Jimi’s world of plant won­ders


Bray People - - INTERVIEW -

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.

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