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Helen's Heaven
by Robin Lane Fox
November 25, 2001

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Surrounding Helen Dillon's elegant 1830s house in Dublin are effervescent borders of pinks, reds and blues. As Robin Lane Fox discovers, hers is a garden painted with bold artistry and a plantsman's feel for harmony and balance.

Dierama pulcherrimum 'Blackbird' 
It is an open secret that Helen Dillon's town garden in the Ranelagh district of South Dublin is a horticultural tour de force. It is actually my favourite smallish garden. What is less known outside Ireland is Helen's own style: in her writing, in her borders and in the flesh. Like all gardens, hers has its history and curiosities. So does she, and readers of her splendid book Helen Dillon on Gardening will soon feel that they know them.
You might think from dreamy photographs of its myrtles and celmisias that this garden is in a specially favoured microenvironment. In fact, the climate here is not particularly mild by Irish standards and the soil is very hungry and dries out easily. The surrounding walls are no more special than those in many town plots and despite the acid-loving celmisias, the garden is slightly alkaline. After 27 years of gardening on a now densely planted half acre round the 1830s house, she does not think she has made the job easier. As seriously keen gardeners know, serious gardening causes its own problems. The soil here needs to be fed constantly to support it thick canopy: cow manure and Osmacote are the Dillon garden's main dressings. Potted plants from nurseries have also landed Helen with unwanted pests; vine weevils have arrived unannounced in the past and now behave "as if they are on steroids". But she knows her enemies: "if you're ever in a garden where the owner insists that they haven't got vine weevil, take a look at the bergenias. The tell-tale signs of a visit from the 'ticket collector' (the adult vine weevil) will be there for all to see, in the form of neat bites around the edges of the leaves. The holes in the middle of the leaves are due to snails."
Helen Dillon is Scottish by birth, not Irish. She claims to have "sat still" until the Seventies when she moved to Dublin. There she found that gardening was "the passion of the middle-class, middle-aged, mainly Protestant women. I learnt that a siege mentality prevailed: many's the time I was handed a plant with the instruction, 'Don't give it away!'" In a hilarious passage in her book Helen describes, for a Catholic readership, how she was initiated into this 'tweedy, doggy, no nonsense' society at one of its important plant sales. She was offered a 'Protestant, no frills biscuit' by one of the tribe: 'an indication of acceptance in these circles is the rite of the offering of the biscuit'.
She remembers her own inspirations fondly: David Shackleton and his wonderfully planted garden at Beech Park, plantsman Flip Schram, Stam Nurseries and the Blue Poppy Nursery. As her garden has developed, she has travelled more widely, winning fans in America where she is a keenly sought lecturer. She denies that she is original and wonders whether many gardeners really are. The most striking effect in her main garden in summer is the separation of the flowers, "colours in the central borders: blues on the right, reds on the left." Segregation was a late decision in the garden's making. She is a fan of the great gardens at Mount Stewart and has learnt from its parterres where colours are also segregated.
I admire her planting, which is particular and original to her garden. Her sharp eye has picked and rescued excellent varieties: the rich yellow Helianthus giganteus 'Sheila's Sunshine', a stupendously bit-headed Agapanthus 'Thunderbird', big-leafed Senecio petasitis for walls and the bold arching Dierama pulcherrimum 'Blackbird'. These are complemented by Begonia 'Hatton Castle', no end of subtly-shaded verbenas and, in the red bed, a stunning Dahlia 'Stoneleigh Cherry'. She weaves the rare and the simple together, so that heavenly blue cornflowers stand out among the carefully chosen delphiniums and galegas. She makes bupleurum grow up a wall and even her Malva sylvestris 'Primley Blue' does not look scruffy. At heart, she is an alpine gardener, alert to the lower ranks of small hardy plants where her eye and skill are outstanding. In 1999, she won the coveted Farrer Medal for her Cypripedium calceolus var. pubescens. It gave her particular pleasure that she won it in Northern Ireland, a hopeful sign of the times.
Phlox carolina 'Bill Baker', Irish 'Corrida' and a magnificent Cardoon 
She is a great plant mover, always uprooting what might look better elsewhere. Deadheading, she insists, is essential in a good summer, whereas pruning is less important and usually best avoided in hot conditions. I think her energy would make anything grow and her polarised wit would keep it on its toes. "I'm a woman with a bucket and back-up," she insists. The bucket has to be plastic, not clanking metal, and the back-up could only be her charming husband Val. She has written memorably on men in the garden, so much so that you will never think of a man with a leaf-blower in quite the same way. Val, she assures me, is a "very good gardener without realising it". He certainly keeps an impeccable lawn and has a fine style in composting. Gardening couples always lose each other's tools, but the 'back-up' is still functioning in South Dublin, despite life's volcanoes over mislaid secateurs.

From: Gardens Illustrated, July/August 

Donna's note - This is one of the many beautiful gardens that we will be visiting in August 2002 on our tour with host Des Kennedy!

Permission granted by Helen Dillon to put on website. This article is on her website at

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