Category Archives: dahlias

Newly planted this spring

Two dinner plate dahlias ‘AC Dark Horse’

2 semi cactus dahlias karma corona (this series good for cutting per Chanticleer)

Heartleaf Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ in container

‘Fireworks’ fountain grass

Sedum ‘Watch chain’ by mailbox

Sedum ‘Angelina’ by mailbox

Cosmos ‘Purity White’

Summer splash marigolds

color fountains cleome

basil genovese




The Helen Dillon Garden

DSC06081I must have been searching for Irish gardening books when I came across Helen Dillon, whom I’d never heard of but who is clearly a garden writer of note.  I wrote about her one of her books  here and hoped to visit her garden on our trip.  Although Alison is not a gardener, she is game.   We made our way to the garden on the public bus (see below), and it was spectacular. So much to say that I have divided this account into multiple categories.

Some plants I have and how Helen Dillon uses them

I plant woodland aster under the maple tree in front because they can take the dry shade that is a constant challenge in this garden.  Helen, on the other hand, pairs them with white Japanese anemones.  Now, I have tried anemones three times and they never come back, but maybe this time will be the charm.  DSC06023Her asters are a bit more floriferous than mine, but then I guess I could actually water them occasionally and see if that makes a difference.  This is in the front garden, which she has made into a birch grove and a very quiet, serene place. Here it is from the street.


I have a love/hate relationship with my helianthus, which I sometimes call helenium (see, there are several issues).  The first year, it blew over in a storm and crushed the plants beneath.  Then it spread vigorously, so that I have had to root it out.  Plus, it is so tall that I now give it the Chelsea chop in early summer so that it doesn’t get too big and then fall like a giant redwood.

But here it is in Helen Dillon’s garden, appearing to behave itself and consorting with the verbena in a lovely way.DSC06026

Water elements

Oh, how I long for a water element and how I just can’t make it happen.  Well, Helen just tore everything out one day and installed this elegantly simple pond in her back garden.DSC06039Here’s a bigger view.DSC06025

Another water element, so simple and lovely.  I imagine the birds love it, and it’s more to my scale.DSC06051


Foliage becomes more important the longer you live with a garden.  Flowers will come and go, but the leaves may linger through three seasons.  Here are some of the most wonderful foliage plants that caught my eye.DSC06070

DSC06041 DSC06027 DSC06030 DSC06031Not sure what these are – the last filled in under a small tree.

Use of color

Apparently she started out with carefully “curated” borders of one color each, but finally just said the hell with it and went to town.  See?DSC06042This is the border along one side of the pool.  She is also famous for gardening in pots.  She no longer plants everything in the ground, just pots it up and hauls it out when it’s looking good and hauls it back when it fades.  Of course, this implies lots of space and a strong back, but it’s an interesting concept.  She doesn’t even use remarkable pots, just plain black ones that fade into the background.  Or even garbage cans, as in these ferns that were tucked under the deck but clearly still on display.DSC06063

Here are some red things.  I know the dark leaf is a canna, but I’m not sure about the pinky red flowers in the pot.DSC06035

Miscellaneous darling things

Beautiful dahlias – I must try them YET AGAIN.DSC06055 DSC06036

Elegant Japanese anemones, dittoDSC06043Box bushes shaped to echo a nearby potDSC06049Delicate maidenhair fern in a concrete troughDSC06057

Meeting the Dillons and visiting the bathroom

So you are really just coming to their house when you visit.  You ring the doorbell, and Val Dillon lets you in, takes your 5 pounds, and shows you in to the drawing room that overlooks the garden.DSC06024This first view is stunning, but if you can tear yourself away you will also see a table with her signed books for sale.  I picked up Helen Dillon On Gardening The room is filled with beautiful paintings, furniture and doodads, evidence of their earlier careers as antique dealers.

When we came back through the house to leave, Val invited us to use the bathroom if we wished.  He said it was unusual and that we might enjoy it.  In fact, he said, on day an elderly friend came to visit and when he checked on her all he could see were her feet sticking out the door.  Had she passed out or died?  No, she was just trying to get the whole bathroom in her camera lens.   I understand.  Here are my attempts.DSC06075 DSC06074I didn’t quite lie down on the floor, but you can see why she did.  Asked how long it took to make, Val said drily, “About 30 seconds to write the check.”

The bus ride

The website assures you that the #11 bus stops right at the Dillon Garden.  Of course,  it’s not quite that simple.  We got directions from the TIC near Trinity and walked down the street until we finally got to the bus stop.  Once on the bus, there was no way to know when we had arrived.  The brusque driver did finally point out our stop just when we had given up hope.  We wandered down the street, heartened by a sign for the Dillon garden, and finally figured out that we should just walk through a small opening to the road where the house was.  Not that hard after all, but confusing.  Luckily it all worked easily on the way back.

The end plus a video

Here are just a few more random wonderful things, plus a video that gives you a glimpse of Helen herself as well as their drawing room.DSC06047The good sport

DSC06076Garden by the driveway on the way outDSC06066snails’ trailsDSC06068Autumn cyclamen growing in pebbles

Short clip of a palm tree swaying in the wind

DSC06059DSC06061sea oats and a glimpse of Helen herself in the garden

The video is here:

The pink garden

The raised bed is on the side of the house where the neighbors tend to see it more than I do, since it abuts their driveway.  It’s been sort of a mess over there – scraggly grass, bulb cutting garden that soon flops over, self-sown datura and more recently bronze fennel that gets out of control.  But since I installed the ‘Antony Waterer’ spirea to complement the dark pink crepe myrtle that hangs over the fence to the back yard, I’ve thought of it as the pink garden and have begun to proceed accordingly.

The spirea is now accompanied by a variety of sedums, including ‘Autumn Joy’ and ‘ Matrona.’  I’ve also planted several dahlias, my experiment this year in doing it right.  Six of the nine I planted seem to be thriving (the other three, I think, were planted too shallowly).  Otto’s Thrill, Park Princess, Fascination, Lambada and Renoir are planted here and on the edge of the sunny garden.  Here’s someone else’s picture of the latter:dahlia RenoirSo far they are just sitting there, awaiting their stakes, which of course I should have inserted at planting time, but one does what one can.

The other part of the so-called pink garden is the raised bed I put in a few years ago.  I’ve had pretty good success but it tends to get out of hand at the height of summer, particularly since I’m inclined to let self-sown plants have their way.  This year I vowed would be different:  orderly rows of vegetables, bordered by flowers that would bloom all summer.

Here’s a look at phase one, two rows of Tuscan kale (from seed smuggled in from Florence), plus arugula and lettuce, a few chives, and some self-sown potatoes that I can’t quite let go of.  Discipline is already failing…  DSC00975But the rest of the story is the scraggliness of the grass in that corner.  I had been planning for some time to lay weed block cloth and cover it with mulch, and I finally did.  In the course of this project, I also moved the edging rocks and made the garden beds just a few inches deeper.  It may seem contrary to eliminate plants (grass) for mulch, but see how much better it looks already?  Here’s the before:

DSC00976Note that the dahlias have not yet been planted, and the perennial pea vine is running wild.

Here’s the after:

DSC01003A few weeks ago I planted marigolds and zinnias along the edges of the raised bed.  The arugula is already going to seed, as is the cilantro in the whiskey barrel.  There’s a tomato in there that will take over soon.  The green pot is for the squash seedlings, if they are still alive in a few days.  Need more potting soil first.  And I’ve moved the two blue glazed ceramic pots to the mulched area with some idea of planting something in there.  A work in progress, the pink garden, but looking better and more intentional already.


ChanticleerNot a single discouraging word is heard in this account of Chanticleer’s beauty, but judging by the spectacular photos by Rob Cardillo, the praise is justified.  Though only twenty years old as a garden cultivated for public display, Chanticleer has great bones thanks to a 1930s stone house and mature trees, as well as a stream that runs through the site.  Like me, the gardeners have made a woodland garden under a giant oak tree that used to sit in a sea of grass.    Of course, they also have an Asian woods, an orchard, a pond garden, and so on.  Clearly worth a visit!

Adrian Higgins is one of my favorite garden writers.  He clearly writes about  Chanticleer with great knowledge and experience.  Still, I couldn’t help feeling that this was written to order as a puff piece.  (It’s copyrighted by Chanticleer rather than by Higgins.)  Not quite a criticism, since I devoured every word, just an observation.

Notes to self: find out what is this air spade* they used to remove the existing grass from under the oak tree; consider adding Anemone sylvestris and nemorosa along with the blanda, and Phlox stolonifera ‘Sherwood’s Purple’ (bought this week at Merrifield).  Shrub rose Lady Elsie May (‘Angelsie’) is semidouble, coral pink, and freely produces blooms all season long (whatever that means, and allowing for the slightly cooler climate there) and might do for the pink garden.  ‘Sea Shell’ peony, another possibility, is “cupped, single pink, robust and fragrant.  It is one of the classic peonies for cutting.”  Look for the Karma series of dahlias “which have been bred for cutting.  They have a long vase life and straight stems.”

*It turns out that an air spade costs almost $2000 and must be used mainly by professional landscapers and builders.  So, never mind.

Dahlia resolution

NOTE:  Written last fall and only just posted.

I have failed with dahlias so far because I have not paid good attention to their cultivation.  Next year will be different!  Here is advice from Anne Raver on what to do to have gorgeous flowers:

For Your Own Garden Palette

DAHLIAS like warm weather, so plant the tubers in late spring, just about the time you put in your tomatoes and cucumbers. (The ground should be about 60 degrees.) They need full sun, about eight hours a day, to grow sturdy and tall with many blooms.

The soil should be well drained, with plenty of compost or aged manure. Taylor Branch digs his holes about a foot deep. Some gardeners add a handful of bonemeal, mixed with a shovelful of compost at the bottom of the hole, before setting in the tubers and covering them with soil. Do not water; wait until sprouts appear weeks later.

The plants like to spread their branches, so dig holes 18 to 24 inches apart.

Christy Macy advises sinking an eight-foot stake a few inches from the tuber at planting time, because the tall plants tend to fall over. It also serves as a marker until those first sprouts appear.

“It’s such an exciting moment, when the dahlias break through,” Ms. Macy said. “Just an inch, but very substantive, not wispy, almost like a mini-tree.”

As the plants grow, tie the stems loosely to the stake, with jute or soft twine.

Dahlias prefer deep garden soil, but they will grow in large containers, with at least 12 by 12 inches of space per tuber, but choose dwarf or low-growing varieties rather than the giants. Keep the soil damp, since containers tend to dry out, and fertilize with a diluted fish or seaweed solution every few weeks.

Dahlias bloom in many shapes, from spiky to rolled petals, and from doubles the size of dinner plates to single-petaled one-inch flowers with button centers. The colors are magnificent, and many long-stemmed varieties make long-lasting cut flowers.

Sources include Swan Island Dahlias (800-410-6540 or, Ferncliff Gardens (604-826-2447 or and Corralitos Gardens (831-722-9952 or Order tubers by late summer or fall, before the best varieties are sold out; they will be shipped in the spring.

Back to the blog

Blogging about our wonderful trip to Italy and Slovenia seems to have worn me out, but I’m back with some notes on spring.  After our return from Death Valley on March 29th (a blog post for another day), I ventured out to find some forsythia to force.  None too soon, since a week later it’s in bloom outdoors.Forcing forsythia

Another indoor project is starting dahlias.  I ordered a selection of pinks from McClure & Zimmerman that will go in the pink garden near the Anthony Waterer spirea.  Varieties are Otto’s Thrill, Park Princess, Lambada and three Fascinations.  They arrived at the very last minute, the afternoon before we were to leave for Death Valley, so I hurriedly swung into action.  I planted them in a mixture of half vermiculite and half potting soil, in pots that are barely big enough – those tubers are long.  Watered, waited, and two weeks later actually looked up how to start them. It turns out they need to be covered up and watered sparingly.  Trying again, I added more mixture, watered just a bit and am now hoping they will take off.  Here’s the experiment.  dahlia projectNo signs of growth yet, but just you wait.

Outside, today is a good day to observe my favorite signs of spring, the plants that are just barely coming in to bud.  From top to bottom:  akebia leaves, buds of Lady Jane tulips, hellebore almost in bloom, and bluebells just leaves on akebia specie tulip almost in flower bluebells in bud