Documents: Special Interest: Horticultural Therapy:

Therapeutic Gardening
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!

June 25, 2006

Throw the Prozac out of the window, chuck the Mogadon down the lavatory and get out the spade. If people did more digging, drug companies would be out of business and counsellors would all be living in cardboard boxes (if there were any left that is, after all the therapists had their pick). Digging is the only treatment that works equally well for the alcoholic, chocoholic, potatoholic and/or sex fiends. Even members of the dirty mackintosh brigade would be instantly reformed. Bus them out to allotments, say I, and cool their ardour with a spade - after one day's digging, they wouldn't have the energy to unbutton the mackintosh, let alone anything else.
I adore digging, the most therapeutic of occupations. Thumping headaches fade, ghastly worries take wing, and my ever uncertain temper is calmed. But the problems here is that there isn't any room to do much digging, so stuffed is the garden with plants. More space would help imminent withdrawal symptoms over the Terry's All Gold.
The rhythmic motion of the experienced digger (accompanied by a little hum) takes practice to get right. First attempts are best unobserved - ensuing expletives might frighten the robins. If you're using the short, English type of spade, stand right on top of it and push it down straight into the soil - inserting it at an angle causes instant back-ache. When using the longer traditional Irish spade you can stand back more from it. At this point I should like to have given a discourse on the subject of left-footers and right-footers (I understand that the way spades were used was the origin of these terms) but unfortunately I'm not certain of the facts.
Start by making a trench, about 60cm wide, and barrow the soil up to the far end of the area you're about to dig. Break up the soil in the bottom of the trench with a fork. This is the bit that really helps, for roots immediately have a whole new area in which to forage for moisture and nutrients. Throw in as many bucketfuls of organic matter (manure, compost or whatever) as you can spare - books say one bucket per square yard - I say up to three. Stir around with the fork. Dig a similar trench to one side, using the excavated soil to fill up the first trench.
Curiously enough, exactly the same treatment - winter digging plus the incorporation of any organic stuff you can get hold of - improves any type of soil. I lightens and aerates heavy soils and it also enriches thin, poor soils, greatly helping them to retain moisture.
My doppelgänger (with me, this takes the form of a dirty black crow who lives on my shoulder just out of ear-shot) has been troublesome of late. The other day he got so excited he nearly fell off, he was squawking so much with laughter. The reason for his mirth, rude bird, was that I have a plague of larvae of the swift moth. Take heart, those of you who have vine weevil. The larvae (underground caterpillars) of the swift moth are three times more voracious and three times the size, with creamy-white segmented bodies and shiny brown heads. They have catholic tastes, enjoying the roots of an alphabet of plants, starting with aster and auricula. Needless to say, Murphy's Law decrees that their favourite plants are also mine, i.e. hellebores and peonies. My friend Finola Reid found a book which said these caterpillars are 'mostly seen in weedy or neglected ground'. It was this remark that the doppelgänger found so funny - so much for the immaculate Dillon garden.
Adult moths fly at dusk during June-August and release eggs while in flight. Probably the best available method of control, now that chemicals such as Bromophos have been taken off the market, is deep and thorough digging. Cultivation exposes the caterpillars, providing caviar for the robins, who will rush up and buzz by you flapping their wings as soon as you start digging. The way a robin deals with such an outsize meal is interesting to watch: swoops down and grabs caterpillar by the head; flips it over and chomps the tail end; with a nasty movement of his beak, makes little nips down the length of the body; gobbles it up; flies off triumphantly.

From On Gardening, Copyright © Helen Dillon 

Article and Picture courtesy Helen Dillon ... visit her wonderful site at

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