The Casual Gardener: Saying goodbye to a beloved garden
Helen Dillon bids farewell to her famous south Dublin garden at the end of this month. She tells John Manley why she has no regrets about the move
IN ITS own way Helen Dillon's departure from her home and garden in Ranelagh, south Dublin, is as significant as Guinness leaving St James's Gate or the GAA ditching Croker.
"My husband Val said we'd only ever leave here in our wooden overcoats," she told me last week. But the unthinkable is now happening – after 44 years and many thousands of dead heads, Ireland's foremost gardener is uprooting and moving on. She doesn't plan to go far, though, and intends to stay on the southern side of the capital. Yet the garden that comes with her and Val's new home will be significantly smaller and easier managed.
"It just seemed like the right time to go," she recalls of the decision made in February that a matter of weeks later saw a cool €4.6 million lodged in the couple's bank account. However, while the sale price was eye-watering, the cost of finding a new home "not too far away" proved equally extravagant.
Originally from Scotland, Helen Dillon settled in Dublin after marrying her antique dealer husband. Together they moved in to their Georgian terraced house on Sanford Road in the early 1970s, whereupon she began the transformation of the one-acre space at the rear. It has since become Ireland's most photographed garden and the most visited private garden, while its creator is now the country's undisputed green-fingered queen and a respected author and lecturer the world over.
Helen Dillon's horticultural knowledge is second to none but its her no-nonsense charm that has won the hearts and minds of the notoriously discerning gardening set. Now 78, over the past half century she's penned innumerable articles for newspapers and periodicals, authored several books and appeared on a variety of TV shows, among the most recent of which was last year's Great Gardens for BBCNI, where she presented and judged alongside Diarmuid Gavin.
Her garden's defining feature is a canal flanked by grey limestone flags that runs for 10m up the centre with mixed borders on each side brimming with flowers over the summer months. Inspired by the the Alhambra in southern Spain, this replaced the grass, which husband Val long regarded as "a pain in the ass". Helen thinks the new owners, a couple in their fifties, plan to retain it but
appreciates that she no longer has a say in the matter.
And does she plan a water feature for the new garden? "You know, I don't think we will because the shape of the garden doesn't really lend itself to one – the house is in the middle surrounded by garden," she says.
The new garden will also need a greenhouse, says Helen, as well as an aviary, a relatively recent addition to the Ranelagh garden and home to canaries and finches. She'll be glad to leave behind the honey fungus, a lingering, malignant legacy from the days when Dublin's gardens were full of fruit trees, but is taking plenty of healthy bulbs and cuttings with her.
The appeal of the new garden for Helen lies in the fact that it's a blank canvas.
"Old gardens consist of a huge assortment of wonderful but permanent plants – and I'd rather not spend the rest of my life tweaking and maintaining the same old flowerbeds yet again, with no space for reinvention," she says.
The Dillon Garden in Ranelagh is open to the public until the end of this month, when it will become somebody else's garden and in all likelihood no longer open to the public.
Its creator remains philosophical about the handover: "I wish the new owners of this garden great happiness, but I've never forgotten the words of a great old gardening friend: ‘When the gardener goes, the garden door is closed forever'."