So, you want to develop the garden of your dreams? First, you must start by absorbing the realities of what you have. Where do you garden and what are the conditions? What are your starting points? To achieve anything you've got to plan.
There's no point in trying to squeeze the panoramic vistas of Versailles into a 10m x 10m suburban plot. But you can have elements of it, if that's what you love. Let's use this period before the garden really starts to grow to examine your plot. Get a notebook, or open a folder on the computer called 'My Garden'. And take a long hard look at your starting point. The main elements to consider are:
Climate and Microclimate: In Ireland we have a temperate climate, generally mild with few extremes of hot or cold, wet or dry. But, even locally, there can be differences that may allow or preclude us from growing some more tender species. In urban situations, walls and buildings can create shelter, and therefore microclimates. You may be sited on the side of a hill, or deep in a frost pocket. So, get to know if you're warm or cooler.
Size matters: A pleasing and rewarding garden can be created in whatever space you have. Take a look, acknowledge and then plan.
Aspect: This can range from full sun to deepest shade. Most productive plants (ones which fruit or flower) will benefit from as much sun as possible. Develop an understanding of the sunny parts of the garden and how this changes through the day or through the seasons. There are species which will thrive in every aspect, so working with your conditions, rather than fighting against them, will pay great dividends.
Know your Soil: Knowing what soil you have is vital to undersatnding what will thrive in it. Heavy clay can be hard to work, it may retain too much moisture and be prone to compaction. A light sandy soil may have issues retaining water for the plants growing in it and could also leech nutrients and trace elements. All soils can be improved. Making an investment in conditioning it will result in payback.
Shelter: Wind and all that it carries can be detrimental to plants and uncomfortable for us. There are plants (often ones which have evolved in coastal or windswept situations) which can handle the wind. So, once you realise the windy realities, you can plan on using appropriate species.
Privacy: This can be an issue but shouldn't become an obsession. Plan on using judicious planting which will either block or lessen neighbours views without creating green Berlin Walls in the future when the Leyland Cypress outgrows your capacity to deal with it. But it also may be better to accept that we are all a curious bunch.
Views: Examine the landscape beyond your garden. Is there something worth drawing the eye to? An idyllic church steeple or a mature tree in a neighbour's garden? Good planning can result in you 'borrowing' this view. With judicious planting, you can frame features or disguise walls.
Flow: An easy physical and visual 'flow' between house and garden is often vital to the enjoyment of your outside space. Consider your access, the ease of getting from inside to out, and the visual relationship between the two. For instance, with a huge range of flooring and paving options available, could you use the same material in the kitchen as well as the adjoining patio?
Whose garden is it anyway? Who uses the garden and how? If you have a busy young family, your garden may act as your retreat, but you also have trampolines, swings and footballs to consider. Think about all who enjoy the space and begin to determine how this will affect your plans.
Topography: Is your site level or does it slope? Will you have to terrace it to make it usable? How does water drain from the area.
General observations: What's there now? What are you starting with? Is that old apple tree dominating the view and do we really need our crazy paving? Look around to see what's doing well, what you like, what works, and what's overstayed its welcome.
Will this be the year you live up to your gardening dreams of growing some fruit and veg? It's a wonderfully satisfying endeavour and surprisingly easy. You don't need acres of land or specialist equipment, our garden soil is the best local resource. What you grow yourself tastes delicious. If you fancy some spuds straight out of the ground, fresh carrots, deep purple beetroot or even corn kernels, there's plenty of help at hand from the progressive Grow It Yourself (GIY) organisation. Set up by journalist Michael Kelly, it's an ambitious network, a countrywide gathering of groups of like-minded individuals who share tips and skills to help each other to grow their own.
Occasionally they work in the old Irish Meitheal way, gathering at one member's garden when double digging or trenching is needed, then another's, with many hands making light work. You could learn how to create raised beds, or find the best local source of well-rotted manure. Branches run regular meetings which are advertised on giyinternational.org. They also sell seeds and equipment and are in the process of creating an impressive national centre of excellence.
Soil Renew products can be bought from online supplier Fruithill Farm at fruithillfarm.com. For more information, visit soilrenewireland.ie
Helen Dillon is a national treasure. Her town garden in Sandford Road, Ranelagh, Dublin is one of the most magnificent anywhere. Visitors from home and abroad flock to marvel at the beautifully considered planting, a central canal - inspired by ancient Islamic gardens - designed to act as a mirror for the sky and magnificent colourful borders.
In spring I delight in some rather unusual planters, a row of dustbins, painted grey, brimming with multi-coloured lollipop like tulips.
She is eccentric, humorous, entertaining and very democratic in her gardening habits.
BOOK: You can book into one of Helen's Saturday morning classes at firstname.lastname@example.org. They run from 10am until 1pm, and the €20 cost includes refreshments. During March, the Dillon garden is open every day from 2-6pm. Admission is €5.