Getting Down to Earth with Helen Dillon



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?

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I’ve been a Helen Dillon fan for a long time, having become familiar with the prior form of her garden from books including photos of that garden & 1 TV program spotlighting that garden. It was justly famous. You’ve got to admire the courage of a person to change such a revered garden. I can’t wait to read this new book, it sounds like a hoot. (I completely agree with her opinion of tropical gardens.)

  2. I’ve read some of Dillon’s work and enjoyed it so I’m looking forward to this book.

    I’ve not read Christopher Lloyd – What would you recommend??

  3. Jenn–everything he’s written, but Garden Flowers is a recent, quite opinionated survey of perennials and annuals (perennials for him I guess!). He is the better of the two writers, IMO.

    MM’s daughter–Hmm. An out of context quote. She has plenty of canna and something that looks like a palm tree but is really an agave. Banana too. But it’s always fun to make fun of fads, even as one subscribes to them.

  4. I heard Helen Dillon speak a few years ago, very entertaining. I highly recommend going to see her if she comes to your town or city. (She came to my city as part of a Hort Mag lecture series). Her books sounds like one to put on the “want” list of any gardener.

  5. I read her essay in Horticulture too, but being in the midst of garden construction at the time, my first thought was “is she nuts?” Digging up established plants is just about the worst part of gardening, even if you’re replacing them with something you want more.

    Funny this should come up again now, when I’ve just finished planting three areas that required digging up inherited plants and even more sodbusting. I did find it satisfying to completely change things even on a small scale.

    Did she give any good advice on *how* to “give up the lawn”?

  6. Firefly, I believe she replaced it with the canal in the back and a gravel area surrounded by shrubs and perennials in the front. (But was the gravel then replaced by paving? I get confusing info between the essay and this book.)

    But there’s no real hardcore step-by-step advice in this book–more just for fun and the to-drool-over images.

  7. I’ve always admired her garden but I absolutely hate what she did to it when she put in that huge slab of concrete. I know it is a matter of taste but I much preferred the grass.

  8. Helen Dillon is actually participating in the January 2008 HortMag Symposium. Her specific dates and cities are below:

    Sat., Jan.26 2008-San Francisco Botanical Garden, San Francisco, CA

    Sun., Jan. 27-Portland State University, Portland, OR

    Tue., Jan. 29-Denver Botanical Garden, Denver, CO

    Thur., Jan.31-Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL

    Sat., Feb. 2-Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Richmond, VA

    I’ve never been able to attend on myself, but I’m told they’re wonderful!

  9. Actually I’m Scottish. With English accent due to school in England) and an Irish husband.

    the Scots say my accent is suspicious as it sounds too English, the English think I sound suspiciously Irish and the Irish know the truth. what I’d really like to do is live in Portland

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