Life

The Casual Gardener: New book offers fans a taste of The Jimi Blake Experience

A new book charts the ascent of Wicklow gardener Jimi Blake...

Jimi Blake's Hunting Brook garden. Picture by Bernard van Giessen

IF YOU can imagine how Arlene Foster might react were ‘Her Majesty' to make a surprise visit to the DUP leader's home, then you'll begin to get an idea of the uncharacteristic manner in which Monty Don behaved when Jimi Blake visited the Gardeners' World presenter's Longmeadow garden last year.

In front of the cameras the normally composed Monty appeared a little giddy; viewers witnessed a blooming bromance, forged by a shared love of plants, and especially adventurous, naturalistic planting, where grasses and tall perennials aim to outbid each other, in the process creating an atmosphere of wild, unrestrained abandon.

It seems Jimi Blake, one of new generation of rock star gardeners – complete with floral shirts – has that beguiling effect on people, or at least the garden he has created near Blessington in Co Wicklow does.

Hunting Brook, a 20-acre site on what was formerly a neglected corner of his family's farmland, has developed over the past 18 years. Part experiment, part artistic endeavour, it is a garden that has variously been described as “boldly idiosyncratic”, “fiercely colourful and theatrically beautiful” and “like an opulent jewel box”.

In the middle of all this billowing flora is a timber Shaker-style cabin, which, as well as being Blake's home, doubles as the HQ for all his activities, which include horticultural classes, as well as health and wellbeing workshops.

His ascent to become Ireland's most influential modern gardener began long before he was receiving plaudits for his work at historic Airfield Gardens in Dundrum, Co Dublin, during the 1990s. It's in his blood – his mother is a keen gardener, as is his sister June.

The life of the Hunting Brook garden and its creator are explored in a new book – A Beautiful Obsession – co-written by the man himself and British garden writer and designer Noel Kingsbury, with photographs by Bernard van Giessen and Richard Murphy.

It works at an immediate level as ‘gardening porn' – loads of vivid, atmospheric shots that make the most of the soft early morning/late evening light, filtered through foliage.

Three things strike you on an initial leaf through – the scale, the repetition, and the boldness of the planting. For a private garden, the sheer number of plants is impressive, and they are deployed rhythmically but not formally, with unlikely additions, such as phallic cacti and succulents scattered in herbaceous borders.

Foliage and architectural plants play a big part in Blake's schemes, with abundant grasses, alliums and Ensete ventricosum, the Abyssinian banana, providing a foil for a variety of flowers.

But A Beautiful Obsession has much more depth than a coffee table book. Beyond the biographical details and the story of how the garden developed, it's also an experienced plantsman and designer's seasonal guide, providing insights and inspiration with every turn of the page. There are chapters dedicated solely to salvias and dahlias, and to different areas of the garden – Fred's Garden, Ashley's Garden, and the Woodland Garden.

We learn of Blake's ruthless streak, which comes into play as he seeks to keep his garden refreshed and replenished. Whole borders are cleared as the plants that wowed you one year are replaced with something new the next. If you're as prolific a propagator as Jimi Blake it seems you can do that sort of thing.

Hunting Brook garden is open to the public from April through to the end of this month between 11am and 5.30pm and, according to its website – huntingbrook.com – there's no appointment needed though there is a cover charge for adults. It appears tours for larger groups can be arranged.

If, like me, you don't much like crowds, it might be an idea to get there soon, as I imagine this book will only spark a surge in visitor numbers.

:: A Beautiful Obsession by Jimi Blake and Noel Kingsbury is published by Filbert Press.

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