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Placement Of Strong Colours Is The Key!
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 12, 2005

One day somebody will write a complicated thesis on the subject of why women dislike strong colours in the garden. Most take exception to red, strong yellow and orange in particular, and prefer to drift around in a haze of pastel good taste, choosing flowers in sweet pea colours and foliage in silver grey. An as for white gardens, they have remained supremely fashionable for nigh on half a century, with a seal of approval from Vita Sackville-West, the arch-duchess of twentieth-century gardening.

To miss out on the vivid colour range of scarlet, vermilion, orange and strong yellow is to deny oneself the chance to experiment with the most exciting shades. Like difficult guests at a dinner-party, they simply need some thought as to their placement. Not to invite such plants as the Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica), because it insists on wearing startling red and is likely to argue with its neighbours, is too cowardly an approach. Plant it next to Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff' (the best of all dahlias, with rich purple foliage throughout the season an dsingle flowers of dazzling red) and watch the sparks fly. To further stimulate the company, plant Crocosmia 'Lucifer' nearby, a super vigorous montbretia. True, the flowers are an uncompromising shade of red, but the spiky leaves are so fresh a green that the total effect is almost soothing. The dashing red Verbena 'Lawrence Johnston' would make a pool of scarlet flowers around their skirts.

The strong red of the rose combined with the purple foliage of Berberis and Heurchera 

The key to using strong reds is to combine them with purple foliage. Cotinus coggygria (used to be a rhus) is a highly obliging plant, prepared to adapt itself indefinitely to the gardener's whim: you may do what you like to it, prune it to any size you choose, and plant it in any soil or position.

The almost metallic, shining, plum-purple leaves of Heucher micrantha 'Palace Purple' is a perfect peace-maker to separate the fighting colours from the rest of the party. A plant comparatively new to commerce is Eurphorbia dulcis 'Chameleon': a must for euphorbia fanciers, it has dusky purple leaves and bracts surrounding tiny lime-green flowers. It is a plant with wonderful wet-day appeal - a delightful sight as the raindrops tremble on the leaves like drops of mercury.

Not all reds are frightening. What about the soft red plush, like the seats in old cinemas, of Lobelia tupa for example? If you have never seen this plant, it is as unlike the normal blue bedding lobelia as you could imagine. For a start it is about six feet tall when doing well, has large pale green leaves that are soft to touch, and intriguing velvety flowers. It requires a sheltered sunny position and rich soil; once established, do not disturb.

Orange is admittedly more difficult to control than red. Lilium 'Enchantment' is a vicious, strident orange - most unsuited to a lily. But Lilium henryi, introduced from China by Augustine Henry in the late 1880s, veering more towards dark apricot, is far more acceptable. The flowers are shaped like turk's-caps and are nicely spotted inside. I am not committing myself as to the exact shades of the spots - Dr E Charles Nelson (known to be a reliable source) describes them in his excellent book An Irish Flower Garden as 'green', whereas the new Royal Horticultural Society's Dictionary of Gardening (Macmillan) says they are 'black'. (I will let you know when it flowers in August.) Lilium henryi is an exceptionally easy, long-lived lily. It does not mind lime, gives a good account of itself on dry, Dublin soil and will flourish for years without division.

Visit Helen's site at

Permission to reprint article and picture on graciously granted by Helen Dillon.




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