Our queen of green

a
 

Through her books, broadcasting zeal and splendid city garden, Helen Dillon, plantswoman extraordinaire, has inspired and encouraged generations of Irish gardeners, writes Jane Powers.

When I was asked to nominate the best gardener in Ireland for this issue of the Irish Times Magazine I didn't have to think twice. In fact I didn't have to think at all about who that might be. Helen Dillon.

Sixty years of gardening - she started as a toddler - has placed her at the top of the heap in this country, and in the world, too, for that matter. But that's not 60 regular years: Dillon's gardening pace has been full-tilt since, as a schoolgirl, she constructed her first little rockery and planted her first polyanthus. By the time she was a young teenager, living near Perth in Scotland, she had switched to pelargoniums ("42 different ones when I was about 14").

In the intervening half-century she has fallen in and out of love with just about every genus of plant (although polyanthus and pelargonium remain favourites) and grown an encyclopaedia's worth of species. Her time behind the spade has been meticulous, thoughtful and intelligent - and about three times as intense as that of most other gardeners. That, and her persistent creativity, make her - in my eyes, anyway - Ireland's head gardener.

Dillon's past three and a half decades of working the soil have been carried out in the acre to the fore and aft of a big, beautifully-proportioned 19th-century house in Ranelagh, Dublin. It sounds idyllic, and it looks it, too, especially the back garden, which is bisected by a narrow, 28-metre-long limestone-edged canal that quietly slides down a couple of levels before mysteriously disappearing into a square pool of jungly foliage: sword-like irises, tense spears of equisetum and coarse, barbarically spined gunnera. Across the reflective, light-catching surface of the central watercourse, twin borders contemplate one another. Twins, but not identical: one is cool and recessive, shimmering with frosty blues and mauves; the other is belligerently ablaze with multiple fires of scarlet and crimson.

Yet, despite its exquisite and flawless appearance, the garden is, as Dillon readily offers, a bit of a whited sepulchre. "It's old, old soil, full of funguses," she says. "And heaven knows what's there in the way of pests." Because of the evils lurking underground, she is wary now about what she plants, especially when they are cherished species. "I've barely got a polyanthus or primula in the garden now, because I can't look at one without wondering what is eating it. As I stand there I know that its roots are being eaten."

Her soil, moreover, is as dry as dust (as is that in many Dublin city gardens), and her favourite plants now - after years of coddling rarities with the demands of prima donnas - are "those that will withstand drought. I want plants that are actually happy here". What's happy now are "plants from Texas, such as Dasylirion, and the very ordinary, common bearded iris, and that white perennial stock with the lovely scent. Things like fennel are very happy, both the cooking one and the giant one - a terrific plant.

"Verbena bonariensis: it's a big cliche, but it's always happy. And there are the grey- and blue-leaved things: Melianthus and seakale, and Rosa glauca; that always looks happy, too. And I've a terrific thing about cornflowers, the annual ones, and I'm very keen on self-sowing flowers such as candytuft, opium poppies and Erigeron karvinskianus, white musk mallows and double Welsh poppies."

All of the above are trouble-free plants - they will grow in any garden where the soil is not waterlogged - and Dillon makes good use of them, especially the cornflowers, which are sprinkled like constellations of azure stars through her blue border. Yet there are still elite conclaves of rarities, nestled in special quarters away from the mob, where they can be cosseted and venerated. The poignantly fragile (and endangered in the wild) North American large yellow lady's slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var pubescens) shares a raised bed with other VIPs, such as the X-ray-thin Iris kerneriana, from Turkey, and a highly-bred, outrageous, green-petalled primula.

There will always be a place for rarities in this garden, but their numbers are decreasing. "I've started not replacing plants that I'm losing," says Dillon, who is looking forward, with interest, to the time when old age demands more simplicity. "I'd like to make it so that everything is happy and seeding itself - within reason - by using more and more relaxed plants . . . If the worst that could happen is that the garden falls to bits after I die, then why don't I let it fall to bits before I die?" she says, with enviable curiosity. "And then I can see what the worst is. It would be interesting to see what would happen. Mind you" - she looks at the scene around her - "this is rather a non-argument when there are five people working in the garden at this particular moment."

And indeed there are. Not all are full time, but she would be lost without Mary Rowe and Julie Dillon ("both instinctively good gardeners"), Tim Sharkey ("an hour and a half a week") and twice-a-year Peter O'Connor. And there's husband Val, of course - "I get cranky when he's not here."

Gardening is intense on this Dublin acre, despite Dillon's talk of winding down. During our interview, for instance, several dozen barely-past-their-prime tulips are summarily dispatched and replaced with Allium 'Purple Sensation' just on the point of bloom. Every cubic metre of vegetation is carefully thought out, but it doesn't look pained or overdone (although there is glorious flamboyance in spades).

The thinking process is almost trancelike for the garden's maker, but it envelops her only after a spell of methodical and steadying tasks. "If you're harassed you don't get an idea. You have to deharass yourself first. But then I get into a kind of relaxed daze where I'm thinking, yeah, yeah, I think I'll do that - and it leads on and on."

It is Dillon's readiness to embrace change that sets her apart from many gardeners. "You have to welcome change, because you can't control it. That's the whole attraction of gardening: you can't get to the end. You might be able to write a novel and you get to the end. But there isn't an end with gardening. You can't get to the end: it's a progress." It's a progress, too, that makes her very happy. "Everybody is forgetting that the actual doing of the garden is terribly soothing and nice and comforting. And tranquillising, intensely tranquillising."

The Dillon Garden (45 Sandford Road, Ranelagh, D6, www.dillon garden.com) is open 2-6pm, Sundays only in April, May, June and September, and daily in March, July and August. The water and narrow paths make it unsuitable for children

THE DILLON DOSSIER

  • Born into an old Scots family, Helen Dillon was raised in Scotland. Later she lived in London and worked for Amateur Gardening magazine and as an antiques dealer.
  • Met and married Irish antiques dealer Val Dillon.
  • Moved to Dublin and started to garden in Sandford Road, opening the garden to small groups and, later, the public.
  • Presented The Garden Show, Garden Heaven and Antiques Watch on RTÉ over nine years.
  • Contributed a weekly gardening column to the Sunday Tribune and has written for numerous publications in Britain and the US.
  • Has written three books on gardening - The Flower Garden, Garden Artistry and Helen Dillon on Gardening - and edited, with Sybil Connolly, In an Irish Garden. A new book on everything to do with gardening will be published in the autumn.
  • Is a sought-after speaker and has lectured all over the world, including North America, Australia and New Zealand.
  • Has been on plant-hunting expeditions in Nepal, China, South America, South Africa and New Zealand.
  • Has received the Gold Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society (1999) and the prestigious George Robert White Medal of Honor from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (2003) and is a distinguished counsellor to the Board of New York Botanical Garden, in Brooklyn (2004).
  • Has acted as garden consultant to many projects, including Andrew Lloyd Webber's Irish garden, at Kiltinan Castle in Fethard, Co Tipperary, the American embassy, in Dublin, and Roy and Patty Disney's garden in Co Cork.

WHAT HELEN DILLON SAYS ABOUT . . .

Soil:"I think people don't realise how the soil in the back of any house in Dublin city over 50 years old is worn out."

Amending the soil:"I would try and get some farmyard manure, although that is like saying: 'Ask the fairies for a packet of gold dust.' You can't expect people, with how hard they work now, to go to the trouble of getting the manure. No, instead, start a compost heap as soon as possible. Start a compost heap!"

Light:"Fifty per cent of good gardening is gardening, and 50 per cent is light."

Lack of time, and the pace of life:"I think people have lost the actual pleasure of gardening. The whole thing is labour-saving and 'This is a very easy plant: all you have to do is plant it the right way up, but if you happen to plant it the wrong way up it'll grow anyway.' It's all easy-care. It's all like a nylon shirt these days."

Her favourite part of gardening:"It's the bit that I call the admiration, which is the bit where you go out the next day and say: 'My goodness! I did a nice job there.' "

a