This is more like a multi-tiered tray of hors d’oeuvres than a narrative, which is fine with me. Picking and flipping is how I usually read garden books; rarely do I start at the beginning and soldier on through to the end. And there are definitely some choice bits here.
Many of you have heard of Helen Dillon; for those who have not, she is a renowned gardener of Scottish origins who has been living in Ireland for decades. Her garden is one of the must-sees of Dublin. I was first introduced to Dillon through an essay she wrote in Horticulture, in which she describes how she pared down the clutter of her largish (for an urban) garden. What’s left still seems like a hell of a lot to me, especially as experienced through this book.
Very much in the Brit tradition Dillon has hot and cool borders. In an updated take on that tradition, there is also a canal with pools and waterfalls at the ends (a clean-edged version of at least one Jekyl feature I have seen). There are also arbors, wandering paths, and a greenhouse. And of course she has great success with all the plants I’ve never dared to grow—many of them unsuited for the harsh extremes of Western New York.
I suppose some have problems relating to gardeners whose conditions are so different than ours, but I love reading any garden writer who demonstrates wit, good humor, and brisk common sense, three traits Dillon shares with another of my favorite writers, the late Christopher Lloyd. This book consists of over sixty quite short essays, divided into beginner, intermediate, and advanced thematic sections. Here are some of my favorite bits:
But then exotic planting, the canna-banana garden, arrived, with as much chutzpah as a spotty youth arriving at a cocktail party. Gardeners from London to Dublin to San Francisco could hear the distant rumble of the collapsing pyramid of good taste.
… I love soft apricot orchid lookalike Canna ‘Panache’, which for those of sensitive tastes doesn’t even look like a canna.
For later life you should plan your garden so that gardening is of the most tranquil kind, with masses of time for sitting and thinking how lovely everything is, without being harassed by urgent gardening chores.
[The first thing she urges gardeners to give up is the lawn.]
Chapter headings include Why did it die?, Roses I still grow, Must have own space, Potbound, and a bunch of other variously pithy or practical titles. Can one learn to garden from this book? Of course not, but it is inspiring and there are some interesting ideas and entertaining commentary. The pictures fill me with an urgent desire to visit Dillon’s and all the other great gardens of Dublin, of which I am sure there are many.
Due out in November from Timber Press.
P.S. I realize to use the term “Brit tradition” when talking of an Irish garden may seem wildly offensive, but Dillon is not Irish. And I do place her more in the English garden school—the gardeners she refers to in her writing reinforce this perception. Maybe gardening is exempt from the hostilities?