Starting from scratch
When June Blake moved into the steward’s house of a former estate on a hillside in west Wicklow 12 years ago, there was no garden to speak of. Self-seeded sycamores and laurels blocked the view and the light, and sheds obscured the handsome dry-stone walls. June wasn’t a gardener – in fact she had farmed sheep, 700 of them, for almost 20 years – but it was time for a change and what she really wanted now was to grow plants from seed.
Encouraged to study horticulture by her younger brother Jimi, whose famous Hunting Brook Gardens is across the hill, she gained an RHS qualification and hands-on experience at Mount Venus Nursery, Dublin. With growing confidence she started to fill her polytunnels, and the flowerbeds she made close to the house, with a huge variety of perennials. Word got out and soon people were flocking to the nursery to buy her unusual plants.
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Today, it’s the magnificent garden that draws visitors from all over Europe, and September, a month when many gardens are flopping and scraggy, is an inspiring time to visit.
The geometric beds at the heart of the three-acre sloping plot are a luxuriant mix of perennials and grasses, punctuated by the architectural shapes of multi-stem Aralia echinocaulis (grown from seed that Jimi collected), exotic-looking paulownias and clumps of bamboo.
Even the 24-metre-long tulip border at the entrance to the garden is an inspired interweaving of leaf textures, plummy shades from persicarias and rodgersias, and striking seedheads from Primula florindae ‘Keilour Hybrids’ and veronicastrums.
Structure in the garden
June has been adding to the garden year on year, and not just with plants. A wide, curving path cuts through a flowering meadow to a calm green area delineated by bold stepping-stone sleepers, which provides a viewing mount. In the foreground, beds are zinging with dahlias, heleniums, ligularias, Lilium lancifolium, alstromerias, cannas, gingers, crocosmias and rudbeckias that spill over to the more muted autumnal shades of the lower beds.
Hidden by a bank fringed with arching golden Stipa gigantea is a reflective pool, closed off from the rest of the garden by two polished concrete seats. The bottom, more shaded part of the garden has a woodland feel and the paths here wind through ferns, pulmonarias, hydrangeas and Japanese anemones to a contemplative garden planted with tree ferns and Pinus mugo among mossy granite boulders. It is an extraordinary achievement.
June manages these densely planted acres with summertime help once a week from Gareth Lovette, a professional gardener she calls on to do the heavy jobs, and Glenda Barry, a neighbour who comes during busy periods. June’s three children having flown the nest, she now has the luxury, as she sees it, to garden until 10pm if she wants.
‘At this time of year I’m in the garden pretty much all the time,’ she says, ‘but with gardening, you’re always learning. Unlike farming, where I’d done everything I wanted to do, I can’t imagine it ever becoming a chore.’
June is blessed with a robust constitution – she spends the winter fell-walking solo – but the day we meet she is nursing an inflamed back from spending too long in one position, unearthing the foundations of part of an old pub at the bottom of the garden.
‘I’ve learnt there are certain jobs where it’s more effective to pay someone else. This year I’ve decided I’m not going to dig up those tree ferns myself.’ (She brings them under cover for winter.)
Farming was, she says, ‘a huge tie’, and it was difficult to have any time to yourself. ‘You can walk away from a garden but you can’t walk away from animals.’ Gardening has also allowed her to be more creative.
June’s garden never stands still – she’s currently planning a new entrance garden in the lee of the great farmyard wall – and she has no intention of reducing her gardening hours. ‘You garden as long as you can, as well as you can and as comfortably as you can,’ she says firmly.
Words: Annie Gatti. Pictures: Richard Johnston.
Read June Blake's plant and flower recommendations for a colourful autumn border
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