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Thoughts About Colour

....the Red Border
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!

February 16, 2003

2000dillon3.jpg (75688 bytes)One day somebody will write a complicated thesis on why women dislike strong colours in the garden. Most take exception to red and strong yellow, while orange is considered impossible. It seems that they would prefer to drift around in a haze of sweet pea colours, accompanied by mounds of lavender and plants with silver leaves.

The red border came about for two reasons. The first was Lychnis chalcedonica, the Maltese cross. Wherever I put it, the worse it looked - the scarlet of its floewrs dazzled everything else into oblivion. I gave it away. But it's a sad state of affairs if a fine old garden plant has to go because the right place cannot be found. Secondly, I visited Mount Stewart, the National Trust garden in Northern Ireland, one of those rare gardens with good plants as well as good design. There, laid out before me, was the solution, so simple you'd have to be colour blind not to see and understand.

The great parterre, to the south of the house, is divided into two clear sections: to the left are all the strong colours - red, orange, bright yellow; to the right, the pastel shades - pink, pale blue, mauve, and light yellow. Suddenly everything made sense. After fifteen years of enjoying plants just for themselves, I wanted to make garden pictures as well. Back home, I began a total reorganisation of colour. This involved umpteen plant moves, many of them taking place in summer so I could see what the colours were.

I began to collect foliage plants to use as background to all the different reds. The collector's attitude of never having more than one specimen had to be staunched, so some plants are used repetitively in the red border, such as dwarf red barberry (Berberis thunbergii 'Atropurpurea Nana'), Heuchera micrantha 'Palace Purple' and Eurphorbia dulcis 'Chameleon'. This last is herbaceous, with rich rosy-purple leaves. It looks good most of the year, so late is it to bed and so early to rise. Nice seedlings in various shades of purple turn up, but if you want to preserve the true plant, propagate it by division or cuttings. I'm told cuttings root at any time of year, but I've found basal spring cuttings best.

A form of cow parsley or Queen Anne's lace, Anthriscus sylvestris 'Ravenswing' has leaves that emerge green and change to purple black; the flowers are creamy white. Cimicifuga simplex Atropurpurea Group is a distinguished plant, with sultry deep purple leaves and sweetly scented bottle-brush flowers on four- to five-foot stems. It appreciates rich, moist soil, is comparatively slow to increase and has been divided only twice in eleven years. (This was done out of greed; it didn't actually need dividing).

Heucher 'Pewter Moon', a recent addition, has prettily veined and marbled leaves in matte silver, the undersides washed in mauve. Whereas a singleton is charming, I can't wait to have a group. No sooner than a new plant starts to bulk up, it is in danger of being hauled out of the ground and divided.

Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy', a large shrub or small tree, is still on trial. The leaves are satiny, heart-shaped, crimson, and breathtaking as the evening sun shines through them. I have read that this plant can be stooled by hard pruning in spring, so I'm not worried if it suffers from spring die-back.

Mahonia x wagneri 'Moseri' is rather good, with bronze-salmon young leaves, later turning to green on thirty-inch stems. It suckers in all directions once established. Other foliage plants here include a dwarf purple-leaves New Zealand flax, bronze-leaved ajuga, red-leaved spinach and beetroot, Penstemon digitalis 'Husker's Red', and Uncinia rubra. One doesn't often think of roses as foliage plants, but the red flush of their young leaves tones nicely in spring with purple tulips, crimson winter pansies, and double red primroses.

Two ordinary background shrubs in this bed are a purple form of the smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria, and Rosa glauca (once called R. rubrifolia), a foliage plant par excellence with rosy-mauve glaucous leaves, pale pink flowers like little Tudor roses, and a copious supply of red hips in autumn. Both are liable to be pruned at whim. The rose, if cut almost to ground level in spring, will produce wands of much larger leaves, a lovely compensation for the lack of flower. I adore this plant, and consider it one of the ten best plants of all. It is just as pretty in shade, when the leaves assume an even bluer hue. With regard to the cotinus, it would be more subtle to use a cultivar with leaves not quite so dense a purple, but I've yet to acquire one.

I once knew a gardening poseur who used to sit down to lunch, his secateurs, clean and freshly oiled, laid beside his knife and fork. Afterwards, accompanied by his entourage on the garden tour, each shrub received a snip with the secateurs, regardless of whether it needed it or not. No doubt the onlookers were impressed. I'm all for breaking the rules, but I think it is important to find out which shrubs one can take liberties with - the rose and the smoke bush above willingly submit to such cavalier treatment.

Now for the flowers: Dahlia 'Bishop of Llandaff' is a stunningly good plant - the metallic dark bronze-purple foliage is infinitely better than the usual cabbagey dahlia leaves, and the single bright red flowers are the height of refinement. But as the flowers age, a hint of vulgarity creeps in, so they are often deadheaded before their time. Dahlia 'Bednall Beauty' is a similar, much smaller version, the flowers slighly more crimson than scarlet. Very nice.

Roses here include 'Alexander', a ferocious vermilion, but I think there's enough bronze foliage around to cope with it, 'Frensham', a softer red, gentle on the eye; and 'Marlena' - I don't like the form of the flowers, but they are a nice shade of red. 'Bengal Rose', a rare and not very hardy rose that seems to be close to the wild Rosa chinensis, has such pretty single floppy-petalled flowers that I had to try it here, but it may prove too tender for such an open position.

This year Knautia macedonica had its first flowers in February and its last in November. The flowers, like little purple-red pincushions, require some support. Kniphofia 'Samuel's Sensation' is a flamboyant poker with tall bright carmine flowers, but K. thomsonii var. snowdenii, distinguished by its curved florets widely spaced on the stem, is soft orange.

Penstemon 'Chester Scarlet' and 'Burgundy' are important for continuity of colour: Each autumn emergency cuttings are taken, but I can never bear to replace old plants in spring. Crocosmia 'Lucifer', C. 'Carmin Brilliant', and C. 'Mrs. Morrison' are divided every second year. Small frontal plants include Verbena x hybrida 'Lawrence Johnston', red antirrhinums, and nicotiana.

Iris chrysographes 'Inshriach', a small black velvet iris, was once nearly lost through dividing it in late summer (apparently the correct time is spring). As black as you'll get (more so than 'Black Knight'), it looks good in the red border, while Baptisia australis and Gentiana asclepiadea, two good blues, have to remain despite their colour. Neither can be transplanted; when the chips are down, plants come before fancy colour schemes.

Lastly, I should mention the rare Hemerocallis fulva 'Kwanso Variegata'. Imported from Japan in the 1860s, this has double soft orange flowers, with bronzy-red shading. The leaves, smartly silver-striped, are decorative from the moment they come up. 'Kwanzo Variegata' sat and looked at me for years before there was enough of it to divide.

The challenge of arranging this border is endlessly fascinating, perhaps because there's no chance whatsoever of getting it right - the more I think about it the more complicated it becomes. Parts of the border work quite well, sometimes, but never the whole thing at once.

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