Tag Archives: Verbena bonariensis


img_6521                              Stone sculpture of a woman against ivy, Helen Dillon’s garden.

I am perched at Helen Dillon’s kitchen table in Ranelagh, a spreading residential area of Dublin. It is a grey August lunchtime and I am being plied with a high-energy volley of slightly startling pronouncements on the state of garden writing – as well as a welcome glass of sweet elderflower and a cheese and tomato sandwich – by the legendary gardener, trying not to get too distracted by how very beautiful a woman can be in her late 70’s.

Much to the surprise of the gardening world – and no doubt to the delight of the Dublin real estate market – this elegant Georgian house has been sold. The much visited and photographed garden, described by Robin Lane Fox in the Financial TImes as ‘the best walled town garden one can hope to see’, will finally close to the public at the end of September 2016. A steady stream of star-struck visitors – mostly civilised looking women of a certain age – arrive tentatively at the front door (you visit the garden via the elegant Georgian hallway and antique filled drawing room and hand over your five Euro note discreetly as you arrive). In the last few weeks there have been at least 200 admirers a day.

img_6188Helen Dillon’s house, 45 Sandford Terrace, Dublin.

45 Sandford Terrace is a place of legend. Mick Jagger once rented the house for a month whilst he was recording in Dublin and when Helen Dillon suddenly replaced the carefully manicured lawn with a contemporary reflecting pool after a visit to the Alhambra, her husband Val famously retorted that he was fine with the change as ‘grass is an ass’. The twinkly eyed chatelaine has always enjoyed delivering a little light shock to her visitors – her desire for intense colour and a certain restlessness was finally satisfied when she developed a pragmatic version of successional planting which involved plonking plastic containers of dahlias, lilies and brugmansia directly into the bed (i.e. not planting them) wherever there was a lull in the eye-popping herbaceous borders. If a bit of black plastic can be seen, so be it, feast your eyes on something else.

img_6170Yolk yellow brugmansia with Verbena bonariensis, Helen Dillon’s garden.

img_6171Purple salvia and electric red crocosmia, Helen Dillon’s garden.

img_6176One of the long borders at Helen Dillon’s garden, Lythrum salicaria (probably)Feuerkerze’ and Agapanthus ‘Purple Cloud’.

The reason for her success is a tireless, passionate, no-nonsense approach to plants and to gardening – she has endlessly tried out new things, has been speedy to get rid of things which are not working, is a famous champion of other fine gardeners and has always been determined to seek out the best forms of the plants she is using. I did not have time to check the name of the bright pink loosestrife pictured above, but I am pretty sure it is ‘Feuerkerze’ which is a brilliant pink and a world apart from the cooler mauve-pink of other loosetrifes.

A couple of weeks after my visit Helen wrote a wonderfully frank piece for the Guardian Weekend magazine in which she bared all about the plants she will be taking with her to her new, almost definitely smaller, town garden and the plants she is pleased to leave behind.  She is brutal about the presence of honey fungus, vine weevil and other problems which have inevitably affected her old town garden, scathing about ‘the handsome but incontinent  (i.e. impossible to get rid of) self-seeding onion Nectaroscordum siculum’ and brilliantly honest about the Cestrum parqui she has grown for its famously romantic midnight perfume – confessing that it does indeed have a horrid daytime smell and that she has ‘only once been up late enough to smell it’.

But the real gold dust is her list of plants she will not fail to grow in her next garden.  Although it is an avid self seeder she ‘cannot get enough of the lovely white willow herb Chamerion angustifolium ‘Album’ ‘, and her list includes  Erigeron karvinskianus, the ‘charming coloniser of cracks and paving’ – which I too love for the way it softens the brick paths in my own town garden –  Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’ (with flowers of a particularly rich purple-blue, and the ‘lovely pale blue’ agapanthus ‘Eggesford Sky ‘.  She writes: ‘ I find after collecting agapanthus for 30 years or so that the pale blue cultivars show up better from a distance than some of (the very desirable) dark colours’.  I am excited that Helen Dillon is so keen on pale blue agapanthus. I have three huge pots of Agapanthus ‘Blue Ice’ which is towering and only faintly blue – I love the way that a clear, pale blue can read almost as a gentle white in a palette of soft colours.


An elegant umbrella of  Hagenia abyssinica, with brugmansia and Tibouchina urvilleana,, Helen Dillon’s garden.

Another plant that features in the precious Guardian list is Hagenia abyssinica ‘from the forests of Ethiopia, a superb tree for growing in a large pot (kept under glass for winter)’. This is a plant I would have been delighted to cart off in the back of my rented Skoda. I have a slight fear that we may need to head off to Ethiopia ourselves to track down a hagenia for our own gardens but they are definitely covetable. In the Dillon garden there are four pots of these elegant umbrella-like trees on the terrace next to the pool, their bright green leaves are a wonderful foil to the gorgeous salmon brugmansia trumpets (which will incidentally become heavily fragrant at a more sociable time of the evening than the Cestrum parqui) and to the velvety purple of Tibouchina urvilleana, the glory bush.

img_6129 Pale salmon brugmansia.

img_6131Hagenia abyssinica elegantly exotic against the more demure Georgian brickwork of the house.

Helen Dillon would also take with her the ‘superb large fern’ Woodwardia unigemmata. This is a wonderful new discovery for me – with new fronds a gorgeous brick red – and goes firmly on my list of ideas to steal.

img_6159                               Woodwardia unigemmata – the new fronds are a gorgeous brick red.

The woodwardia was nestling comfortably in the shady woodland corner of the garden populated by another desirable and exotic tree, Aralia echinocaulis, grown from seed brought back by Jimi Blake, whose inspiring Hunting Brook Gardens is only about 30 miles south of Dublin. NB, Jimi and his sister June Blake – whose equally seductive garden is next door – sometimes have seedlings of these for sale.

img_6153A skinny woodland of Aralia echinocaulis, Helen Dillon’s garden.

img_6155Aralia echinocaulis foliage. Helen Dillon’s garden.

I love this celebration of filtered light and the power of different greens in this part of the garden. This beautiful sculpture of a young girl has the perfect, timeless backdrop of light-catching ivy – even with the nearby chatter of respectful visitors the combination has an aura of stories and secrets not yet told:


Stone sculpture against ivy, Helen Dillon’s garden.

More magical still is this wonderful fuchsia, Fuchsia magellanica var. molinae, which has formed a delicate bower over the pretty iron seat laden with dart-like palest pink flowers.


          Iron seat in a bower of Fuchsia magellanica var. molinae.

In the conservatory a loose-limbed palm-leaved begonia, Begonia luxuriant, looks rakish but charming against the painted brick. So keen am I to acquire a Begonia luxuriant of my own that I have tracked it down to the nursery at Great Dixter where I discover that they bed it out for the summer. Somehow the note on the nursery catalogue that it is ‘too fragile to dispatch’ makes the journey to East Sussex event more tempting.


Begonia luxurians in the Conservatory, Helen Dillon’s garden.

Elsewhere in the garden I am a little less certain about the metal framed tunnel with views through to the reflecting pool and to an urn at the other end – but the framing works pretty well, maybe I am just hitting a quieter moment in the year, maybe if it was my own garden and I was about to leave it I too would be entitled to a patch or two where the garden was in a lower gear?  I like the lower view best with the fennel filling and softening the frame, and the stretch of water settling and adding weight to the image.


Metal arch with view to urn…


 …and through to the reflecting pool.

There are of course still plenty of high octane pockets of plants apart from the colourful parade of the Long Borders. Raised beds for fruit and vegetables are jumbled up with phlox and dahlias in the happiest of ways.

img_6169Colourful vegetable beds, Helen Dillon’s garden.

A rather dull wall is completely ignored by a stand of radiant carmine Lobelia tupa

img_6137Lobelia tupa, Helen Dillon’s garden.

There are several very beautiful arching indigofera shrubs – I think this is Indigofera amblyantha which is a brilliant plant for lighting up the garden in late summer with very pretty slender racemes of pink pea like flowers.









Indigofera amblyantha, Helen Dillon’s garden.

And there is a brilliant clump of racy greenish white flower heads of Veratrum album which has even more covetable leaves – like huge pleated hosta leaves – at its base:

verartrumVeratrum album

A really excellent combination of plants to create a lush, overspilling feel either side of a pathway is this group of Romneya coulteri (the California Tree Poppy), the evergreen shrub Bupleurum fruticosum (which has glowing clusters of lime green flowers) and a deep pink Japanese anemone. The bupleurum is one of those plants that you meet again and again, admire and never do anything about which is stupid as it is such an easy and handsome thing. I  have long wanted Romneya coulteri, however, and planted one this spring in my Camberwell garden. I can’t quite work out yet if it likes me or not, it is notoriously picky and then if it does like you it is well known for being a bit unstoppable, but who could resist its abundance of huge papery flowers with yellow centres?


Romneya coulteri, Bupleurum fruticosum and deep pink Japanese anemone flank a path in Helen Dillon’s garden.

In this group of plants the fading rusty flower heads of Rodgersia pinnata ‘Perthshire Bronze’ are given a new energy by the coral red tapers of Persicaria amplexicaulis (possibly ‘Firetail’) and the rich pinks of the voluptuous lily.



Rodegersia pinnata ‘Perthshire Bronze’, Persicaria amplexicaulis and a voluptuous pink lily, Helen Dillon’s garden.

As I leave the fascinatingly neat flower heads, the shifting mauves and pinks and waxy green leaves of Hydrangea ‘Ayesha’ catch my eye. The hydrangea is in a pot and almost too good to be true. Naturally it goes immediately onto The List.

img_6523Hydrangea ‘Ayesha’, Helen Dillon’s garden.

The front garden has been reorganised and replanted much more recently with a sandstone terrace and gently screening slim silver birch.


Helen Dillon’s house viewed from the street.

I am usually slightly allergic to silver birch as a solution tree for a contemporary look but I think it is a great choice here – not least as Helen Dillon has made sure to add texture and surprises in her effortlessly elegant way.  I love the choice of the evergreen Itea ilicifolia over a side building: the shrub has glossy holly-like leaves and in late summer glamorous racemes of whitish-green, honey-scented flowers. The combination with a statuesque stand of Acanthus mollis and some crisp white Japanese anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’ is a handsome one.

img_6184Itea ilicifolia, Acanthus mollis and Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ in the front garden.

There is a lovely tumbling lightness to this group of Euphorbia characias, sea holly and some choice spiky leaves against the pale trunks of the birch (top photo) and below a huge stand of pink phlox is the plant that delightfully breaks the restrained palette of greens and white (below).

When I was eating my sandwich with Helen Dillon she was almost cross that there was such an intense outpouring of interest in her garden the moment she was leaving it. But I hope she has been enjoying the interest too and I for one am thrilled that it galvanised me to paying the garden a long-delayed visit.

 I think Helen Dillon has made a very astute move, leaving now rather than slaving away, keeping a famous garden as perfect as it has always been in the magazines and lecture theatres. She says she is indeed very excited about the chance to start again. I thank her for wonderful enthusiasm, and for her brilliantly blunt, always entertaining writing that has taught so many of us so much. I have no doubt she will make another wonderful garden.

The one thing I could not have fitted into that miniature Skoda if I had tried is the fantastic oak bench that nestles against the silver birch trees in the front garden. I am smitten by the simplicity and stillness of the bench and the heavy, splayed triangle blocks that support it:

Simple, elegant (covetable) bench, Helen Dillon’s front garden.


    TOM STUART-SMITH’S VIBRANT, SCENTED JULY GARDEN (AND THE CAKE TO MATCH IT) broom and seatThe Sunken courtyard garden, Serge Hill  with brilliant yellow Mount Etna Broom billowing overhead and a soft tapestry of grasses, salvia, astrantia and Euphorbia at ground level


The problem Tom Stuart-Smith must face when he occasionally opens his Hertfordshire garden is that none of the visitors are inclined to leave.  It is a glorious Monday in July and only a few miles north of the clutter and bustle of the Edgware Road. I step out of my car and am immediately met with this: idyllic, gently rolling parkland –  blond grass and spreading oaks, the view softened by perfectly judged swathes of uncut meadow that divide the house from the countryside beyond:

the view from Serge Hill

The view from Serge Hill

Sweetly clad outbuildings begin the sense of welcome and tip you, deliciously unsuspecting, into the different garden spaces beyond. IMG_5005

Outbuildings festooned with clematis and roses

Turning right, my breath is taken away by stretches of pale, delicate Echinacea pallida which float freely like exquisite jelly fish in the Prairie.

IMG_4853 (1)

Echinacea Pallida

In this gorgeous area of of prairie planting Tom has created a dreamy place to experiment with broad sweeps of colour and form: as each plant comes into its own it casts a certain new intensity or contrast of texture on the scene. Here, fantastically generous quantities of Dianthus carthusianorum add both an earthy density and an almost luminous glow to the softly pastel, slightly shredded quality of the Echinacea.

pallida and carthusianorum

Dianthus carthusianorum and Echinacea pallida

The wonderful coral red Penstemmon barbatus coccineus is scattered gently through the planting to lift it away from the coolness of the pinks:


Coral red Penstemmon barbatus coccineus amongst Echinacea and Dianthus carthusianorum

And there are – almost hidden –  dashes of a really wild orange from the native American milkweed, Asclepias tuberose

dianthus pentstemon and orange one

Asclepias tuberose with Dianthus carthusianorum

The whole scene is naturally masterfully framed – here by handsome hedges and rusty roof tiles:roof and meadow

Here by the simple pale blue-grey of the corrugated iron building designed by Ptolemy Dean:corrugated roof and the tall onesThe towering forms of Silphium laciniatum – another native American prairie plant, the Compass plant – seem to herald a leitmotive throughout the garden, as if Tom Stuart-Smith is keen to ensure that there are tall elegant shadows of his tall elegant self just in case he is not personally there to greet you.

the tall ones

Silphium laciniatum against the sky

Through a simple oak gate into a classic, scented kitchen garden:


It is at this point that the visitors – who are here to support the NGS and The Garden Museum – begin to find the whole thing highly covetable and start to put down their own roots.  The Prairie has been a surprising and ethereal adventure but here, there is a manageable, settled feel with that brilliant combination of productive order and sense of overspilling colour that you get from the happiest kitchen gardens:

verbena kitchen

Verbena bonariensis and Allium sphaerocephalon amongst beans in the kitchen gardenkitchen garden sans ladiesView through to the Pelargonium and tomato-filled greenhouse

kitchen garden door

 The blue-grey corrugated iron and bleached wooden door of the kitchen garden ‘shed’ a subtle backdrop to pots of scented sweet peas, white agapanthus, espaliered fruit trees and lavender.

tulbaghia against cabbageIMG_4905

Tulbaghia violacea a brilliantly perky edging to a bed of moody blue-green cabbage

Back out of the kitchen garden and into the calm of meadow and hedge:


A further rounded, shaggy yew hedge forms a protective embrace around the main family garden:soft protection of yew

Beyond the hedge I find myself in a rich terracotta, green and fading mauve haven of comfort and softness.  This a National Garden Scheme version of the Marie Celeste – the table and chairs are set out and ready to go, an embroidered cinnamon coloured shawl is draped casually over a bench the doors to the house are breezily ajar. But there are no Stuart-Smiths about and again the visitors find themselves settling down at the table, moving on only with difficulty:terracota barnThrough the barn windows framed by a voluptuous draped vine, there is an intoxicating glimpse of rich yellow from the Mount Etna Broom beyond:IMG_4924Palest yellow hollyhocks provide a serene offbeat echo to the riot of yellow through the archway:yellow holly hock

As you pull away from the house you reach a potentially formal area of clipped box hedges and sky-scratching yew columns (that Tom Stuart-Smith leitmotiv again) but in fact the topiary shapes serve more as a happy, forgiving foil to overspilling herbaceous planting.

yew columns terracotta roofThe topiary shapes are used as a happy, forgiving foil to overspilling herbacious planting:yew columnsStately white Epilobium dances in the space between the yew columns

phlomis and stipa lightStipa gigantea and Phlomis russeliana catch the light

There is a moment of elegant calm with neatly clipped hedges and a troupe of slender, lacy poplars (the need for something tall and slim again):IMG_4948

Poplars and clipped hedges agains the sky

And then the chance to meander along gently shaded wooded areas: shady walk

The planting combinations are simple, and always brilliantly thoughtful – here a blue geranium is illuminated by the tiny rice like flowers of the arching grass,  Mellica altissima ‘Alba’ :

melica and blue geraniumMelica altissima ‘Alba’ and a blue geranium

Here a rusty coloured Helenium and a dark red Dahlia have the glaucous foliage of Macleaya cordata as a backdrop and the signature brilliant green underplanting of Hakonechloa macra:

dahlia , machalya, helenium and hakenacloadahlia etc + maclaya to skyA wooden bench is almost hidden by the surrounding planting (again I watch as visitors make their way almost competitively over to this so that for a few precious moments the bench can be their own).snuggly bench

And then I am back to the sweet outbuildings again, almost forgetting that my tour is not yet over:

IMG_5005But beyond a papery constellation of white Romneya coulteri is a compelling sunken garden the star of which on this mid July day is without a doubt three brilliant Genista aetnensis – or Mount Etna Broom, known for the scrubby volcano edge habitat on which it grows wild.


One of my favourite Mount Etna Broom’s stands as sort of celebratory sentry – like an attractive, slightly bonkers festival-going uncle – outside the gates of Great Dixter in East Sussex

DIXTER BROOMGenista aetnensis outside the front gate at Great Dixter

For a few weeks in July the tree tirelessly waves its relaxed limbs of cheery brightness and can be spotted mid-dance over hedge and meadow:DIXTER BROOM OVER HEDGE

Here at Serge Hill, Tom Stuart-Smith has used its airy extravagance to lighten and brighten a sophisticated courtyard garden with  Corten steel pools and panels, flemish brickwork and slender hardwood decking recycled from his RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden of 2006:COLOUR SCHEME WITH STIP 2006

Stuart-Smith’s Chelsea 2006 garden


slender hardwood decking from Tom Stuart-Smith’s Chelsea 2006 garden


Square corten steel pools and flemish brick path from Tom Stuart-Smith’s 2006 Chelsea garden

The palette of the courtyard garden in 2014 is subtle and properly lived in.  I love the broken streak of steel blue Eryngium amongst the bright greens yellows and mauves:IMG_4983

sea holly broom gardenSteel blue Eryngium amongst the acid yellow of Euphorbia and soft grasses

Purple-black sedum adds depth to the bold architectural foliage and pea-like seedheads of Euphorbia mellifera:

the tapestry

Grasses additonal layers of hazy rhythm:

broom and grassesThe richness of the velvety Chelsea Irises has been replaced by much gentler buttons of Astrantia ASTRANTIA AND CORTEN

and the corten steel itself has become softer and satisfyingly dull.LUSH PLANTING AROUND TRADEMARK POOL

The decking is now silvery and tempting underfoot. The simplicity of this low chair at the base of an outstanding cloud burst of the fragrant Myrtus luma is intensely seductive.CHILEAN MURTLESo seductive in fact that pairs of women in white linen and couples with plump princely babies hover and perch and try to stay just that bit longer.  


I am imagine staying too and my start wondering what would be the perfect thing to eat or drink in this refined, colourful haven.  What should one bring to eat in this garden if one were ever invited as a guest?


I have been relishing Frances Bissell’s book, The Scented KitchenIMGI have loved every minute of her learned, uplifting text: I have learnt how ‘In America, day lily buds are deep-fried and served as one would okra’ or, on the subject of flower oils I have been imagining ” a lobster brushed with jasmine oil prior to being roasted, or perhaps rose or carnation oil brushed on scallops before you grill them”. There is an enchanting process called enfleurage which can be used for flower butters “all you do is wrap a piece of fresh unsalted butter in muslin, bury it in a bowl of petals, cover and leave it in a cool place for about 12 hours… this method works well with roses, jasmine, pinks and violets … delicious on toast or teatime scones”…


I am pretty sure that  ‘Taffety Tart’ would be surprising, sophisticated and deft enough to do the trick. Frances Bissell describes the tart as ‘an exquisite combination of lemon, rosewater and anis’  which was once a grand success when she cooked at the British Embassy in Cairo. It is a very light open apple tart with a layer of scented Pelargonium ‘Attar of Roses’  leaves between the pastry and the apple and sprinkled with sugar, softened butter, rosewater, lemon zest and anis or fennel seeds.

Option two would be Yotam Ottelenghi’s Apricot, Walnut and Lavender cake I have been wanting to make all year since it was published last summer in the Guardian.

Yotam Ottolenghi's apricot, walnut and lavender cake




Photograph: Colin Campbell for The Guardian


There is something enduring and seductive about Ottelenghi’s description of the recipe “it’s like Provence in a cake”.  The colours, rich orange with soft mauve and the texture dense with ground oily walnuts and lightened by lemon zest could be just the thing to savour as you hang on for a few last minutes in this loveliest of gardens.