Gardening columnist Ruth Pavey visits a Hampstead Garden Suburb garden in full autumn colour and tracks down the best Virginia creeper of 2016.

Ham & High: Diane Berger's Award winning garden in Hampstead Garden SuburbDiane Berger's Award winning garden in Hampstead Garden Suburb (Image: © Nigel Sutton email

How large is a large garden? In London the answer is, not very large. To the non tape-measure carrying visitor, Diane Berger’s garden in Willifield Way, NW11 seems much the same size as David and Caroline Broome’s in Church Lane, N2. But, for the purpose of entering The London Gardens Society Awards competition, there is a significant difference. Diane’s counts as large (over 110m sq) while Caroline and David’s counts as small. This means that they can both win awards in the Back Garden category, as indeed they have.

This is by no means the first time that north London gardeners have won these awards – other recent winners have included Mona Abboud, Alan Dallman and Yvonne Oliver, all of whom have featured in these pages.

Diane, David and Caroline received their cups at the Guildhall on October 13, but Diane’s garden was where we met to show off the cups. The engraving on them is getting polished away, but it reveals that Londoners have been competing for these particular trophies since 1933.

When I was last in Diane’s garden she had just planted her autumn border. What a delight to see it in its grassy, feathery maturity, on a sunny October morning. She had issued the usual warnings about everything gone over, no flowers left, etc. but with grasses and seedheads, a deep vermilion weeping acer, birch leaves turning yellow, blue sky and red apples on a distant tree there was no lack of colour.

Ham & High: Diane Berger's Award winning garden in Hampstead Garden SuburbDiane Berger's Award winning garden in Hampstead Garden Suburb (Image: © Nigel Sutton email

As large gardens go this one is modest in size, but so filled with planting it cannot be taken in all at one glance. A big stand of black stemmed bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) by the pond is an early eye catcher, leading to the autumn border, tall at this season with various miscanthus grasses and the seedheads of Joe Pye Weed.

To avoid interrupting the photographs I shimmied down the left hand side of the garden, past an ironwork gazebo and along what feels like a fox path. When I asked if this really was a path Diane said: “No, not unless you want to do some hedge-trimming”.

Even without shears, however, it was easy enough to get through to a deck with chairs, tables, pots and a basket of Heliotrope Cherry Pie (grown, as Diane later said, in memory of her great grandmother).

There is a greenhouse beyond and an increasingly overhanging-but-protected oak tree. In the hedge at the end, sure enough, is a fox-sized gap and well-trodden ground.

Ham & High: Virginia Creeper behind shops on Kentish Town RoadVirginia Creeper behind shops on Kentish Town Road (Image: © Nigel Sutton email

Taking a seat in the nearby wooden arbour makes you realize what it is doing there – it allows a direct view down a diagonal pergola, covered with roses, wisteria and clematis, leading into the centre of the garden. None of this had been noticeable from the top, and illustrates how a smallish space can be made to seem bigger, by judicious use of concealment, and of planting the centreground.

Virginia Creeper

There are only two plants that send me on an annual hunt around north London for fresh examples to rejoice in; wisteria and Virginia creeper (for now I am lumping the different sorts of Virginia creeper together).

This has been a vintage year for such a pursuit. To my mind the best is when you get a mixture of strong deep red, orange-pinky red and green all woven together and growing up somewhere that allows for mountaineering on the plant’s part, balconies, turrets, chimney pots, all the features that the conscientious homeowner is supposed to keep creeper-free.

I happened to see what has become my favourite plant for 2016 from a high deck in the yard of the Abbey Tavern in Kentish Town. The view across several yards behind shops ends in the south-facing side wall of a big building, completely clothed in creeper, with its shoots adventuring up to the left.

It was earlier in the season, when the leaves were still fresh green, but by late October it had fulfilled its promise, presenting a huge red/green tapestry rippling in the wind, with a pair of pigeons nipping in and out.

The men in the neighbouring wood yard said that the colour on their side, an east-facing flank wall, had been better the week before. None of us could be sure where the roots are.

Since last year, my favourite Virginia creeper for 2015, growing over garden walls down into Holloway Waitrose car park, has been savaged, leaving only half of it alive. I guess the moral is, catch these beauties while ye may.