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The Dublin gardener doing something fresh with colour

Bright and bold 
Sunrise over the towering New Zealand Pseudopanax crassifolius
Credit: Richard Murphy

"I never had to think about what I was going to do in life,” says Jimi Blake. Among his earliest memories are his mother working in the family’s large vegetable and flower garden in the Wicklow Mountains – and at the age of five or six he started joining in. Cacti were an early passion, and he remembers just how excited he was to get a polytunnel as a present. At the age of 12, he went to work in a local garden centre, and after leaving school it was a natural progression to take the three-year diploma course at Dublin’s National Botanic Gardens, followed by a head gardener’s job at the nearby Airfield Estate.

It was in 2006 that I first met this enviably focused plantsman. I was staying in Dublin with Helen Dillon – the queen of Irish gardening, and a big influence on Blake – and she drove me out to Hunting Brook, the 20-acre slice of land that he had inherited in the subdivision of his parents’ farm a few years earlier. I could see that it was something special in the making, even though the planting was then young and concentrated mainly around the driveway. Mounds of emerald Euphorbia stygiana were prominent among the array of unusual plants leading up to a new timber house – the whole composition fresh and quirky, and reminding me of the artist gardens you come across in Seattle, Portland or San Francisco.

Thirteen years later, I am back and Hunting Brook is firmly on Ireland’s garden map. And Blake himself, now in his mid-40s, has, through his ­lectures, tours, the courses he runs here, and his thousands of Instagram and Facebook followers, become one of the country’s best-known gardeners.

The entrance garden has greatly expanded, flowing canyon-like down several folds of hillside and encompassing a cast of plants that will have all but the sharpest plantsmen scratching their heads. There are no conventional autumn washes of asters and Japanese anemones here. Instead, you meet an intricate mosaic of perennials, annuals, bulbs and shrubs chosen for their arresting flowers, foliage or form – everything from dashing blue Salvia patens ‘Guanajuato’ to grassy restios and spiky cycads. “I like pushing the boundaries,” says Blake. Indeed he does.

‘You wouldn’t believe the range of colours I got from one orange dahlia’ Credit: Bernard van Giessen

Among the many curiosities to catch my eye were Eryngium guatemalense, a sea holly with branching heads of black-coned thistles, Eucomis ‘Pink Gin’, a bulb with huge pineapple-like pink blooms, Salvia stolonifera, a perennial with whorls of coppery orange flowers, and Phytolacca icosandra, an annual bearing intense carmine spikes above beetroot-red leaves. Phlox paniculata ‘Nirvana’, with small white flowers set off by purple eyes and buds, is a border phlox going straight on my wants list.

To help bind such disparate plants together, Blake sets a colour theme in each area – here apricot, orange, silver and burgundy – and has some key plants repeated through the planting such as dahlias or biennial Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica, with clouds of lilac-white bracts.

I am agog at the amount of tender plants in the mix: succulent aeoniums, cacti, salvias, dahlias, bananas, cannas… Blake tells me it takes him a full week lugging everything into the house and glasshouse for the winter (he has some seasonal help but often works here on his own). Many other plants are grown again from cuttings and seed – “you wouldn’t believe the range of colours I got from one single-flowered orange dahlia”. He says people imagine that because this is Ireland the climate must be mild, but Hunting Brook is 305m up and temperatures have been down to -15C.

However, there are many plants in the garden that seem tender, but which have proved resilient – notably shrubs.

Blake’s signature planting style

The way Blake chooses and uses shrubs gives his planting a distinctive look. There is the odd shrubby thicket here – including a group of Viburnum betulifolium, which he rates the best berrying plant at Hunting Brook (the birds don’t touch the scarlet clusters until spring) – but generally he avoids species that create large, dense blobs, especially if the foliage is dull. Instead, he goes for shrubs that combine interesting leaves with a slim, open, vertical habit, and give height and lift without taking up a lot of space or casting much shade.

Banana foliage with tiger lilies Credit:  Bernard van Giessen

This pushes him away from the traditional repertoire. The opening salvo below the house is an amazing stand of Aralia echinocaulis, which has high, spiny, pole-like stems topped with deciduous tropical-looking foliage. There is a really massive one by the house. These were all grown from seed that Blake collected in central China on a plant-hunting trip with Dublin Botanic Gardens in 2002, and they have proved totally hardy.

New Zealand, which he visited last year, has a number of such airy shrubs in its flora. And although some are a bit tender, its native lancewood, Pseudopanax crassifolius, with sparse, almost black downward-pointing evergreen leaves, has also sailed through -15C at Hunting Brook. Growing in light shade, Blake’s mountain cabbage tree, Cordyline indivisa, which has broader strap-like leaves than the more common Cordyline australis, was clobbered at that temperature, but grew back and has since taken 10C. And he has high hopes for New Zealand ribbonwood, Plagianthus regius, which could be mistaken for a birch except that it keeps itself compact and slender.

Decidedly tender, however, is one of his very favourite groups of shrubs, the Chinese Brassaiopsis: “They have the most fascinating foliage of anything here,” says Blake. Indeed, I am struggling to describe the leaves of B. mitis – like giant evergreen spiders, perhaps.

Adventurous planting in shade

Beyond the house, the garden progresses past a stand of knobbly jointed bamboo, Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda (commonly known as walking-stick bamboo and, Blake tells me, the bamboo his guides cut for him to use as he trekked through China), and on into a wooded valley. As with most shady gardens, the flower display is at its richest early in the year, when it is carpeted in snowdrops, erythroniums, trilliums, corydalis, hellebores and the like. Later, it is the shapes, textures and characters of all the different greens that maintain the interest.

Brightly coloured garden furniture is another Blake signature Credit:  Bernard van Giessen

As in the sunnier parts of the garden, the design approach has been to plant a ground-level tapestry from which well-spaced specimen shrubs rise as solitary sculptures. Ferns are here in wide variety, partnered with wispy woodland grasses and, down by the stream, with large-leaved bog plants. Two of the most striking, both evergreen, are the Chilean hard fern, Blechnum chilense, with dark, leathery, semi-erect fronds; and the jewelled chain fern, Woodwardia unigemmata, whose huge fronds suggest tenderness but which I have found thoroughly reliable in my garden – as they are in Blake’s. When emerging, the new growths are a beautiful coppery red.

But I would never have thought of risking Astelia fragrans outside. This is a New Zealander with silver-tinted evergreen sword-shaped leaves, growing to around a metre high. Instinctively, I would have treated it as I do its more common, taller cousin Astelia chathamica ‘Silver Spear’ and brought it under glass for the winter. “Totally hardy and happy in dry shade,” is Blake’s pronouncement. I shall give it a go.

Big-leaved rhododendrons, magnolias and hydrangeas set some of the themes of the shrubby layer above, and they are joined by a fascinating collection of schefflera, a group of evergreens with tiers of small, palm-like leaves, often with silver or golden new growth. Schefflera taiwaniana is the only one I grow at home, and it has proved easy (unfussed about pruning and being moved) and bone hardy.

Blake enthuses also about Schefflera rhododendrifolia, which does indeed make a very handsome focal point, but he reserves his highest praise for Schefflera delavayi, whose leaves are deeply lobed like an oak’s but big, exotic, and held like parasols. “This is definitely the most spectacular foliage plant at Hunting Brook, and if I was told to leave and allowed to take only one plant with me, this would be it.”

Having lost scheffleras to frost in the past, Blake’s policy is now to give them a bit of protection through their first three winters with a cover of lightweight Enviromesh netting.

Salvia ‘Kisses and Wishes’

Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of Blake’s planting is that it never stands still, and this keeps Hunting Brook at the cutting edge of plantsmanship. Even if I had revisited after a gap of three years instead of 13 I would still have seen big changes. Each year, plantings are reassessed, reimagined and pulled apart, and a host of new plants are added – acquired from friends, nurseries and spotted on his travels. He is unstoppable, and for those of us who don’t flit regularly over to Ireland, Instagram and Facebook are the only way of keeping up with him.

Meanwhile, we have a phase of Hunting Brook’s evolution captured in the illustrations of an enjoyable and informative book, Blake’s first, written in collaboration with Noel Kingsbury. A Beautiful Obsession is both biography and garden tour, and is sure to have readers wondering whether to ditch those asters for a brave new world of plants. My blobby shrubs are already quivering nervously.

READER OFFER

A Beautiful Obsession by Jimi Blake and Noel Kingsbury (Filbert Press, £25). Buy now for £19.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 
0844 871 1514