The secret to opening your garden? Timing, vision and ruthlessness

Jill Pack in her Muswell Hill garden. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Jill Pack in her Muswell Hill garden. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Ahead of the summer visiting season, Ruth Pavey looks at one Highgate couple ready to open their garden to the public for the first time.

Opening your garden for the first time takes courage, but Jill Pack (pictured above) has her mother as a model.

For years, her parents opened their garden in Oxfordshire through the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) with Jill and her husband, Ian, helping them. On Sunday, it will be their turn to share their love of plants with the visiting public. Jill describes her mother as a wonderful plantswoman. Clearly, this enthusiasm, as well as many individual plants, has been passed down. It is easy to understand why Jill and Ian’s street is called Woodland Rise. Highgate Wood is nearby and the site slopes down from the back of the house, not only towards the bottom of the garden but also to the right in a valley-like formation relating, says Jill, to a tributary of the Moselle. They reckon that the nearness of the wood helps them attract such a great variety of birds to the garden, including goldfinches, woodpeckers and thrushes.

When they moved in 15 years ago, the garden was sloping, not terraced, and a dark row of Leylandii cypress took up space and light along the back boundary. The cypresses have now gone and, inspired by the planting in front of Tate Modern, Ian and Jill have replaced them with elegant silver birches. At the time of my visit, the birches’ long catkins were waving in the breeze, but by 26th April their leaves may be open.

Choosing a date on which to invite visitors, calculating which plants will be looking good and then anxiously watching the progress of the season, is all part of being a garden-opener, and cue for … it’s a pity you weren’t here last week, or if only you could come back in a few days…. Jill was worrying about the lateness of spring this year, wondering if she should have chosen May, but one of her star plants, a white wisteria (Wisteria brachybotrys Shiro kapitan) was in such promising fat bud when I visited it should be looking spectacular, as may the pretty, white flowering crab apple, Malus transitoria, which Jill recommends for a small garden,

The wisteria grows along a trellis marking the division of the garden into two main levels. Below it, steps lead to the sunken, paved part at the bottom, where alliums may be in flower at the foot of the birch trees, and the pond irises (yellow flags and iris sibirica) will be budding. Having done all the planning and labour themselves, Jill and Ian are understandably proud of the layout, with its clarity and good use of the different levels. The white Travertine marble paving slabs of the lower terrace, and the white birch trunks, bring light to a previously forlorn place. There is also a greenhouse, well stocked with seedlings, many for their allotment at Shepherd’s Hill.

Like many good gardeners, Jill is capable of being ruthless. Crocosmia and day lilies, too common and rampant for their own good, have made way for choicer plants such as Hydrangea aspera, Hydrangea quercifolia, different varieties of persicaria, new peonies. Saying that the plant list she has drawn up for the open day surprised her by being so long, Jill sounded almost apologetic, as though it were a fault not to be following current advice about planting the same thing every so often to create a rhythm, or putting in blocks of the same plant. But surely the only shortcoming would be over-sensitivity to current advice – being knowledgeable about plants and wanting to grow as many of them as possible is a wonderful thing, requiring no justification.

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The garden at 21 Woodland Rise, N10 3UP is open April 26, 2 – 6pm, with teas and plants on sale. Also the garden of Southwood Lodge, 33 Kingsley Place, N6 5EA, 2.00 – 5.30pm, with teas and plants. And on 3rd May, two other favourite local gardens – 2, Millfield Place, N6 6JP and 5 St. Regis Close, N10 2DE


Prunus ‘Shirotae’

If this old flowering cherry tree in Regent’s Park is not Prunus ‘Shirotae’ I shall be disappointed. But that is what a helpful member of the Royal Parks staff thinks it is, so I have planted one in my Somerset wood. In Regents’ Park there are five in a group near York Gate, their wide spreading dark branches and ancient trunks creating a foil for their brief outburst of whitest white blossom. At ground level, their roots undulate through the surface of the petalled grass. They are extraordinarily beautiful but also old, so there are young trees planted amongst them – pink-flowering, alas. However, the (diseased) pink ones that have disappeared from Chester Road are to be replaced with Prunus ‘Sunset Boulevard’, which is described as having white flowers with a pinkish flush, so that’s hopeful for those of us who prefer their cherry blossom white.