A glimpse of Ireland’s best
Helen Dillon has never had a “less good” garden. Hers is the top and her last-gasp display – she has sold her famous Dublin plot – was like a glamorous firework show at the end of a party. “Gone gaudy,” she says and so she had. Pinks, purples, salmons, crimsons, oranges, apricots and blues were bursting out all over.
Helen likes what colours do to one another, what she calls “the bang, bang, chat, chat” of plants in a crowded space. She has never been afraid to experiment and it was a terrific way to go out. The Dillon garden has always been high maintenance and my own inclination is to head for wilder territory as the garden gets more demanding. I also like more green spaces as a contrast to the bang, bang, chat, chat, but Helen’s example made me want to try harder and, perhaps, to make changes to my working life so that I can up the stakes in the colourful areas at home next year.
That means more feeding, watering and staking, and keeping a better watch out for pests in what I hope will be a stay-at-home 2017.
Helen is a plantaholic, but she is not afraid to use ordinary plants among the rarities.
I would not have thought of using common purple loosestrife in a showy border because it seeds everywhere. But Lythrum salicaria has everything going for it. Tall, vertical and shocking magenta, it flowers for three months from July. This is a wild river weed and it would never flourish in my dry soil, but it would be a dazzling number for a client with a wet site. The double form, Lythrum salicaria ‘Feuerkerze’, does not set seed and might be a safer choice than the bog (literally) standard type.
I saw plenty of desirable plants in Ireland that I have tried to grow in the past and failed. Sometimes you have to face the conditions you live with and be content to admire the flowers you wish you could grow in other people’s plots. Lobelia tupa was running wild in amazing Sheila Reeves-Smyth’s Hardymount garden. I say amazing, because Sheila is 90 and not only does her own gardening but also climbs ladders to pick her own plums. She showed me where she had fallen off a ladder last year, saying, “I just lay there laughing, as there was nobody around”.
I may have the resolution to resist ladders and Lobelia tupa, but I want to try Crocosmia ‘Rowallane’, which is a giant golden crocosmia that I saw in several gardens and have now been given by my best Irish friend. It needs the soft weather of misty moisty Ireland and a place in the sun, but I will take the time to please it.
That soft weather is also responsible for far better phloxes than I can hope to grow.
Seeing all kinds of phlox in wonderful stands in so many gardens made me realise how puny my own plants are. And that’s another lesson. If you don’t stick to the plants that are happy in the conditions you can offer, you have to work hard to make the aliens feel at home.
At Glin Castle, the family home of Catherine FitzGerald, the designer, I found myself wondering about the balance of large and small flowers in a border. I like the pointillist look of tiny flowers, especially my favourite Erigeron annuus, the 6ft airy daisy that carries on all summer, and the salvia ‘Blue Enigma’, but Catherine has bold and showy lilies and sunflowers in the mix, which made me think I should be more adventurous about scale at home. Getting out and about may leave the home patch a bit neglected, but it is worth it for the boost it gives a garden in the years to come.
Fireworks: Helen Dillon among alstromeria in the garden she is now leaving behind, left; ‘Rowallane’, below