A simple gravel path through plantings of Aralia echinocaulis, Knautia arvensis, Alstroemeria ‘Orange Glory’ and astrantias at Hunting Brook Gardens, Ireland.
Credit: Marianne Majerus
Noel Kingsbury visits the Irish garden of a plantsman with ever-changing schemes
Jimi Blake is very much the man of the moment in Ireland and, thanks to his lecture schedule, around the world too. Hunting Brook, his eight-hectare chunk of up-and-down woodland and meadow, is the result of a share-out of the former family farm. Born in 1971, Blake gardened here as a youngster before moving to Dublin, where he trained in horticulture and became Head Gardener at Airfield House in Dundrum. In 2001, he returned home to create an experimental and educational garden, and a place to hold courses in gardening, yoga, meditation and healthy living, as well as a base for a surprising amount of travel.
You never know what to expect when you arrive at Hunting Brook, for things here change rapidly; Blake is a man of enthusiasms and a passionate lover of novelty. Steady fixtures, however, include a grove of Aralia echinocaulis, which grow up the path that leads past his house to the garden. With their double-pinnate leaves and spare branching pattern, these highly distinctive small trees originated from a seed he collected on an expedition to central China in 2002, organised by the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland in Glasnevin, in collaboration with a Chinese institution. On my first visits here, perennials and grasses dominated alongside the Aralia, but Blake has since refashioned much of it to include more tender summer planting.
Jimi Blake. Credit: Marianne Majerus
His enthusiasm drives experimental plantings that we can all learn from. “The first lecture I went to on modern planting was by James van Sweden, in February 1998,” he recalls, “and I remember I nearly blew up with excitement.” Beginning to garden at Hunting Brook in 2001, perennials and grasses dominated for many years, while his more recent planting style is inspired by Great Dixter. “There is no other garden that gives me such a strong feeling. For me it is the most healing garden of all,” he says. “I always learn something from Dixter, particularly from the successional planting, working with pockets of temporary interest in the perennial border.”
The result is a valuable example of how strongly coloured, themed summer planting can also contain a permanent understorey of spring and early summer flowering perennials like cultivars of Pulmonaria, Helleborus and Astrantia, as well as lots of bulbs. An upper area of the garden near the house, known as Ashley’s Garden after a deceased friend, is the site for much of Blake’s boldest planting.
An avenue lined with Geranium ‘Mount Venus’ and Chionochloa rubra.
Credit: Marianne Majerus
His colour schemes are always interesting, and late summer typically sees varieties of perennial Sanguisorba and Actaea alongside tender dahlias and salvias – bold, bright colours alongside much more subtle ones, such as Linaria ‘Peachy’. Spiky Pseudopanax crassifolius emerges mysteriously from the fray – eventually these New Zealand trees will do a similar thing to the Aralia, forming a dramatic broken canopy.
Planting changes often here but when these images were shot, it included Alchemilla mollis, Geum ‘Karlskaer’ and Dipsacus fullonum. Credit: Marianne Majerus
There are temporary summer plantings of large-leaved, woody plants too. “It’s basically combining big leaves and salvias and dahlias. The idea is lots of colour for late summer going into autumn.” He refines this, saying that he would rather have plants with a flowering season which extends well, or which follow on with good seedheads or foliage, rather than those which simply flower late. They can be unreliable – one outcome of Ireland’s cool summers is that some plants simply do not get enough heat to stimulate flowering until it is almost too late.
Blake is developing the woodland of the garden. Credit: Marianne Majerus
Much of his land is forested, so woodland planting has always been central to what he does. He likes to encourage plants to naturalise and sees the most intensively planted woodland area as “really a nursery area, where I’m building up numbers so I can have lots of erythroniums, and in the future, trilliums, to plant up and down the valley. No one’s ever seen a hillside of erythroniums in a garden, and they work in meadows too, especially the dens-canis ones.”
Further down the valley, along a path that plunges down to a stream and then climbs back up on the other side, various species of rodgersia, the bergenia-look-alike Chrysosplenium macrophyllum and the chunky fern Blechnum chilense have already begun to spread.
Primula florindae Keillour hybrids with Dryopteris wallichiana and Rheum palmatum. Credit: Marianne Majerus
These shaded areas are a good place to appreciate a particularly important part of his experimental plantsmanship: his extensive collection of Araliaceae, including Fatsia, Kalopanax, Metapanax, Pseudopanax and Schefflera. Here he is trialling some amazing impressive evergreen foliage plants, all of which are hardy enough to grow in much of the British Isles. Their potential contribution to the all-year look of our gardens is considerable. And Hunting Brook is a good place to trial them, for this is not some balmy coastal garden, but nearly 1,000ft up, “one of the coldest gardens in Ireland”.
Blake has always been passionate about education, and his breathless enthusiasm and flair for a kind of innocent self-promotion make him an ideal communicator. Central to his mission is his ‘Plantsperson’s Course’, which takes place one day a month for 10 months. At the time of writing, this course has been running for 13 years, and has had well over 300 students; it has undoubtedly helped to educate a whole new generation of garden enthusiasts in Ireland, including several who have gone on to build successful careers as gardeners and designers.
This scheme of poppies, Sanguisorba menziesii and Pseudopanax crassifolius surrounds Blake’s log cabin home and teaching studio. Credit: Marianne Majerus
Hunting Brook – not just a beautiful and inspiring place, but somewhere that looks to become increasingly influential in the future.
Jimi Blake is speaking at the 2020 SGD Spring Conference on Colour – find out more and book your tickets here