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I’ve felt supported by my plants’: how one exotic garden burst into life in lockdown

When Jimi Blake closed Hunting Brook Gardens, in County Wicklow, Ireland, at the end of March, he went into a frenzy of propagating. “I’ve grown 1,000 plants from seed,” he says, including the rare umbel, Monizia edulis (a tree carrot that comes from the cliffs of Madeira), squash, sweetcorn, peas and Florence fennel. “I’ve had time to start a vegetable garden, which I hadn’t done in years. I usually spend a lot on plants, but I’ve realised I don’t need to. My polytunnels and greenhouse are as good as a plant fair.”

Jimi Blake in Hunting Brook Gardens
 Jimi Blake with Brassaiopsis fatsioides. Photograph: Jason Ingram

Hunting Brook Gardens, 45 minutes from Dublin, is a contemporary garden making bold use of colour, running up around a charming timber cabin where Blake lives. The cabin doubles as a teaching studio, with a programme that includes workshops on health and wellbeing. The 20-acre site dips into a wooded valley, mossy and damp, with a trickling stream that gives the garden its name, and soars again into a wildflower meadow with views of the Wicklow mountains beyond.

Blake, who trained at Dublin’s National Botanic Gardens, has travelled the world hunting for rare, exotic plants, including his extensive collection of araliaceae, with evergreen scheffleras and the towering aralias he collected as seeds on a plant trip to China. Hunting Brook has diverse growing conditions, from full sun to deep protected shade; Blake’s willingness to experiment means he has managed to grow a wide variety of plants, although the garden sits at nearly 1,000ft (300m).

When you enter, you’re confronted by exuberant dry beds full of huge aeoniums and succulents; hot tropical spots explode into colour, with the towering spiny tree, Aralia echinocaulis; and dahlias and alstroemerias sit among swaying grasses and big-leaved exotica. There are cool dappled woodlands full of ferns and erythroniums; and, in the deep shade of a gorge, scheffleras mingle with native mossy saxifrage. Plants from every corner of the globe are, often improbably, joyously partnered – strange-looking pseudopanax rise out from Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ – creating a rich brocade of plant life.

When he was forced to close Hunting Brook’s gates, Blake took solace in the garden. “At the beginning, I sat in my favourite tree in the valley, worrying about money and thinking, how am I going to survive this?” he says. That tree is an old beech. “It’s the most effective therapist I’ve had.”

Dahlias, including ‘Sunny Boy’, create pops of colouramong grasses, Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’, and Itoa orientalis
 Dahlias, including ‘Sunny Boy’, create pops of colour among grasses, Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’, and Itoa orientalis. Photograph: Jason Ingram

Blake may have been by himself, but hasn’t felt as alone as he had imagined. “I’ve felt supported by my plants, the trees, the birds.”

And although he has missed the lifeblood of the visitors, he has enjoyed having it to himself, too.

No one, not even the old beech, knows what the next months will bring, but Blake wants to hold on to this newfound relationship with his garden. He has just reopened it to visitors, but will make sure there are more moments for just himself and his plants.

A single dahlia
 A single dahlia. Photograph: Jason Ingram

Five plants from Jimi’s garden to grow at home

Euphorbia rigida An upright, early-flowering spurge, with acid-green flowers in late spring. Grows to 60cm.

Aeonium ‘Pomegranate’ Green rosettes and blush red colours in full summer. Overwinter in a pot. Loves a baked sunny spot.

Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’ Reliable, loved by pollinators, and combines well with purples, such as Penstemon ‘Raven’, and grasses such as Stipa tenuissima.

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Schefflera delavayi A hardy, exotic shrub or small tree with spectacular large terminal heads of white flower in summer.

Michelia doltsopa ‘Silver Cloud’ The new magnolia with heavenly scented white flowers. Needs a sheltered spot; ideal for smaller gardens.

 Hunting Brook Gardens is open to individuals and groups of up to four people. A Beautiful Obsession: Jimi Blake’s World Of Plants At Hunting Brook Gardens, by Jimi Blake and Noel Kingsbury, is published by Filbert Press.

www.thegurdian.com

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