Helen Dillon – An Inspiration to the Irish Gardener

The Dillon Garden  (11)

A visit to the Dillon garden is always a treat for the senses. Helen, who created the garden along with her husband Val, describes May as the ‘deadest month’ of the year but the dreaded May gap would seem to be a thing of fiction in this garden, with so many plants in full flower.

Swathes of sweet rocket, alliums, honesty, Irises and bluebells give the borders a predominantly purple appearance at this time of year, a sort of calm before the explosion of colour that is to come. However also in bloom are Roses, with Rosa ‘Bengal Crimson’ a particular delight, Trollius, the last of the tulips to flower, Tulipa sprengeri, Camassia, Clematis, Aquilegia, Paeonia, dark Astrantia, bright red and orange Geums, double flowered Welsh Poppies, Cerinthe – the list goes on – not to mention many other choice oddities and exotics.

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As I leave Helen to converse with garden visitors who are anxious to speak to Ireland’s gardening royalty, I hear howls of laughter from various locations in the garden as Helen entertains and educates her visitors simultaneously. Whether she is commenting on the Oedipus complex playing out in the canary cage, the sad passing of Mr Reginald, the dog, or singing the praises of Allium ‘Globemaster’, the visitors appreciate the individual attention and sharing of knowledge. And visitors come from all over. An Italian could be heard exclaiming ‘Meraviglioso!’ everytime he rounded a corner.

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I imagine that if Helen has a mental list of all plants, they would be divided into two categories, ‘ghastly’ and ‘darling’. When asked about a wish list she refers to the desire to travel, to Mongolia and Far East Russia. As for which plants are on her wish list she said she doesn’t have a wish list, but that she would like to grow what she has better. This is hard to fathom when plants must view this garden as the holy grail of places to grow with her husband Val’s ‘dynamite for plants’ compost and Helen’s incredible understanding of plant needs. However, believe it or not, there are some things that Helen cannot grow. “There are lots of woody things that are desirable but not suitable. I’m riddled with honey fungus” she says “not me, the garden!”

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She laments the trend for gardens to be viewed solely as an outdoor room rather than a place for growing plants, where the barbeque supplants the border and decks and paving supersede trees and shrubs. She believes we should be marketing gardening as everything else is marketed. We need to sell it. Gardening can be a lifesaver when coping with the ups and downs of life. “How comparatively serene one feels after a day in the garden compared to a day in the office” she says.

She subscribes to the idea that ‘the best way to keep a plant is to give it away’ and is delighted that now, with the internet and Paypal, anyone can have almost anything. Although this does make it difficult to choose especially seeing as here in Ireland, we are blessed with a damp, generally benign climate which adds to the range of plants that we can grow.

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There is no shortage of rare and exotic plants in the Dillon garden but often the more arresting features are things that are in her own words ‘common as mud’ but that are celebrated and used imaginatively. Tulips in dustbins, a bramley apple that has been pruned to look as though it overlooks a Mediterranean village rather than a Dublin suburb are just two such elements.

Helen’s approach to gardening changes regularly, according to what works for her. She might once have advised us to make holes in the bottom of plastic yoghurt cartons with the tip of a lit cigarette and while her borders were once colour themed, now she goes more for a zingy kaleidoscope of colour. She has compared the more recent planting style in the borders to throwing a box of Smarties up in the air.

Over 10 years ago the “bully” of the garden, the lawn, was dispensed with and replaced with imposing Kilkenny limestone which shows off the borders beautifully. Visitors generally gasp as they get their first glimpses of the garden from the house, and I’d warrant some might actually faint as they emerge onto the balcony such is the ravishing scene before them.

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Dr Charles Nelson, one of the founders of the Irish Garden Plant Society, recalls that Helen was  active in the IGPS during the 80s.  “She supported the IGPS from its beginnings in different ways, as did other plantsmen like Molly Sanderson, David Shackleton and Rosemary Brown to name just three. I am delighted the IGPS is to make her an honorary member.”

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One of the IGPS activities Helen was involved in was the annual IGPS plant sale. Carmel Duignan recalls one year buying a plant of Hebe ‘Headfortii’ from the late David Shackleton who accompanied Helen Dillon as she presided over the Rare and Special Plant stall, a post that these days is presided over by Carmel herself along with Stephen Butler.

Mary Davies, well known for her involvement in the Irish Garden Magazine actually started her garden related publishing activity in the Irish Garden Plant Society Newsletter. Mary was the third chairperson of the IGPS and remembers fondly activities from the 1980s that she was involved in with Helen Dillon. The two grandes dames of gardening had great fun as co-editors of the IGPS newsletter. “Our compilation time involved a mixture of desperation, drink, last minute brain waves and much hilarity” they confess in a piece they wrote for the 100th edition of the newsletter in April 2006. In the 80s the articles came in hand written and had to be typed up on a typewriter, a laborious job by today’s standards. Little wonder there was the odd drink involved.

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When asked to describe Helen, Mary Davies says “Helen is an incomparable gardener and a witty and spontaneous lecturer and writer. Ireland is lucky to have her.” Although Helen is Scottish, many Irish gardeners would see her as a national treasure. And so it is with great pride that the Irish Garden Plant Society is inviting Helen Dillon to become an honorary member of the society, in recognition of her support and inspiration not just to the Society but to gardeners all over Ireland and beyond.

Text and photos by Ali Rochford.

To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook.

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7 thoughts on “Helen Dillon – An Inspiration to the Irish Gardener

  1. What an incredible garden!!! I present a series of lectures to gardening clubs and societies here in England (and Scotland) entitled; ‘Outstanding Gardens – Home and Away’ and should it ever prove my good fortune to visit this revered slice of cultivated heaven then I am certain that it would soar to the very zenith of my featured gardens.

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    • Cliff, Helen’s garden has been a place of pilgrimage and inspiration for many years. She has been the one who has introduced us to interesting plants, enthused us to get gardening and has welcomed us to her garden for many years. She always had a particular interest in plants of Irish origin. I always associate Bergenia ‘Irish Crimson’, Omphaloides ‘Starry Eyes’ and Dianthus ‘Chomley Farren’ with her and there are many plants in my garden which have the tag “that came from Helen” attached to them and they are treasured for this connection.

      Paddy

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  2. I’ve read oodles of articles about Helen and her garden, but this is one the very best. Those little anecdotes are priceless! As a long standing member of the IGPS, I am delighted to see Helen, our hero, being awarded with this honorary membership.And thanks very much Ali for bringing it all to life for us!

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    • Many thanks for such positive feedback, Deborah. Much appreciated. To be honest, this honorary membership was long overdue as we have all enjoyed both Helen’s garden and company over many years. She truly has been an inspiration to many Irish gardeners.

      Paddy

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  3. Just to join in to celebrate a fantastic in the best sense of the word gardener who has given so many so much genuine and long lasting pleasure and after a visit to Helen’s masterpiece one doesn’t come away dispirited by its genius , rather inspired to improve one’s own patch!

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