How does your gar­den grow?

For fa­mous Ir­ish planter, beau­ti­fully

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - HOMES - By Steve Whysall

HELEN Dil­lon is Ire­land’s most fa­mous gar­dener. She has writ­ten a cou­ple of best-sell­ing books, taken part in TV and ra­dio shows, and is a pop­u­lar in­ter­na­tional lec­turer. She has also built a bril­liant gar­den in Dublin.

I vis­ited her re­cently and the oc­ca­sion got off to a typ­i­cal Ir­ish start with a hu­mor­ous mis­un­der­stand­ing.

When I knocked on the door of her im­pres­sive man­sion­like house off Sand­ford Road in the city’s Ranelagh neigh­bour­hood, her hus­band, Val, an­swered and led me di­rectly into a large, beau­ti­fully dec­o­rated, high-ceilinged re­cep­tion room with huge win­dows over­look­ing the gar­den.

The gar­den, I later learned, was de­signed with the idea of be­ing viewed from these win­dows. Val knocked on the glass to alert Helen, who was work­ing in the green­house.

“Who is it?” I saw her mouth to Val. He mouthed back, “It’s Steve Whysall from Van­cou­ver.”

“Who?” she mouthed with an ag­i­tated frown, not know­ing I was tucked away at Val’s side and could see ev­ery­thing.

Val even­tu­ally led me out­side. Helen re­mem­bered our ap­point­ment and im­me­di­ately launched into an un­nec­es­sary ex­pla­na­tion of her con­fu­sion.

“You see, Val is al­ways bring­ing taxi driv­ers into the house to see the gar­den. To­tal strangers. I thought you were an­other one. It’s so ir­ri­tat­ing when he does that.”

The last time I saw Helen was in 1993 when she came to Vic­to­ria to give a talk. She was a de­light then, full of en­ergy and witty ob­ser­va­tions, spo­ken in short, snappy sen­tences, de­liv­ered with an al­most breath­less en­thu­si­asm.

She is older now, 70, which shocked me be­cause I al­ways thought of her be­ing much younger, such was the in­ten­sity of her en­ergy the last time we met.

But she has lost noth­ing of her quick wit, gen­uine spon­tane­ity and nat­u­ral friend­li­ness to strangers, even taxi driv­ers.

The gar­den oc­cu­pies al­most an acre. My view from the win­dow in­doors gave me a lot of in­for­ma­tion. Where there was once a long strip of lawn, act­ing as a calm­ing de­vice be­tween two bustling bor­ders, there is now a for­mal wa­ter canal set in lime­stone. It runs down the cen­tre of the gar­den and has a Moor­ish look like the fa­mous wa­ter course at the Al­ham­bra in Spain.

At one end, there is a shal­low cir­cu­lar pond set against a back­drop of ivy and clematis-cov­ered arches.

At the other end, box­wood top­i­aries (a cone atop a square block) flank steps lead­ing down to a lower chan­nel guarded by two fac­ing terra cot­ta­coloured sphinxes.

Trees and tall shrubs have been pushed to the perime­ters of the walled gar­den to pre­serve as much nat­u­ral light as pos­si­ble for the two densely planted bor­ders, one of which is de­voted mainly to reds, the other to blues.

Helen says she is still push­ing for per­fec­tion. She stands ev­ery day at the win­dow in the re­cep­tion room, snap­ping pho­tos to see if the gar­den is right yet.

“It never is, of course,” she says. “But that’s the whole point of a gar­den; it should al­ways be chang­ing and be in a con­stant state of re­newal. A gar­den is not some­thing you look af­ter mind­lessly, wip­ing its bot­tom year af­ter year. I never want my gar­den to be­come stale and static.”

On the day I was there, bor­ders were full of pur­ple flow­ers: gi­ant clumps of pur­ple al­li­ums and tall bunches of dame’s rocket (Hes­peris ma­tronalis), which is con­sid­ered a bit of an in­va­sive weed in Ire­land, as well as here in Canada.

Helen fell in love with it af­ter see­ing how beau­ti­fully it was used at Monet’s Gar­den in Giverny to add colour and con­trast to tulips in late spring.

Else­where, there are sweeps of red as­tran­tia and yel­low doron­icum and taste­fully placed clumps of ori­en­tal pop­pies. Yel­low and orange Welsh pop­pies were pop­ping up ev­ery­where.

“I am try­ing to col­lect the dou­bles (ones with twice as many petals) be­cause they last so much longer and they don’t set seed,” Helen tells me. “When I see a re­ally good dou­ble, I move it to an area where I hope it will sur­vive.”

This icon of Ir­ish gar­den­ing still strug­gles with the ten­sion be­tween her pas­sion for plants and her love for strong de­sign and func­tional struc- ture.

“I al­ways say I don’t want to be a cu­ra­tor, I want to be a cre­ator.

But there has al­ways been this great pull for me be­tween de­sign and plants.

It’s not that I don’t like plants, but I have dis­cov­ered I can’t grow ev­ery plant un­der the sun here. It’s re­ally all about the over­all pic­ture ver­sus the plea­sure of hav­ing spe­cial plants. Nowa­days, my mind is more and more on qual­ity de­sign and the gar­den’s over­all look.”

Tucked away be­hind the ivy arches is a gravel gar­den area where Helen has used aralia trees to cre­ate dap­pled shade. It is here where she has also al­lowed yel­low doron­icum to get a hold. “I put off yel­lows, but I know Christo­pher Lloyd loved strong yel­low flow­ers. Now I find yel­low can re­ally light up the gar­den. I think I have spent too many years with the pas­tel shades.”

To get light into the gar­den, Helen has not hes­i­tated to limb-up trees. She has even gone to town on a hand­some pa­per­bark maple (Acer gri­seum), turn­ing it into a spec­i­men with un­usu­ally high, slen­der trunks.

“I learned about prun­ing up while in Canada. It is some­thing you do a lot there. They don’t do it much at all here, but I need to do it. When you grow this much stuff, you need a hell of a lot of light. We’re like New­found­land here: the light lev­els are very low.”

The pre­dom­i­nantly de­cid­u­ous gar­den has other in­ter­est­ing trees: a large var­ie­gated dog­wood; an olive tree, which amaz­ingly gets through even the cold­est Ir­ish win­ter, prob­a­bly be­cause of the gar­den’s pro­tec­tive walls; and a wind­mill palm, al­though this is pushed out to the side along with tall shrubs like cean­othus.

She loves echev­e­ria and aeo­nium and puts out canna lilies for sum­mer colour, but she lost her cordy­lines over win­ter.

The gar­den is full of spe­cial plants, such as the lovely blue Chatham Is­land for­got-me-not (Myoso­tid­ium horten­sia). But some plants sim­ply won’t grow in the gar­den.

Helen says her soil is too sour for big-flow­ered clematis to thrive, so these are ab­sent from walls and arches. She has much bet­ter luck with hardy al-pines and macropetals.

In a court­yard at the front of the house, Helen has shown her hu­mor­ous side by plant­ing a row of Tas­ma­nian tree ferns in three per­fectly spaced alu­minum dust­bins.

Nearby, clumps of sil­very-leafed astel­lia add an ex­tra touch of metal­lic-like sheen.

The de­bate over whether a gar­den is a work or art or a sci­ence project is not one Helen has been able to set­tle in her own mind, but she does say that “the gar­den is the only thing to calm me down. It has a tran­quil­liz­ing ef­fect.”

— Canwest News Ser­vice

Pur­ple al­li­ums and dame’s rocket are the stars of the show in early June, as seen here in Helen Dil­lon’s

gar­den in Dublin, Ire­land.

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