Jimi’s world of plant wonders
REPORTER DAVID MEDCALF TOOK A TURN OFF THE BLESSINGTON TO DUBLIN ROAD TO MEET JIMI BLAKE, IRELAND’S MOST PASSIONATE AND INVENTIVE GARDENER, AMID A BLEND OF FAMILIAR FLOWERING FAVOURITES AND MANY EXOTIC IMPORTS
JIMI BLAKE did not settle very far at all from his childhood home when he set up gardening on his own account at Lamb Hill near Blessington.
Hunting Brook, the name granted authenticity by a map printed in the 1830s, where he now lives and tends his plants, is just across the fields from Tinode House, a few hundred metres off the main Blessington to Dublin road.
His father, the late Jim Blake, was a successful butcher in Dublin who took on renovation of the old house which had been rendered derelict by fire during the unrest of the 1920s.
While her husband devoted much of his energy to the building acquired in the 1950s, Jimi’s mother Kathleen had a well developed fondness for cultivating flowers and vegetables which has been passed on to two of the couple’s six offspring.
June Blake’s garden is close to the main house in Tinode while her brother is around the corner in Hunting Brook, both pioneers of plant collection and garden design.
Kathleen has retired in recent times to reside in Blessington town but 44-year-old Jimi insists: ‘My mother is the gardener,’ with a loving emphasis on ‘the’. While her brood was young, she grew vegetables to feed the family and also allowed her boy to play and experiment with growing things.
‘As far back as I can remember, there were always plants,’ recalls Jimi. ‘I had a polytunnel and I was growing cacti when I was really young. I was always doing cuttings and seeds. I have been propagating since the age of eight.’
He is still ‘doing’ cuttings to this day as he e attempts to make Hunting Brook a wonder-filledd home in which to live and a memorable place to o visit, with its mesmerising variety of flowers and trees on a sloping site beside a small tributary running into the nearby lake.
The love of gardening was no help or assistance whatsoever during his schooldays in Naas, which he loathed. Instead, he acquired a practical education out of doors at home or during holiday jobs in local garden centres.
‘I wasn’t suited to sitting inside in a classroom,’ says a man who now, ironically, loves to educate others, passing on his passion for plants at his home, in lectures or as the expert guide on tours to gardens in the UK.
He received a formal grounding in his chosen field at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, which led on to a job which presented a mighty professional challenge to a young graduate. At the age of 20, he was hired to work as gardener at Airfield in Dundrum, one of Dublin’s few urban farms, formerly the home of the Overend family.
As the Overends died out, their unique demesne was left at their request to be enjoyed by the people of the city, a task he tackled with will. He spent a decade bringing the Victorian-style walled gardens at Airfield back up to scratch and reviving the greenhouse and looking after the neglected soil so that it yielded commercial crops of vegetables.
It was in Airfield that he began to run courses, passing on the tips of his trade to the householders of south Dublin.
‘It was an amazing experience,’ he says of his time in Dundrum. ‘I was very lucky and I was able to do my own thing there.’ However, the demands of working for a committee meant that his freedom was likely to be curtailed.
The prospect helped to nudge him back homewards and he acquired the fields and forest of Hunting Brook 14 years ago. He imported a snug wooden cabin from Poland, fitted it out with Norwegian windows and settled in to plough his own furrow.
Here Jimi can enjoy the fresh air whenever the weather allows, can entertain the public and can indulge his obsessions, examples of which emerge during conversation.
‘My passion is collecting plants from all over the world,’ he explains. If this involves travelling all over the world, then so much the better as he enjoys a spot of globetrotting, especially during the months when Ireland is cold.
His current favourite destination is Indonesia but he has also ventured to China which provided a most striking souvenir in the form of a copse of Aralia trees.
With their twin trunks, each sticking two large timbered fingers up at the world, they are just one of the phenomenal range of rare oddities and surprises dotted around Jimi’s garden.
‘A lot of garden plants come from China or the Himalayas,’ he states. Others come in the post from fellow enthusiasts in countries far and wide.
He has thousands of friends on Facebook who
are forever sharing ideas and exchanging seeds and he is also a regular on the lecture circuit in the United States.
More immediately, he also entertains followers who enrol to attend Hunting Brook once a month for instruction and practical immersion in horticulture.
Jimi who hated school has built a classroom to accommodate his disciples but still believes that the best lessons are conducted under the open sky.
Hunting Brook is also open to the public from now until the end of September – just pop in whenever the gate with the orange flags is open.
IN ADDITION, Jim runs garden tours to England, taking parties to a country where gardening is a huge industry. He believes that the Irish are catching up and that gardening tourism offers great potential for the economy here.
A further string to his bow is the supper club he runs on Friday evenings with an emphasis on healthy food, many of the ingredients grown on the premises.
The principal pre-occupation remains the garden, which is undertaken on three fronts. First are the extensive flower-beds and lawns surrounding the timber cabin which he shares with partner Trevor and a lolloping Old English sheepdog called Doris.
Then there is the woodland on either side of the Hunting Brook stream, resplendent at this time of year with a carpet of yellow celandine, to be followed in turn by rampant bluebells.
And beyond the trees is a meadow complete with Bronze Age ring fort where wild flowers – he mentions oxeye daisies and cowslips – are encouraged to produce a magic carpet of many colours at the height of summertime.
The lord of this kaleidoscopic manor is forever tinkering with the design of these three strands, playing with the layout or adding chunks of solid timber furniture to make the place ever more interesting to visitors. The whole exercise is underpinned by the constant of his life – the love of plants.
He makes no bones about the fact that he prefers to spend his waking hours out in fresh air tending to his primulas than indoors tending to the website or attending to the paperwork.
He reckons that thousands of different species of plants are represented in a collection which he has never quite found the time to catalogue. Though he is not the most rigorous of formal record keepers, the training he received at the botanic gardens ensures that each specimen is logged by its Latin name, at least in his head.
A dead tongue to many, the Latin allows Jimi share knowledge with contacts far and wide: ‘ You can talk to anyone around the world and you are talking the same language.’
So he lobs words such as Lophosorbia (a fern from Chile) into conversation but will often supply more casual alternatives. So the two-fingered Aralia trees may also be referred to as ‘ the devil’s walking stick’. And he receives mysterious packages of material from correspondents in faraway places, whom he will never meet. He is grateful, for instance, for the envelope full of seeds just arrived from Japan, though he admits he does not know whether the sender is male or female.
He claims to have 12,000 friends on Facebook – maybe it is more by now – who make a worldwide network of plant enthusiasts. Join the fun at huntingbrook.com.
Jimi Blake at Hunting Brook. Jimi’s medidation seat.
Jimi takes a break in his garden.