How To Create The Perfect Garden By Helen Dillon

Irish gardener HELEN DILLON shares her top tips on how to CREATE A GARDEN to be proud of …


Getting a new garden is one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me. Of course, I loved the last garden – for 45 years. But that was an old garden, where I spent my time rescuing plants that were squashed, feeding, weeding, watering, pruning – and constantly adjusting the balance and what grew where. What I was doing every day became full-time maintenance. But the fun of gardening is all about planning new areas, trying new plants – of being a creator rather than a curator, and the thrill of starting again. The most annoying thing people say to me is, “Do you still garden?”, which is like asking me if I’m still alive. Gardeners never retire.

My first bit of advice to new gardeners would be to consider the aspect: where is the sunniest, most sheltered area for your sitting out area? Be careful, in a rush of beginner’s enthusiasm, of filling up the best positions with plants which will be perfectly happy in shade. Reserve a sunny position for vegetables. Secondly, I remember when I began the last garden I wouldn’t dig up so much as a bluebell, it took me years to get the courage to remove plants I’d inherited. Stand beside every plant and ask yourself “Do I like it?” Often I find my eyes just slide past boring plants as I hurry to look at something special. Is there a shrub or tree taking all the light? Don’t hesitate, take it out.

Next to think about is your soil. There’s a huge amount you can do to improve it by digging in garden compost or well-rotted cow manure. Even if you get this latter fresh, left in a covered heap for six months or so it will be terrific stuff. It is important to get manure with a straw base, so cow manure is best – the problem with horse manure is it usually has a woodchip base, which uses up a lot of the nitrogen (what your plants need) in the rotting process. Well-rotted leaf mould mixed with garden compost would be good if you cannot get manure. Get two compost heaps set up right away, situated near the house, so it’s easy to throw in a bucket of potato peelings on a rainy night.


As for colour schemes, I’ve gone through all the stages – white gardens, green gardens, borders with only blue flowers and another exclusively red; but I’ve finally settled on a magical colour scheme, with all the colours mixed up, like a box of Smarties.

Now for some tips which might help. Don’t make the borders too narrow. And, if you have wide borders, as are often inherited in town gardens, they will be easier to keep looking good if you have a narrow path, just for access, either at the back by the wall, or on stepping stones through the middle. Plant early bulbs at the back of the border, rather than the front, so you don’t have to watch the leaves fade after flowering as summer plants will grow up to hide them.

My next tip sounds strange but is seriously useful: say you are looking out of the window at the garden at the back of the house. If you make a border parallel to the house, every clump of faded flowers, every weed, every thuggish plant which has taken over will be only too visible. But, if you create beds at right angles to the house, all your mistakes will be hidden. In our last garden we had two areas of vegetables at the far end of long borders which were never noticeable from the house.

If, like me, you cannot resist buying yet more plants, try buying ten of one plant instead of one each of ten different plants. Choose one lovely, easy, common, long-blooming plants, such as Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ (catmint) or Geranium ‘Rozanne’. Plant it at intervals along the front of the bed. It will seem like you actually thought about it, and will add some sense of unity to your glorious muddle.

If you don’t know where to start, here are some plants I wouldn’t be without:


Rose ‘Gertrude Jekyll’


Dahlia ‘Admiral Rawlings’ – a beautiful, tall variety which is difficult to get; try National Dahlia Collection.


Itea ilicifolia – an August blooming, evergreen shrub, with a wonderful evening scent.

Daphney bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ – has a heavenly winter scent.

Chionochloa conspicua – a favourite grass; looks wonderful for most of the year.

Melianthus major – this shrub has gorgeous duck egg-blue foliage.

Indigofera pendula

Clematix x ‘durandii’ – this variety doesn’t get wilt.

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