Wednesday 26 June 2019

Diarmuid Gavin: A take on the tropics

Jimi Blake has sourced seeds from across the globe to create Wicklow's very own magical Eden

Paradise found: Jimi Blake's Hunting Brook gardens in county Wicklow
Paradise found: Jimi Blake's Hunting Brook gardens in county Wicklow
Aeonium arboreum

Diarmuid Gavin

Leading the new wave of Irish gardeners is Jimi Blake, who has created his own Eden at Hunting Brook, near Blessington in Co Wicklow. The beauty of his hillside plot and his collection of plants - along with his fame as a passionate gardening communicator - is increasingly being appreciated on gardening programmes across the water.

The site consists of five acres of amazing botanical herbaceous gardens and 15 acres of woodland gardens, all bordering the magical valley. Jimi is an intrepid plant hunter and curator who brings plants from expeditions, sources rare seeds from across the globe and shows us how to use them creatively. I mainly visit through his Instagram account (@huntingbrook) where his infectious excitement makes him our greatest digital gardening ambassador.

Using his palettes of assorted treasures, he generates a wonderful fusion of tropical, prairie and woodland styles which, when set against the pastoral scenery of the Wicklow hills, combine to create a gardener's paradise.

When you visit the garden, what really strikes is the amount of tender specimens used among familiar perennials, which gives a tropical and jungle-like feel. This year, the extraordinary weather has even allowed cacti and succulents to join the melee, creating an almost otherworldly aura.

The magic of the place is really down to an understanding of what can be achieved with our various microclimates. In cold areas - and the Wicklow hills can feel a windy chill - these plants need to be moved indoors for winters. But since we have the climate in summer, it's fun to mix up the usual with some striking species.

As well as using tender exotics, Jimi mixes in some bright bursts of colour with neon pink and yellow Dahlia 'Bright Eyes', orange cosmos, rich scarlet Monarda and a sprinkling of red salvias to create a joyful tapestry of different textures, shapes and colours. He also uses tender exotics to great effect by planting table-height troughs on his verandah and cramming them with cacti and succulents; it's fun, different and, as it doesn't need much watering, low-maintenance as well.

Aeoniums are evergreen succulents that come from the Canary Islands and Madeira. They will only survive outdoors in very mild coastal areas in the UK: for example, they flourish in great numbers in Tresco Abbey Gardens in the Scilly Isles. However, for most of us, they need to brought indoors over winter. That's not just because they are susceptible to frost - sitting outdoors in puddles of rain will rot them. The smaller ones look wonderful planted in pots but for maximum drama, plant the larger ones among your borders.

Aeonium arboreum, the tree houseleek (inset), forms a shrub a couple of feet high. The most striking and best known is 'Zwartkopf' which has large glossy, purple to almost black leaves, clustered in big rosettes. They like to be planted in well-drained soil, so add some grit if necessary. They'd also be very happy in a gravel garden. They're quite easy to propagate from cuttings. My top tip here is to let the bottom of the cutting form a callous overnight before potting into gritty compost - this will reduce the chance of rot.

Aeonium arboreum

The luscious leaves of the banana plant are superb, as they set the scene for a tropical atmosphere as well as bringing height and freshness to exotic planting. No urban jungle is complete without them. Musa basjoo is the hardiest of the bananas but should still be considered as a tender perennial and moved to a frost-free area over winter, then planted out when the frosts have passed. They can be kept outside and wrapped in horticultural fleece in milder areas. Musa sikkimensis has narrower leaves with tropical burgundy stripes and mottling on both leaf surfaces. The fruits on these bananas don't taste good but they are worth growing for the architectural paddle shaped leaves. Ensete ventricosum 'Maurellii', the Abysinnian banana, has pleasing purple-tinged leaves. With all bananas, a little shelter from strong winds is advisable as the leaves can tear.

Cannas are another good option for mixing it up in the herbaceous border. Grown for their large dramatic leaves, cannas also produce tropically bright flowers late in the summer. 'Durban' is a stunning variety with red- and yellow-striped leaves; 'Wyoming' has deep crimson stems and orange flowers, and Canna x ehemanii has deep green leaves and red flower heads. Cannas are originally from tropical and sub-tropical regions of South America and therefore should be treated as tender perennials.

Jimi is a delightful and colourful chap and a magnificent communicator. All of these characteristics emerges in his idyllic garden. A visit this year is a must! See for details.

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