Bruno Nicolai’s garden is a sub-tropical haven

Peter Dowdall is truly taken with a dynamic, exotic small garden that puts the lie to bland suburban plots.

I visited the garden of Bruno Nicolai during the week. I had met Bruno several times in the past and I was aware of his passion for plants and plant collecting and, in particular, his interest in exotics.

Feeling like I knew his garden already from seeing his regular posts on social media, I was wondering how he could possibly have so many tender and exotic beauties in such a small space, as he lives in a typical semi-d in Blackrock and the photos I have seen over the years would lead me to imagine the garden to be much bigger.

I arrived and, without having to look for the house number, I knew I was at the right place when I saw several Echiums, (Pride of Madeira), growing rather incongruously in the front garden. 

Bruno Nicolai’sgarden is a sub-tropical haven

I say that because you don’t often see tall plants like this in the front garden of a housing estate. Though they were beyond their best (obviously as it is September), they did immediately whet the appetite for what lay behind.

To use the diction of modern culture —Oh My God, Wow! — was my reaction as I entered through the gate at the side of the house into an area where normally the wheelie bins, oil tanks and coal bunkers live — I immediately knew I was somewhere special.

A Dicksonia tree fern, maturing nicely with a diameter of over two metres, is planted in front of the ever dramatic and architectural Gunnera, the textures contrasting so fantastically to create a sense of lushness. 

This area is gravelled and contains a garden shed which I didn’t notice because of the lily blooms in front — and my gaze was further distracted by a glasshouse with the beautiful Abutilon megapotanicum growing up the outside and the rather vicious Solanum pyracanthum within.

Bruno Nicolai’sgarden is a sub-tropical haven

Through clever use of tall plants and an arch created from reclaimed railway sleepers, this feels at once like it is part of the garden, but with a simple picnic table and parasol, also a room on its own. For me it is the Indian room. 

I don’t know why, as most of the plants in the area are not native to there and nor have I ever been to India, but it just felt Indian to me. You see,you can’t help but lose yourself and let your imagination run away with itself in this garden.

In most gardens outside a home like this, what lies beyond the archway would be termed the ‘back garden’ however it just doesn’t seem right to refer to this oasis as such, it bears no similarity whatsoever to any other ‘back garden’ that I have ever seen.

The only thing it has in common with the standard suburban plot is that it is at the back of the house. 

The arch in no way obscures what’s on the other side but it’s use cleverly defines the boundary between the two rooms and beckons you forward to the Blackrock Rainforest.

Bruno Nicolai’sgarden is a sub-tropical haven

I suspect the purists will say that it is not strictly an exotic garden as it contains other, native species — however this for me is what makes this garden so absolutely unique. 

I don’t know Bruno well enough to describe his traits but if this garden reflects his personality, then he’s friendly, expressive, showy yet well grounded, perhaps like myself a bit disorganised, confident in himself and his own ability, individual and certainly with several interests and his own unique style.

I can’t explain why I feel each of these characteristics from walking his garden but I do. 

Certainly his confidence in mixing native and traditional cottage garden favourites such as Lychnis coronaria Alba and Schizostylis coccinea major with the most exotic and rare of plants, shouts that he is happy with his own tastes and choices.

There are many individual and stunning plant specimens that stand out and that could be the outstanding feature of this garden but for me it is this relaxed approach to the planting that makes the garden memorable. 

Bruno Nicolai’sgarden is a sub-tropical haven

There is no snobberyhere — for a plant snob wouldn’t dream of letting some of the more common plants such as the Schizostylis and perhaps the Leycesteria or Pheasant Berry past the gate— but it is this individuality that gives this garden its unique imprint and makes it Bruno’s own.

Plant collecting and creating a good garden are two altogether different things. A passion for collecting unusual genera and varieties can be all-consuming, believe me, but a collection of many different plants does not, necessarily, a good garden make. 

Bruno has managed to combine his obvious love affair with collecting rare and exotic plants with a good eye for garden design and he has created a garden that is beautiful and attractive to visit. 

Hedychium yunnanense is still in flower here and one clump of it is growing beneath a Musa basjoo or Banana Plant.

Only in Cork would we be arrogant enough to plant a Banana plant outside and expect it to survive — and survive it has. Also in flower are several different coloured species of Roscoea and Penstemon pinifolius. 

Bruno Nicolai’sgarden is a sub-tropical haven

Eryngium pandanifolium is one of the most striking specimens in the garden and dark-leaved Dahlias are used to great effect with some of the more unusual Crocosmias, such as Star of the East, Malobar and Calabar. 

Through all this runs an impeccably maintained grass path which makes it a garden which could only be of these islands. 

If I needed to look up to remember that I was in Ireland, so too I needed to keep reminding myself that this was a small garden in a housing estate.

What Bruno has created here is a living work of art, a refuge for himself and his partner, a collection of plants that I can only look upon enviously. 

The only question I have is this: Amongst all the Tetrapanax, Pseudopanax, the Papyrus and Hostas, where in God’s name beneath the Rhododendrons and Eucalyptus, the Acacia and Albizia, where are the wheelie bins, oil tank and coal bunker? Like I said, OMG Wow!

You can view Bruno’s garden and Peter’s weekly gardening here 


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