Irish Garden Odyssey: The Dillon Garden

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Helen Dillon’s garden in Dublin left me feeling very perplexed.  It was one of the two gardens I had been really looking forward to visiting on my tour and I was surprised not to feel thrilled at the visit.

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The garden is well-known for its much photographed central pool/rill flanked with herbaceous borders.  You enter the garden via the house and find yourself looking down on the garden with the rill and borders filling the view.  This area of the garden is obviously designed to be seen from the drawing-room above and I have to agree that it looks wonderful from the window (sorry I didn’t take a photo from the window!)

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However, when you get down to the garden you notice that the effect is achieved by the placing of pots of plants along the front edge of the borders.  This approach really jarred with me and has left me wondering why.  There were gaps in the borders where the pots could be placed so you couldn’t see the black plastic so why were they placed in such clear view.  Is this me making too much of the sight of black plastic?  I don’t think so as others commented on it too.  I also found my response to the borders confusing.

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I prefer this view of the garden to the views of the borders above.  I am finding that I like the feeling of enclosure; of being amongst the plants as opposed to standing viewing an arrangement.  It is something I felt quite strongly at Great Dixter in my response to the long border and the stock beds and I was interested to read James Golden’s recent blog post on Bury Court where he experienced something similar.  I have noticed that I like to push through the plants, to run my hand through the flowers as I walk past. I think I chose the top photo as the introductory photo for this blog post as I liked the feel of this seating area, totally enclosed by plants.

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At the far end of the rill you come to a more private area of the garden, an area that I don’t think is featured in books and magazines so much and which was much more to my liking.  I enjoyed the combination of foliage; the textures of green in the woodland area.  I also like the arches which are being clothed with ivy – an idea I am pondering and wondering if I can reproduce somewhere in my own space.

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Another view of the woodland area, which I kept going back to so it obviously appealed to something in my psyche. I really liked the Astelias as I have only seen them grown in full sun but here they provide a nice contrast to the other foliage and the silver leaves bring a special glow.

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Adjacent to the woodland is a dry garden with a succulents such as the agaves with dieramas and low growing drought tolerant plants.  This, and the woodland area, are more a plantsman’s garden than, to my mind, the big borders by the house.  Here there are all sorts of treasures acquired by Helen on her travels and from friends.

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A beautiful Lobelia tupa was shown of very well against the pale end wall of the greenhouse (I think) – a good lesson in placing a plant as the wall shows off the plant but also provides additional heat for this exotic looking creature.  My Lobelia tupa has decided it is just too mild to bother this year so I am really missing its fiery red plumes.

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My last photo is of the front garden planting.  It was a hard space to photograph partly because it was full of our group and secondly because I kept finding the neighbour’s ‘for sale’ sign creeping into the shot.  Here again the planting, under a group of birch trees, is much more to my taste than the famed borders.  It is relaxed, informal, naturalistic and just as the dry and woodland gardens show Helen’s plantsmanship, this area shows her skill at combining and planting plants.  I think this style of planting is harder to do well than the traditional border planting. I am left wondering why then is all the focus on the big borders and rill – but then again it’s probably a matter of taste.

I’m glad I have finally written this post as it has led to me looking back through my photographs of Helen’s garden and realising that there is a lot to learn once I move my mind on from the black plastic pots!

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18 Comments Add yours

  1. Your photos give the garden a plush, inclusive feeling that is quite inviting; I love the reflecting pool. When I look really hard I can see the black plastic pots. I too find that quite odd and I don’t know what to make of it. I did put this garden on my “must see” list so I can explore this space; it does seem to have a lot to offer.

  2. Yvonne Ryan says:

    Yes I would find the black plastic off putting. In this garden weed mat was put on the concrete/clay 13 years ago and it has not decomposed! I hate it and very hard to pull up. I manage to get bits off and then keep putting grass cuttings and coffee grounds and now have some small areas of flowers! Takes about 5 months. The ivy might look good BUT such an enemy! Every time I see it I say ‘bloody ivy”. Rampant here and have noticed in lots of photos seems too vigorous in Britain. Not a thank you to our early ancestors! grrr.

  3. bittster says:

    I was excited to see you posting about this garden, it’s always been one of my favorites even though I may never have the chance to visit in person.
    I’ve never quite warmed up to the rill and paving but I can appreciate why she wanted to make a bold change. Also the colors seem to be more thrown together than what I’ve seen in other photos, and I’m not sure how I feel about the bold colors next to the pastels, but the flowers look perfectly grown. I hope I don’t sound too critical… they are beautiful photos and it’s a fascinating garden and I love it. The lobelia in front of the wall is great!

  4. Brian Skeys says:

    I can understand why you were disappointed with the rill borders, Helen. I think it is quite unprofessional to have plants placed in plastic pots where they can be seen in a garden open to the public. I guess you could not see them from the drawing room window. They could at least of buried them! You are a true ‘Wild gardener’ in the William Robinson style, I think you would enjoy Gravetye Manor with its woodland areas and the herbaceous border edging the path, 6-8ft tall in August, I thought it very similar to the stock beds at Great Dixter.
    Thanks for the post, it is interesting to see the garden and read your views of the different areas.
    Sorry if you have received this twice I tried to post it last night.

  5. Maybe the focus on the rill is due to what photographers like to photograph, rather than what gardeners are actually interested in…

  6. I was interested to see your photos of Helen Dillon’s garden as she makes frequent changes to the planting and it is three years since I visited.
    I approached the visit with trepidation – would the garden live up to all the hype that surrounds it? For me, it did, but I can understand your misgivings and that were certain things I would have done differently if it were my garden as well.

  7. Anna says:

    Oh I had been wondering what you thought of ‘The Dillon Garden’ Helen. Maybe the occupants of the black pots were destined to be planted either into the borders or fewer, bigger and more attractive pots. If not it certainly does jar and looks bitty. There are some fabulous plants though and the borders are positively singing with colour on what looks like a wet day. I especially like the seating area in the top photo and the area of woodland planting.

  8. Linda B. says:

    Have been waiting to see what you would say about this garden. Very interesting to get the opinion of a home gardener and to see shots we don’t normally see. The plastic pots issue is very off-putting and really confusing in the garden of someone of Dillon’s reputr.

  9. Thank you for writing this. It’s nice to see other views of Helen’s garden. In the U.S., we always see that famous view in the magazines and such. Having been with you in a garden or two, I value your judgement. I really like what you wrote about the wall and the lobelia. ~~Dee

  10. An interesting read – I wonder if you / others felt a bit “cheated” by the black plastic pots, that to fill in the odd gap works but en masse is excessive?
    Looking at your photos, I’m not sure I enjoy the planting – it seems like the planting around the rill is a bit linear – a line of bold and bright colours and then a line of pale colours at the back. and to me because they seem delineated it doesn’t appear to work….

  11. Cathy says:

    Yes, a really interesting post, Helen. Like others I was waiting to hear what you said about it! It does seem so unlikely that she would have intended to leave those pots as they are – particularly knowing there was this organised visit which would have been arranged months in advance. Makes you wonder if something unexpected had cropped up – was there no-one around to ask about them? Seemed to be lots of interesting areas of planting as well as those by the rill – and despite the recent ivy clearing going on in my own garden I do like the idea of growing it on these arches – at least it keeps it away from spreading into the borders and of course it could be trained over a wire form like topiary too. Thanks for sharing

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Cathy
      You are very kind but I have heard others who have visited and commented on the pots so I don’t think they were there waiting to be planted or placed

    2. Cathy says:

      I knew I had read an article about the garden recently so went back to check – it was in Which? Gardening and lo and behold there was a black pot peeping out of the border in one of the pictures!!

  12. lovely garden, harmonious in its strong simple lines to counteract the profusion of plants. but i completely agree, planted pots are cheating, and black plastic pots are an eyesore.

  13. rusty duck says:

    The plastic pots are odd, they do look rather as if they are waiting to be planted, but the whole effect is a bit too full on in colour for me. I really love the overall design of the pool and the rill, but maybe with softer planting.

  14. Jardin says:

    Over the years I have seen the garden go through many transformations – originally a lush lawn where the limestone rill is, which set off the colours of the plants so well. Then the two borders were strictly colour controlled – a hot red border facing across the rill to the cool blue one. So I was surprised to see

  15. Jardin says:

    … the comparatively chaotic colours and the black pots.

  16. Very interesting to see round Helen Dillon’s garden from a gardener point of view. The last time I was there the grass was still in between the two big borders and it looked much better, to my eyes, but incresing visitor numbers probably made grass a problem. The pots are odd when put in a line like that maybe she hoped they would disappear from view. Like you I remember being much more drawn to the shadier far end of the garden wherethere were lots of interesting plants set against cool greens.
    Always enjoy reading your blog, thank you.

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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