Here’s a post I wrote in April, 2006, with updates in italics. It’s safe to say that I put almost none of the resolutions I made here into practice. Helen Dillon has moved on, into a new home, where’s she’s created a new fabulous show garden. I’m still trying not to put tall things in front of short things.
The image above is from Dillon’s wonderful, Down To Earth (Timber, 2007)
In this month’s Horticulture, Irish gardening celebrity Helen Dillon writes “The Great Unclutter,” which starts out “Imagine buying every plant you fancy for 36 years. Imagine planting all those plants in the same three-quarter-acre garden. Add a motley collection of containers, numerous seats, intriguing bits of mossy stone that might come of use, statues, bits of collapsed trellis, and assorted presents from friends, which you don’t like to throw away…”
You get the idea. Certainly, not many of us can say we’ve been adding to our gardens for 36 years, but regardless of how long we’ve been at it, the cumulative effect is similar. Unless you’re paying attention, you can wind up with a discombobulated mess. Dillon writes about wanting to be a creator, not a curator, and describes the total destruction of her front garden, which three years ago went from various paved areas and plantings to a large granite area surrounded by birches, bulbs, and perennials. In 2000, her back garden went from lawn to a limestone canal surrounded by plants. The fresh start seems to have worked for Dillon; her garden is called one of the best small gardens in the world. She managed to keep many of her plants by moving them into completely different configurations, or even propagating them, but she also relates going from a collection of fifty roses to less than fifteen.
2021: One of the reasons I was drawn to Dillon is that, back then, she also gardened in the middle of a city. When you do that, the issue of how much hardscaping you have, where you put it, and when you change it, seems more urgent. Urban life means more people and more life lived in the garden (at least it does with me). I have meetings there, and, now (when it’s nice), I can sometimes work from home there. The garden just seems more like part of the house in a city, maybe because it is surrounded by structures.
I don’t know how it is with these “small” gardens and their photography, but on the website, the Dillon property looks gigantic. Nonetheless, she seems someone I’d emulate if I could: gorgeous, wild-looking borders, bursting with flowers, combined with dramatic hardscaping. How does one ruthlessly edit a garden, much less start over from scratch? That must take enormous initiative and determination. (And cash—that goes without saying when you’re a gardener.)
2021: I did redo much of the hardscaping, but it just looks better, not dramatic. I’ve certainly spent enough cash.
In her old garden, Dillon did what we all do (though with a more salubrious climate); she added this element one year, that element the next, and planted many different plants at many different times. Thus, a garden is accumulated rather than planned. Certainly, mine is an accumulation—the result of countless additions and deletions to the garden that existed before.
I always buy plants as a collector/curator. There is a huge disconnect between the passion to consume and the reality of gardening. And I have the dead and long-forgotten plants to prove it. God forbid that I would ever make a list of plants I’ve lost over eight years of gardening—simply because I had no business buying them in the first place.
2021: I now think this curator analogy is off. I am a collector, especially with bulbs and interesting perennials like hellebores, but curating can be quite ruthless and entails a lot of editing.
A painter or an architect thinks nothing of ripping up a sketch, pulling out a clean white sheet or painting over a canvas, and starting again. It’s not so easy in a garden; even the feeblest shrub or most rampant groundcover seems to cry out, “Love me; keep me alive!”
This gardening season I’m resolving to be more of a creator and less of a curator.
2021: I don’t think I’m fully either, but I wonder why I thought I needed to be either. Incremental change seems to work best for me. Through replacing dead or broken garden elements, be they natural or manmade, change has come. Just not like it does on TV. Or when you’re Helen Dillon.