In mid-August, through a Dublin window, I have just seen the view that puts my own gardening in perspective. I am simply not that good at it. I do not feel too ashamed, as the garden, Helen Dillon’s, is the best walled town garden one can hope to see. Just now, I have white-flowered leucanthemums with names like T.E. Killin going grubbily out of flower. At 45 Sandford Road, the lilies are stupendous, the colours of the crocosmias far brighter than mine and the glaucous-leaved cannas are a revelation.
“It looks at the moment like a bowl of smarties,” the presiding genius tells me. When I first saw it, nearly 20 years ago, the bowl was significantly different. Helen’s fame is still just as high, as a lecturer in America, a writer, an encourager of Irish gardeners and a seriously experienced grower of garden plants. The Dublin garden, however, continues to change and evolve, to the fascination of its thousands of visitors.
For a start, the central lawn is long gone. So is the bipolar colour scheme of the long central borders: reds on the left, blues on the right. The front entrance garden lived in my mind with its white celmisias, which I cannot even grow badly. Now there is a grove of birch trees and a tallish plant smothered with heads of pretty lilac-blue. I mistake it for a campanula and then realise that it looks more like a sort of jumbo phlox. It is a parent, she thinks, of many border phloxes, perhaps the true Phlox paniculata. Despite the phlox’s many improvements, it should never have been lost.
Visitors to the main back garden have to come through the Dillons’ house. Perhaps they notice this month’s wonder, the potted tall plants of Campanula pyramidalis, whose stems are in perfect simultaneous flower from top to bottom. “They need to be grown away from bees,” their chatelaine tells me, “otherwise they start to die at the bottom before the tops are open.” Thoroughly “beed-up”, mine have already turned brown on their lower half outdoors. One of Helen’s most memorable gardening columns is called “Near To The Madding Crowd”. Earnest Germans with umbrellas are to be seen outdoors among the lilies in the garden’s upper left. While I tactfully wait for the madding crowd to leave, I ask her to explain the many changes she has made.
The emerald-green central lawn was the responsibility of her husband, Val. Now it has been replaced by a straight run of paving, all in grey Irish limestone, and a central canal of dark water. “We had been at the Alhambra,” Helen explains, “and I had the idea of a similar central canal to the one in the palace’s Court of Myrtles.” So out went the lawn and in came the bare, bold lines of the water. Already there was a flowery arch dividing off the garden’s further end. The canal had to line up with it, but it therefore runs at a skewed angle to the house. Did her husband mind the abolition of his special feature? “Grass,” Val assures me with a smile, “is a pain in the ass.” The pool is kept black by a dye bought in America but it fast breeds pond slime if it is not sorted out. “He used to obsess about the grass,” Helen remarks, “and now, he obsesses about pond algae.” There is none to be seen.
As for the main colour scheme, she was inadvertently prompted by one of the “madding crowd”. A female visitor came in at the front and was overheard saying, “All I want is green and white”. Helen thought, “Damn you, then”, but began to wonder if she had not had enough of the segregated colours she had adapted 20 years earlier from plantings at the great Northern Irish garden, Mount Stewart. So she decided to go mixed. The effect is stunning, even in mid-August. It is underpinned by another innovation: many of the summer flowering plants have been grown in round black plastic pots of the sort used by nurseries which sell “mature” plants. They are then placed in the borders, still in their pots, and the surrounding cut-back greenery of May and June conceals them.
I have often thought about this trick, one that others call “succession planting”, but I have lacked the energy to dig out a big hole in July in order to submerge a pot of tall lilies in a gap in a border. I now learn a transformative truth. There is no need to dig a hole at all. The pots can be about a 1ft to 1.5ft deep and, as they are dark black, they do not show up among surrounding foliage. They merely have to be sited in the places that are short of colour. Under the house windows at Sandford Road, masses of late-flowering agapanthus are waiting with dahlias and asters to go into gaps and maintain the smartie effect until October.
In town gardens this style of “succession planting” changes the game. Sandford Road is glowing with hidden pots of fresh yellow lilies like leichtlinii and other late summer hybrids. Val’s niece, Julie, has now joined as a gardener too and helps with moving the heavy pots into place. The one essential is that they are regularly watered. “Hand watered,” Helen adds, “as only by hand with a can is the water adapted to each pot’s needs.”
Years ago, an FT Weekend reader kindly sent me an unsolicited dahlia in a plastic bag. It was Admiral Rawlings and she swore it was exceptional. Disbelieving her, I planted it near the back of a big border, where it continues to prove her right. It is so tall, up to 7ft, and its big flowers are a glowing deep purple-red. At Sandford Road the Admiral is thriving both in pots and in the ground. On the wall nearby is the unfamiliar, bluish-white Solanum jasminoides, a heavenly colour that we Englanders neglect for the sake of its pure white form
The main garden has an element of bold theatre, enhanced by the recent potting trick. The front garden has snowdrops and spring bulbs under the gravel, but the birch trees with peeling barks are something altogether new. “I was travelling by train from Berlin to Moscow,” says Helen, “and the sight of so many birch trees set me thinking.” She wanted light to filter through towards the house but she also wanted a canopy to cast shade. She was fed up with an old silver weeping pear which she used to clip into a blob. “I don’t want to be married to this thing,” she thought, so out it went and the front area became a small birch grove with ever more sarcococcas, a peony or two and hellebores. The tone is charmingly different.
For 40 years or so Helen has spoken up for real gardening. She has done so much for Ireland’s gardens and the willingness of others to learn how to look after them. She values it all for its therapeutic effect on the person as much as for the beauty and curiosity it involves. Will she keep on going into her seventies? Of course she will, she assures me, but it will be hard eventually to see the garden starting to go back. There is not a sign of retreat at Sandford Road so far. It is the thoughtful garden by which I am still most humbled and instructed.
Photograph: Helen Dillon