The Dirt: David Fripp and Blake Jolley
“I sort of go off on tangents,” David Fripp, plant collector and nurseryman, tells me as we stand in a greenhouse overflowing with the most fascinating bunch of plants I’ve ever seen. His partner, Blake Jolley, rolls his eyes. “It can be three or four per day,” he says dryly. After an afternoon spent exploring David’s living compendium of plants, I believe him.
David’s been collecting plants since his teenage years. His obsession began innocently enough, with a collection of Davallia (hares-foot fern) when he was a boy. “When I was a teenager, I used to work at my aunt’s fern nursery in the school holidays. I remember trying to remember the Latin names when I was 12 or 13. It just went from there.”
At 16 he’d left school and was growing flowers on his family’s farm. “I had to leave school two weeks early because I put the first crop of flowers in the September school holidays and the next bunch of flowers were due to arrive around Christmas time. I had to get an exemption from school so I could come home to work for myself.”
David grew cut flowers for a few years before moving to Sydney. He worked in garden maintenance and lived in a warehouse in Taylor square for 11 years before returning to Peats Ridge around 25 years ago. His home and nursery are part of a larger property and David’s small art-filled home (he used to collect art when he lived in Sydney – of course) is at the back of the acreage, surrounded by a huge garden and backing on to bushland.
The garden is a wonderland of weird and beautiful plants. It begins on the verandah of David and Blake’s home, where every last surface is dripping with green. There’s begonias in large pots framing doorways, ferns and rhipsalis hanging from the wall, and tables covered with pots of delicate beauties – orchids, sinningias, bromeliads and more. I’m blown away. Firstly, by the plants – many of them I’ve never seen before (I may be able to pick their genus, but knowing what species they are is out of the question); Secondly, by the health of the plants. They’re all shiny, flowering and happy. It’s like they’re on steroids.
I could have spent all afternoon on the verandah examining David and Blake’s plants, but it’s only the beginning of their plant world. The garden and nursery beckons. We head down the steps into the garden – Blake’s domain. David is the collector, Blake is the gardener. “I love putting plants together,” Blake says. “I’m most interested in how pretty they are and how they go together. I know a lot of botanical names, but I’m not really interested in learning them like David. He has a passion for them.”
If it were up to me, this place would be a jumbled mess of really bizarre, interesting plants that made no sense – like a lot of collector’s gardens are”, David says.
“Blake actually puts things into a context that people can understand. I enjoy the aesthetics but am more interested in the challenge of learning how to grow something – learning its nuances, how to propagate it, and how to do it extremely well – that’s what excites me.”
When he returned from Sydney and began his nursery at Peats Ridge, David began collecting caudiciform plants. These are plants, often succulents, that have a swollen base. “Like Beaucarnea recurvata?”, I ask David. “Yeah, yeah, they’re boring though”. His caudiciform collecting strategy allowed David to flit between plant types – not collecting just one genus but many. Things like pachypodiums, dioscorea, aloes and sinningias.
David soon developed a soft spot for sinningias, a member of the Gesneriaceae family. One thing lead to another and David suddenly found himself doing something he never thought he’d do. He joined a plant society. “I swore I’d always rather stick forks in my eyes,” David tells me. But, “I joined the Gesneriad study group which has been the best thing I ever did. Every time I go to a meeting I’ll come back with arms full of cuttings. So, now I’m collecting all these really obscure Gesneriads.”
Alongside his collections of caudiciforms, sinningias, gesneriads and others, David also has one of the largest collections of magnolias in Australia. He dabbled in dahlias for a while, telling me he how he went to the Melbourne International Flower Show a few years back and “bought all the dahlias known to man.” A few still inhabit the vegetable garden. “We had a dahlia thing happening,” David says. “I’m not finished with my dahlia thing,” Blake interjects.
I ask David how his collections work. Does he ever give up on them, once he finds a new plant to collect, learn about and understand? “Never,” he tells me. “I just add layers.” And layers and layers.
We explore the garden – bromeliads cluster in the branches of banksia trees, gymea lillies stand tall alongside clumps of cactus and sculptural succulents, and the weird plants keep on coming. And coming. I need at least a day to see everything and I’m getting close to peak plant. And then, David takes us to his greenhouses, via the vegetable patch and guinea fowl enclosure. Holy-fucking-shit. I’ve never seen a collection like David’s. Ever.
Standing inside the hot, humid greenhouse surrounded by some familiar green friends, and many others I am yet to know, I am beside myself. In my delirium, I’m reminded why I love working with plants – the opportunities for a curious/crazed mind to continue learning and understanding are endless. A lifetime is not enough.
David Fripp, too, is driven by a desire to learn and understand. It seems to me that his collecting is not just about having and owning, it’s about increasing his knowledge and preserving plants in cultivation that otherwise might end up in obsolescence. He talks of his latest love, sinningias. “The challenge now is to learn how to grow them and then work out which ones are commercially viable and which ones will become part of my collection. In a sense, I’ll preserve them. My hope is that it stimulates other people who are enthusiastic about collecting some of these things to do so, because so many plants have now been lost.”
“You’re like the Noah of the plant world,” I suggest as we wander back to the house. “This is going to be a botanical arc soon.” David the collector agrees. Blake the gardener nods his head, saying “no one does it like you, David.” And so, the collecting and gardening goes on.
Visit David and Blake at the Plant Lovers Fair at Kariong on 22-23 September, 2018. It’ll be wonderful event – two days of rare and interesting plants for sale from over 40 different growers. See you there!