I recently took a day trip to Dublin, flying there and back in one day, which is not something I have done to anywhere before. To go to Ireland and not drink a Guinness seems sacrilege but sometimes needs must. All for a meeting with Jimi Blake and of course a look around the fantastic garden he has created over the last dozen or so years – Hunting Brook Gardens. I went with Anna Mumford of Filbert Press, as we wanted to talk to Jimi about the possibility of doing a book with him.
Jimi's garden is quite amazing. All the more so for its hidden almost unexpected nature. The Irish countryside is, famously, green, not as green as a Boston-Irish St. Patrick's Day hat of course, but a gentle quiet green, so when you drive off the main road up a very undistinguished looking side road up a hill, woodland on one side, and a field of cows on the other, you do not expect to suddenly turn off into a crazily-flamboyant botanico-artistic wonderland. There is something very 'Portland' about the garden: the defiance of obvious climatic boundaries, the combination of rich textures with strong colours, an obvious passion for diversity, the rather whacky sculptural elements – above all a clear love of plants and of things that show them off.
Gaining a reputation as one of our most consummate gardeners Jimi will undoubtedly fill the shoes of Helen Dillon, who has been gradually, and needless to say, gracefully, retiring for a few years now. Plantsmanship and a good eye so often do not go together, but with Jimi they do. He seems to have an eye for enough consistency to balance the more pushy and show-offy of his plants; bananas arise from a mass of lower herbaceous leafy stuff but are sufficiently far away from other bold exotica that you don't get the sense of overstimulating clash that you get in the gardens of many exoticists. In fact I think it is the combination of an interest in bold foliage and in naturalistic planting that makes Hunting Brook Gardens so good; the frothy chaos of the latter (or what is so often frothy chaos by August) is held together and given focus by the strong forms of the former.
Nurseries and plant hunters seem to be making more and more new cultivars and species available. Of these only a very limited number get a wide circulation. In particular there seems to be a wide gap between the sources of introduction and good creative use in gardens. Nurseries and plant producers only have a limited interest in design, and garden designers are rather infamously, often have rather limited plant knowledge. It is people like Jimi who fill the gap, creatively using new plants.
The imaginative use of new plants is most dramatically seen in the woodland garden. This is actually the newest part of the garden, or perhaps I should say that there has been a huge amount of new planting over the last few years, which will take a long time to really take off. For example, Jimi has been planting out a lot of the dramatic woodland plants being introduced by Bleddyn and Sue Wynne-Jones of Crûg Farm nursery in north Wales from the Far East and Central America: many are shrubby Araliaceae (ivy family) with big dramatic palmate leaves, ferns, hardy begonias and 'Solomon's seals' (Polygonatum, Disporum etc.). These are overwhelming foliage plants, with a vast array of form and texture around a limited range of greens; subtle but a very long season. Many of these might have potential as urban courtyard planting, but we need to see them in an environment nearer their native habitat first – like Jimi's woodland.
Some of the older plantings in the woodland have really taken off, showing what a perfect habitat this is: well-drained soil on slopes, but (it being Ireland) never short of rainfall, high shade from beech and sycamore. Rodgersias and Chrysosplenium have begun to run forming big patches with self-sowing Primula florindae dotted around.
One really important aspect of plant introduction is conservation; natural habitats are being destroyed at a terrifying rate in much of the Far East. Plant populations are often highly diverse with very localised genetically-distinct populations, which is not something we are familiar with in Europe, where the same species is found in the same habitat across vast areas. Each mountain top may have distinct species or at least clearly distinct populations. In many cases cultivation in the gardens of the western nursery trade and consumer may be the only chance of survival.
Less than an hour from Dublin, Jimi's garden is perfectly located for easy access. Its a truly inspiring place to meet new plants and see how they might be used, a true R&D department for horticulture.
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