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In An Irish Garden
by Helen Dillon
by Helen Dillon


'Like some of her beloved plants, Helen Dillon blossomed late in life. Now her cut-glass tones and impish face are familiar to garden lovers all over the country But the journey to her present oasis of serenity has not been without its difficulties'...Patricia Deevy

Helen's garden is wonderful and a stop on our garden tours to Ireland when we are in the Dublin area. Visit her site at

and see why it is so popular!

January 1, 2006

It is often said there are two types of gardener, collectors and makers of garden pictures. I can never decide which I am. In the end, the plant must come first, and if it can be placed where it is going to look pretty as well as thrive, so much the better. Deciding where to plant is, to me, the most important part of gardening. Sometimes this decision has been made, the bucket of sieved leafmould prepared and, at the last minute, it occurs to me that nearbly plants are too invasive, the position unsuitable after all, and back goes the plant to the potting shed.

When we moved here twenty five years ago, to a typical, pleasant Dublin garden, I had the usual new garden owner's attitude of not daring to touch anything: my courage failed me when it came to pruning the established apples and pears in case of damaging them; if I dug up a bluebell by mistake, it was carried tenderly down to the end of the garden and replanted. I now say, 'Death to bluebells' and pull their heads off to stop them seeding, for no matter how lovely they are in woods, in an overcrowded town garden they are a nuisance.

I started to change the garden piece by piece, and the process continues. Every spring it is satisfying, as all gardens should be, but by late July all the mistakes show. New paths and beds are made - endless alterations take place. So many visits have now been made to the builders' merchants to buy sand for the raised beds and paved paths that the rather taciturn man there just looks at me and shouts, 'Three bags of sand'.

The longer one has owned a garden the more complicated it becomes to find appropriate sites for all the good plants that have to be accommodated; they cannot all have first-class positions, and fitting them all in is like doing a jigsaw puzzle. I think it is easier to go against all gardening rules and change many of the beds in August, when I can see exactly what colour and size the plants are. The beds may appear empty in winter, but what looks like a lovely gap in full sun turns out to be starved of light and moisture in summer. So plants are moved in August - very carefully - and are planted with a bucket of what I think they would fancy. Any combination of peat, leafmould, old manure, compost, fresh topsoil, sand, bonemeal and a balanced fertilizer is used; perhaps the maternal instinct in women activates the desire to feed plants well.

My front garden is not a good place for plants. It faces north, and the soil is thin, poor and badly drained. Unfortunately, it is overlooked by passersby, so to qualify for a position here, plants must be sturdy and must not require staking, watering in drought, dead-heading or spraying. We inherited a large cherry, which looked heavenly for two weeks in February, but its suckering roots spread far and wide; it has now been removed, making space for a good-sized bed. A load of limefree topsoil was ordered, and gardeners now mutter, 'Virgin soil' when they go by, as plants do so well in it.

The front garden was completely taken to bits and redesigned winter 1996-97. The original front had some very nice plants in it but was a complete hodge-podge - whenever I couldn't decide where to put some plant I shoved it into the front. The result, after 25 years, was an unholy muddle. Also, the sloping, winding path to the front door and informal planting was annoyingly 1950's in concept, and in no way suited the regency house. I wanted a formal front garden, with a large level space in front of the house so that one could stand back and look at it. Also, however nice a plant is, one does need to be able to get near enough to enjoy it.

This operation took nearly five months, a lot of sweat and an enormous amount of earth moving. Very nearly all the plants were kept, but most had to be propagated and started again. A central 6 metre square of Donegal sandstone lies directly before the front door. The site was levelled, thus requiring a retaining wall with steps in the middle. To the left of the front door there is still a lime-free bed with most of my old plants replanted - celmisias, astelias, trilliums, corydalis, podophyllums and sundry small ericaceous plants.

The remainder of the front garden is meant to be held together by foliage colour. There is lots of glaucous blue foliage - Berberis temolaica, Berberis dictophylla, Kniphofia caluescens, rue, blue-leaved hostas, seakale, Caccinea strigosa (borage family, duck-egg blue bristly leaves), Arundo donax, Sedum palmeri, yuccas and grasses. The two phormiums are 'Cream Delight' and 'Sundowner'. Shape is very important, and I've tried to balance all the different shapes of leaves. The small amount of continuity (so difficult in a collector's garden) is provided by several plants of a good lime yellow form of Euphorbia characias, lots of Geranium x magnificum at the edge of the stone square and two groups of Rosa 'Graham Thomas' with Salvia verticillata 'Purple Rain'. A particularly good cardoon, which originated in Chelsea Physic Garden (very silver spiky large leaves), Rubus thibetanus, and Potentilla vilmoriniana are some of the silvers. A very ordinary plant that I'm using as silver ground cover is Centaurea bella - rather nice.

The idea of 'garden rooms' may now be a cliché. I do feel, however, that it is a shame to see the whole garden at once; one needs many different aspects and varieties of soil condition to accommodate a fine diversity of plants. It grates on my nerves to see plants from different native habitats growing side by side. I have therefore made raised beds that cater for the needs of a wide variety of plants, either in full sun, with a well-drained mixture, or partly shaded, with a lime-free, peaty mixture that I try and keep damp in summer. The impossible conditions to provide here are the moist soil with full sun. When the books say a plant demands this I pace the garden in a state of indecision.

It is a struggle to grow the loveliest of woodland plants in a relatively hot, dry Dublin soil. But some are worth any amount of effort, and shady beds are a must for blue poppies, ferns, primulas, Disporum, Arisaema, toad lilies and the very beautiful Glaucidium and bloodroot. I am always interested in finding good, worthwhile plants that will readily accept second-class positions, and I suppose that is why hostas, hellebores and cranesbills are so unfailingly popular. I have to admit I love them too.

I enjoy weeding. Each weed removed is ultimately time saved. I do not really mind them individually, but the thought of their myriads of seedlings hardens my heart. Weeding keeps one in close contact with the plants, drawing one's eye to any that need attention - feeding, propagating, or rescuing because they are getting squashed. If I can really control the weeds in May, the rest of the summer is much easier. In my early days I thought pearlwort was a moss, and thought it looked rather charming running between paving stones, but I have discovered what an insidious little brute it is. Weeding underneath hostas is particularly soothing: a wonderful green gloom is created by the light shining through their leaves.

Early June is the only time when I can get relief from the rush to keep up with the work. Then so many plants look their best, dead-heading has not started, the first flushes of weeds have been dealt with, and watering has not begun in earnest. Dead of winter is my other favourite season - plenty of time to stand and stare. But best of all is the sight of heavy rain after a drought.

Visiting other gardens is an essential occupation for a good gardener. There is no garden in which there is nothing to learn. The 'pecking order' that establishes itself on these visits has always amused me. After a polite lunch, the host leads the way and the most knowledgeable gardener among the guests follows directly behind. I sometimes find myself at the end of the line, and my attempts to get nearer the front, to hear the discussion about the treasure in question, are thwarted.

Sometimes when taking visitors around my own garden, I realize we have come to a halt near a particular plant. They stare at it in silent contemplation and do not seem to want to move on. This means they would like a piece but are too polite to ask.

I have some rare plants, but for me a worthwhile plant must be beautiful as well as rare. I am beginning to understand why some plants are scarce. They may be difficult to propagate, or given to what the Irish call 'going for their tea', in other words, dying for no apparent reason. I cannot stand the sight of dead bodies around the garden - such an affront to one's skill. I get rid of them immediately and keep on trying. Sudden death is forgivable, refusing to grow is intolerable.

All my beds are mixed, very mixed - shrubs, herbaceous plants, roses and bulbs - and it is a matter of fitting them all in somehow. When I try to describe the occupants of a bed, it sounds like a description of people at a party: Cornus controversa 'Variegata' wore a delightful layered skirt in pale green and cream, while Convolvulus elegantissimus was running about, as usual, in silver and rose pink, behaving badly and elbowing her neighbours out of the way. The ragwort 'Desdemona' sulked because there wasn't enough to drink; 'Fusilier', a dashing tulip, was kitted out in brilliant scarlet. Everyone thought Daphne cneorum 'Eximia' looked decidedly off colour, and had probably caught a mysterious disease from her cousins. All the poppy family were there: Romneya coulteri in translucent white; Stylophorum diphyllum arrived early; Meconopsis 'Slieve Donard' came in an incredible blue dress, and the opium poppies produced so many children that there was hardly room for anybody else.

Some flowers I just cannot resist - red-hot pokers for example. But nature itself curbs unbounded enthusiasm. I collected innumerable species of Allium until they got onion neck rot, every available cultivar of Iris reticulata before they succumbed to inkspot disease. And the vine weevils loved best of all the fleshy roots of my collection of Sedum, so they perished too. And now? I am rather fond of Origanum, but hardly dare write that for nothing has attacked them yet.

Garden work is never ending. Nonetheless, throughout the year there are unexpected, bewitching moments when I glimpse perfection, and all my efforts are rewarded.

Extracted with permission by Helen Dillon from 'In an Irish Garden'© Helen Dillon 1998

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