A Visit to Helen Dillon’s Garden: 45 Sandford Road

For those of you who may have missed it, this piece appeared on Aisling Grimley’s great site for women of a certain age My Second Spring – it is well worth a gander. Find Aisling at http://www.mysecondspring.ie which is full of great blogs and ideas.

The photos are by our old pal Joe Barnes
On a beautiful, balmy sunshiney afternoon in June three second springers (lest we be called sexist, one was a man), went to visit Helen Dillon in her magical garden in Dublin. Entering the garden makes one feel like Alice in wonderland – it is like travelling to a parallel universe. Every plant is supersized; just inside the front gate is the biggest, most healthy looking cardoon I have ever seen. As you move around the garden the same thing is apparent everywhere you look – enormous, upright (not droopy or floppy), floriferous plants. The colours are better, the blooms larger and prettier than in any other garden and she seems to have the double flowered versions of familiar plants which are singles in our gardens. This is not a happy accident. Helen is one of the greatest gardeners around at the moment. Her reputation is international and she has an incredibly busy career running her own garden, writing for several publications, lecturing and producing wonderful, easy to read books full of hilarious anecdotes and witty asides about the pratfalls waiting for the novice gardener. Every single plant in the garden is placed with forethought and love, which is the key to being a great gardener. Unlike the rest of us who throw things in any old how, Helen gives thought to the plants needs. If a plant is from the slopes of the Himalayas, the swamps of Louisiana or the steppes of Russia, Helen will try to emulate the growing conditions in her garden to accommodate it and plant similarly picky plants around it. She weeds tirelessly and ruthlessly, composts, feeds and waters and has the hoary hands of the soil to prove it.

Helen gives careful thought to plants needs and growing conditions.
The planting is never static and her schemes are ever changing and evolving
It sounds so clichéd, but truly there is something for everyone in this garden. Wonderful curiosities and rare plants lie cheek by jowl with wild flowers and fruit and veg. Helen’s garden is dynamic and immediately arresting. The planting is never static and her schemes are ever changing and evolving, which is the reason why she is always well ahead of the posse. This also causes hilarious dismay among her legions of fans. People spent years cultivating a perfect, bowling green lawn bordered by wide beds, blue on one side and red on the other in imitation of the Dillon garden. Helen then decided to dig out the lawn and replace it with a limestone walk with a central rill of static water. Shortly after this, bored with the monochrome flower beds, out came the blue and red schemes and instead glorious jewelled coloured beds were planted in their stead. Just as the ladies and gents were getting their heads around this sea change and dotting their beds with blobs of colour Helen lost her allotment. Having become obsessed with growing her own salads and veg she was in a quandary – where would she grow her kitchen garden produce? To the shock of all she decided to plant spuds, salads and runner beans hugger mugger with the ornamentals right in the middle of her prime horticultural real estate – the central borders. Hens were also introduced and housed in the smartest digs a chicken has ever lived in. After the fox ate the poor fowl a colony of the sweetest ever singing canaries moved in. Naturally everyone is now starting to copy her as the end result looks fantastic and brings a sense of purpose and authenticity to the garden. The reason why old suburban villas all have huge gardens is that they were designed to include kitchen gardens where a gardener would toil day by day to grow produce for the house in the days before we could pop round to spar for a bag of lettuce.

The trademark perfect, upright clear blue delphiniums
The day we visited there were still banks of gloriously scented Hesperus in the main beds, the trade mark perfect, upright clear blue delphiniums are still there, mixed with grey blue aconitum, campanula, heavenly roses and hundreds of alstromeria in deepest reds, yellows and orange.
The oval garden at the back has been transformed over the years. The lovely old pear tree is still there but now it is a jungly, shady grove full of ferns, foxgloves and curiosities like the ancient poisonous mandrake, foxgloves and wild grasses. A raised bed is home to some outstanding Meconopsis betonicifolia and Meconopsis napaulensis.
One of the many reasons why Helen’s garden never looks stale or stuffy is that she is not a snob. This is not just a cabinet de curiosités filled with fussy rare plants. Wild flowers abound, from the quaking grasses under the birch grove to the front of the house self-seeders abound. There are teasels, bladder campions and erigeron in amongst the esoterica and fairly bog standard plants are elevated to star status through clever associations.
We finally staggered out of the garden, tipsy with wine brought to us by kind Val and drunk on the beauty, having stayed far too long. We went back to our own miserable patches full of ideas and plans filched from the wonderful Helen Dillon.

Lessons to learn from a visit to the Dillon garden
• Don’t be afraid to take risks with colour
• Keep changing the look of your garden so it doesn’t become stale
• Grow plants in the conditions they like – ie if you have damp, heavy clay soil don’t try to have a meditterarian style garden.
• Create raised beds for alpines and other plants that don’t like wet conditions.
• Grow fruit and veg amongst ornamentals
• Weed, feed and stake plants regularly
• Make use of containers to add colour and variety where needed. This is also a space saver.

• The Dillon Garden