Clare Foster continues her series of interviews with
some of Britain’s leading horticultural figures, to discover
the secrets of good planting design
Helen Dillon is the undisputed queen of Irish gardening. Her acre of town garden in the elegant Ranelagh district of Dublin has become the most photographed garden in Ireland - seen both in magazines and in the many books she has written - and she is known for her relaxed, sometimes unorthodox style of gardening and her spirited views. Helen is the kind of person who absolutely hates being categorised - she won't be pinned down to a particular style or approach, and confesses that her tastes are constantly changing. In her view, gardening should be an entirely intuitive process. 'Creative things happen when you're not thinking about something; you're just playing,' she says. 'The best gardening happens when you've done all the things you intended to do, and you're just walking about letting your mind run free.'
Born into a Scottish family, Helen always found herself pushing gently against what was seen as acceptable. She wanted to go to art school but her parents resisted, so at the age of 22 she wrote to the editor of Amateur Gardening magazine and asked for a job. It was to change the course of her life completely. 'I was dogsbody on Amateur Gardening,' she recalls, 'but I loved it because I met that whole generation of well-known gardeners - Valerie Finnis, David Shackleton, Graham Stuart Thomas. Margery Fish would come into the office in her Harris tweed suit. I'd have to deliver photographs or proofs to one of these garden people, and we'd meet over tea or lunch - it was all very genteel. And then at the end of the day, you'd get what you were waiting for — a cutting of one of their plants.' Helen left Amateur Gardening and fell into antiques dealing, which is how she met her husband, Val, who whisked her off to Ireland. Here she felt truly at home, and with a new house in Dublin, she started putting into practice some of the things she'd learnt at the magazine, creating the garden that was to make her name in the world of horticulture.
Now, 40 years on, the garden is as iconic as ever, having gone through many a sea change over the decades. Helen's most significant change, which sent murmurs of surprise rippling through the garden world, was to do away with the pristine lawn and colour-themed borders that had been the central feature of the garden for so long, replacing them with a modern-looking canal surrounded by hard, cool limestone. The wide borders are still there, albeit now settled into a more relaxed state to contrast with the static lines of the canal, and at this time of year they are overflowing with plants that jostle together in pleasingly chaotic harmony.
Colour is important, but the borders are no longer restricted by colour-themed tyranny. At the time, that was what everyone wanted to do,' says Helen. 'I remember when Christopher Lloyd came here 15 years ago, and he said very politely, with a glint in his eye, "Don't you ever feel like putting a little bit of blue in the red border, and a little red in the blue border?'"
Today, bold colours run in loose seams throughout the borders. In midsummer, base notes of purple and blue in the form of delphiniums, alliums, Astrantia 'Hadspen Blood' and sweet rocket, which Helen is using as an alternative to the ubiquitous Verbena bonariensis, are pepped up by intense orange day lilies and scarlet geums. One of Helen's trademarks is her use of pots, which she employs as fillers, hidden away in the borders, as well as features in themselves - at the moment she has galvanised dustbins filled with perfect-looking Allium 'Purple Sensation' and Rosa 'Rhapsody in Blue'. Putting pots into the border is especially useful for late summer, when instant colour and height are needed 'to fill emergency gaps' made by early summer plants dying back, and she is reluctant to use up a piece of border for flowers such as lilies that look good only for two or three weeks. She grows dahlias in pots, too, where they are more likely to resist the slugs.
Everywhere in the garden is the evidence that Helen is a collector as well as a designer, although she swears that it is the 'overall effect' that motivates her, rather than the yearning for an uncommon plant. 'Yes, I'm often tempted by rare or unusual plants,' she says. 'Sometimes when I first meet a plant, I just have to have it, but then I often go off it very quickly.' It is in the far reaches of the garden, beyond the elegant canal and its borders, that you find these interesting curiosities - the plants that Helen hasn't been able to resist. At every turn there is something to stop you in your tracks: a fruiting mandrake, striped arisaemas, spotty-leafed orchids and an unlikely grove of tropical aralias and pseudopanax. Plants tower high above Helen's slight figure as she weaves through the garden talking non-stop about her acquisitions, many of which have interesting provenances: 'That Chaenomeles was found by Valerie Finnis on her honeymoon... My father got this Rodgersia from Crarae in the Sixties...' But although these and other plants are dear to her, she is not sentimental about those that she finds no longer work for her. 'If it looks nasty, dig it out,' she says crisply. 'For example, I have officially gone off purple foliage - it just makes a black hole in the border - so my dark-leafed dahlias have had to go. Good gardening is a constant process of editing, and really what it boils down to is that it's not what you put in, it's what you take out'
The Dillon Garden, 45 Sandford Road, Ranelagh, Dublin:
‘’Helen Dillon’s Garden Book’ (Frances Lincoln, £14.99) is out now in paperback