Botanic Gardens at Airfield in Dublin all those years ago, he’s been acquiring a growing international reputation as a maverick designer and brilliant propagator with a wizardly touch when it comes to unexpected, outlandishly beautiful plant combinations.
Who else would dare to dot the woolly, silver-haired cactus, Cleistocactus strausii, through a sea of carrot-coloured marigolds or mix scarlet-flowered monarda with brick-red persicaria and candy-pink filipendula to create a sea of fluorescent, shimmering colour? Only Blake.
It’s that restless, creative energy, that willingness to push the boundaries, to flout the rules, to forever explore and experiment, that has made his garden, Hunting Brook near Blessington, such an interesting place. Very little stays the same here for very long; this spring it was the turn of what Blake calls the “terrace garden” (the large, steeply sloping bed immediately below his log cabin-style house) and “Fred’s garden” (the large, similarly sloping bed facing the terrace garden) to receive radical makeovers with bewitchingly beautiful results.
“Nothing,” he says, “compares to the thrill of planting into a completely empty bed. It’s that feeling of it being a blank canvas that really gets my creative thoughts flowing.”
Somehow he’s also found time to channel some of that boundless energy into his first book, aptly named A Beautiful Obsession (£25, Filbert Press, in bookshops from September 19th) which he’s co-authored with the British garden writer and designer Noel Kingsbury. Part biography, part reference book, part garden notebook, diary and guide, it’s a hugely informative, instructive and insightful read, lushly illustrated with photographs by Bernard van Giessen and Richard Murphy.
Kingsbury’s probing text explores the making of this very modern Irish gardener and the diverse influences that have shaped Blake’s passion for plants while Blake’s contributions include the excellent plant directory and calendar, a guide to his favourite nurseries and gardens and the book’s charming family photo-album style inserts.
Readers also learn about Blake’s love of travel to foreign gardens and far-flung places and how much it has informed his style of gardening by giving him access to unusual species/varieties, many rarely cultivated in Europe, as well as why his horror of getting stuck in a horticultural rut (he describes himself as “an excitement addict”) fuels his creativity.
There are detailed chapters on the many different areas within Hunting Brook’s 20-acres including its charming woodlands, wild meadows and plunging valley along with a thoughtful analysis of Blake’s unique planting style and his work as a lecturer and garden teacher.
For those who know him mainly as the creator of mesmerisingly beautiful flower borders, this book reveals the many other sides to his horticultural genius including Blake’s love of choice foliage and subtle woodland plants, many of them being trialled at Hunting Brook in the hope that they will prove both hardy and garden-worthy.
His great love of the land and deep-rooted connection to the wild and watery west Wicklow landscape surrounding his home and garden are also explored. It’s this profound attachment that’s forever prompting him to re-evaluate the planting at Hunting Brook as he seeks out different ways to softly blur the garden’s boundaries and firmly root it within the surrounding matrix of sloping fields, distant mountains, woodlands and damp, shady valleys.
It’s the reason why he has so dramatically lowered the scale of the planting in Fred’s garden as well as making it more transparent as a way of “borrowing” the wider landscape. It’s also why his latest must-have garden tool, a telescopic saw – ‘Oh my God, it’s just amazing what you can do with it! – (see side panel) allows him to subtly thin and sculpt the canopy of trees encircling his home to reveal vistas and frame far-away views . It’s why he gardens organically and why he writes with such feeling in the book’s introduction of being “the guardian and curator of this sacred land”.
Last but certainly not least, it’s why Hunting Brook not only has that precious “sense of place” so sought after by all good garden makers, but why it has it in spades.
On September 15th, from 11am, Hunting Brook will host an Exotic Sunday with free events in the garden throughout the day. Jimi Blake will be signing copies of his new book. huntingbrook.com
This week in the garden
Sow seed of hardy annuals for much larger, more floriferous, longer-flowering plants than their spring-sown equivalents. Examples include love-in-a-mist (Nigella), corncockle (Agrostemma githago), cornflower (Centaurea cyanus). malope, Queen Anne’s Lace (Ammi majus and Ammi visnaga), pot marigold (Calendula), larkspur (Consolida), scabious (Scabiosa atropurpurea), snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus), orlaya (Orlaya grandiflora), Californian poppy (Eschscholzia californica), dyer’s tickseed (Coreopsis tinctoria) and field poppy (Papaver rhoeas).
Along with good Irish garden centres, recommended specialist seed suppliers include seedaholic.com, mrmiddleton.com, chilternseeds.co.uk and johnnyseed.com. Order/buy spring-flowering bulbs as soon as possible while stock is still high. To avoid the risk of disease and poor growth, make sure to source, healthy, plump, undamaged and unblemished bulbs from a reputable supplier.
The size and grade of the bulb will also have a significant effect on flower size and vigour – tulips, for example, are much better planted as bulbs larger than 12cm rather than the smaller 10-11cm – so although larger bulbs do cost a bit more, it’s always worth it. Spring-flowering bulbs are available from all good Irish garden centres at this time of year as well as specialist suppliers including mrmiddleton.com
Jimi Blake’s new favourite gardening tool (see main article) is a lightweight, ultra-strong telescopic saw from ARS, the Japanese company known for its excellent range of durable, well-designed, high-quality forestry and gardening tools. Weighing just 2.1kg, it extends to a maximum length of 5.6m and is the perfect tool for pruning high branches or thinning out the dense canopy of mature trees and shrubs. Available from Wexford-based Kestrel Forestry (€250 plus €18 p&p), see shop.kestrelforestry.ie
On Friday, October 18th-Sunday, October 20th, Renvyle House in Connemara, Co Galway will hold its popular Autumn Gardening Weekend with well-known gardeners Klaus Laitenberger (organic gardener and garden writer), Shirley Lanigan (garden writer) and Anye Gohlke (head gardener at Kylemore Abbey). The weekend incudes a talk and practical workshop on kitchen gardening by Laitenberger, a workshop and tour of Kylemore Abbey’s historic gardens by Gohlke and a talk by Lanigan on the gardens of Connacht and the western seaboard.
The event also marks the end of an era for Renvyle House as it will be the very last to be hosted by the hotel’s long-serving and much-loved manager Ronnie Counihan, a passionate kitchen gardener in his own right. Price of €199 includes two-nights accommodation, one restaurant dinner and one evening meal (bar food). For details email@example.com or call 095 46100.
Dates for your diary
Saturday, September 14th-September, Tuesday 17th, Mount Venus Nursery, Walled Garden, Tibradden House, Mutton Lane, Dublin 16, Mount Venus Nursery Autumn Plant Sale with 20 per cent off all plants and other special offers, mountvenusnursery.com; Sunday, September 15th (11am-4pm), Fota Autumn Plant Fair, Fota House & Gardens, Cork, incorporating the Irish Specialist Nursery Association’s final plant fair of 2019 with a wide range of plants, bulbs and garden accessories for sale, see irishspecialistnurseriesassociation.com; Fruitlawn Gardens, Abbeyleix, Co Laois, Open Day & Rare Plant Sale, 10am-5pm, admission €5/children under 12 free, refreshments available, arthurshackleton.com; Wednesday, September 18th, 8pm, Parish Centre, Church Road, Malahide, Inspiring Autumnal Planting; Ideas for Pots and Planters, a talk by Marie Staunton on behalf of Malahide Horticultural Society. Further details contact John Warren 087 2561761 or malahidehorticulturalsociety.com; Tuesday, September 24th, Foxrock Parish Pastoral Centre on behalf of Foxrock & District Garden Club, and then again on Thursday, September 26th, 8pm at Northridge House, Mahon, Cork on behalf of Cork Alpine Hardy Plant Society, Wollerton Old Hall;The Garden, a talk by Phil Smith, head gardener of Wollerton Old Hall Garden in the UK, see foxrockgardenclub.com and facebook.com/CorkAlpineHardyPlantSociety/ Saturday, September 28th, Featherfield Farm, Lullymore West, Rathangan, Co Kildare, Growing Your Own Cut Flowers, a one-day hands-on workshop with Fionnuala Fallon on how to propagate and grow cut flowers seasonally and sustainably, €80 (includes lunch), featherfieldfarm.ie