Documents: Gardening From: Gardening From Ireland:

Thoughts About Colour

...The Blue 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 19, 2003

2000dillon5.jpg (77058 bytes)Should someone (with a disapproving wave of the colour wheel) attempt to explain, yet again, Jekyllian theory on matters of colour, I shall take no notice. I adore blue flowers; they are scarce enough at the best of times. My method is to mix all shades together, making a glorious muddle of different blues, never mind whether they are turquoise, sapphire, or lapis lazuli. Purists will say that you shouldn't mix pure blues with mauve- or violet-blue, but the loveliest effects can be made by breaking the rules. Indeed, in this part of the garden it is hard to see where the blue stops and the mauve begins, shading to mauve and violet in the shadow, illuminated here and there by some silvery mounds of artemisias.

Delphiniums are trouble. They need watering. They need frequent division and extra-rich soil. They need constant protection against slugs and often need spraying against mildew. They may need to have their surplus shoots thinned in spring. And you almost need a doctorate in delphinium staking to get that right - if the string is too loose, the stems snap; too tight, ditto. But when they bloom, I am recompensed for all the bother by their glorious blue spires, which bring to mind the grand old herbaceous borders you see in fading photographs and Edwardian watercolours. All my delphiniums have lost their names, so I call each different one after the gardener who gave me the original division. As for "pink" delphiniums, to me this seems a contradiction in terms. But I might be persuaded to entertain a good white.

(Consolida cultivars) self-sow with abandon, presenting slender spikes in various shades of blue, just when their cousins, the larger delphiniums, are going over. The hazy blue of love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) appears here and there at the border front, each flower surrounded by a lacy ruff of finely cut foliage. Love-in-a-mist's other name is devil-in-a-bush, because the inflated seedpods have horns like archetypal devils. Should your climate permit, both these annuals make stronger plants when autumn-sown and left undisturbed; just thin them out as necessary in spring.

Goat's rue, Galega officinalis, was a familiar plant in Edwardian borders but seemed to go out of fashion as this century matured, lost in the multitude of new arrivals on the perennial scene. Easy, long-flowering, so reliable and so pretty - a mauvy lilac cloud - it quickly becomes indispensable.

In the hiatus as the first flush of delphiniums goes over, I don't know what I'd do without three large groups of goat's rue. A vigorous perennial to four feet, this member of the pea family has branching heads packed with little sweet-pea flowers and light green, featherlike leaves. There are several cultivars, including the white 'Alba'. Early summer-flowering Galega orientalis from the Caucasus has super bright blue flowers with a hint of violet. It can be invasive, but I'm hopeful that the nearby roots of a long-established patch of Japanese anemones might dampen its ardour.

Monkshoods are essential follow-on plants to the delphiniums. In the blue border they are represented by Aconitum x cammarum 'Bicolour', with branching inflorescence of nodding, hooded, two-tone blue-and-white flowers on four-foot stems, and 'Bressingham Spire', not so tall, with violet-blue flowers. Beautiful as they are, you'd almost know by the threatening look of the helmeted flowers that these plants are deadly poisonous; many's the story about how Victorian gardeners perished because they mistook monkshood tubers for Jerusalem artichokes. Monkshoods require little staking. Give them a fertile soil, not too dry; they will tolerate part shade. Divide them in autumn if necessary.

You probably only know it as a bedding plant, but here Salvia patens behaves as a perennial, growing to two feet at the border front. The velvety flowers are such a vivid pure blue that their colour dominates all paler blues nearby (including its cultivar 'Cambridge Blue'), especially those with a mauvy blue.

In late summer the ongoing confrontation between collector and maker of garden pictures temporarily subsides, and space is allowed for some decent groups of Aster x frikartii 'Mönch' and Aster thomsonii 'Nanus'. These two mauvy-blue daisies, both bountiful of flower, hold court for many weeks with an ever-changing retinue that includes Clematis x durandii, Buddleja davidii 'Nanho Blue', catmint, blue verbenas, stokesia, agapanthus, echinops, eryngium, violas, Salvia 'Indigo Spires', S. uliginosa, and campanulas - from towering clumps of milky blue C. lactiflora to the peach-leaved bellflower, C. persicifolia.

So far we've discussed only blue flowers, but there are also swags of grey foliage and bouquets of white flowers in the blue border - white penstemons, white agapanthus, and airy sprays of gypsophila, for example. Foliage accents are provided by teasels (Dipsacus fullonum), and a Queen Anne's lace look-alike called Selinum wallichianum, formerly S. tenuifolium, perhaps the most beautiful of all cow parsleys, with a filigree of fresh green fernlike leaves and flowers quite superior to the wild plant of Irish hedgerows. There is also quite a lot of mauve, with plants such as Penstemon 'Alice Hindley' and P. 'Sour Grapes'. (I don't know if this latter is the true plant, there are so many pretenders about.)

Few visitors notice Corokia cotoneaster, the wire netting bush from New Zealand. It has silvery young growth, tortuously interlaced branches going in all directions, and small oval, silver-green leaves. With no obvious leading shoot and a cage-like tangle of branches, it has been suggested that C. cotoneaster evolved like this to protect the tender leader from grazing moas, a giant extinct bird. You wouldn't think it pretty, neither by its common name nor this description, but it forms a pleasant bulge of smoky grey about six feet tall, a gentle foil for the blue of delphiniums and aconitums. Background shrubs must be amenable to the gardener's whim, so this is lightly pruned to size in spring.

Hebe speciosa 'Tricolour' grows nearby. The oval, evergreen leaves are on the borderline between being an appropriate choice for a pastel colour scheme and being a smidgen too flashy - pale green edged with cream and tinted at the edges with purple-pink. The late-summer flowers are reddish-magenta. This hebe is kept to about four feet by regular spring pruning. From the moment I decided that I didn't really care whether it died or not in a hard winter (I would, of course, have replaced it with a young plant from another spot in the garden), this specimen has apparently become immune to frost.

Helen has graciously given permission to reprint this article.

Des Kennedy will be hosting another one of my tours to Ireland August 3-11th, 2003. It will include this beautiful garden .... check out the garden tours!

  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row