Opening The Garden Gate

Opening The Garden Gate

Hilltop Cottage in McLean will open its gardens to the public this weekend.

Anyone who has ever looked at his yard and seen a jungle of plants that looked untameable will appreciate the garden tour at Hilltop Cottage this weekend. Hilltop Cottage is one of three local, private gardens on the Garden Conservancy’s Open Day’s Program being held on May 15.

“The reason for the Open Day’s Program is to introduce the public to gardening and the outstanding gardens that are out there in their communities,” said Garden Conservancy spokeswoman Deborah Friedman.

Hilltop Cottage owner Philip Metcalf will open his yard for the tour again this year. Hilltop Cottage was not a part of the event last year but has been in years past. “The garden surrounds the house. We’ve got perennial gardens, shade gardens, dwarf conifer gardens, a goldfish pond and a koi pond. And a hell of a lot of work,” said Metcalf.

He and his wife, Patricia Galagan, work year-round to make the garden the showpiece it is. “It’s only about two-thirds of an acre, but within that is a very rich environment,” said Metcalf. “It’s a relatively complex garden because of the topography. There are many different areas within the land.”

It took years and a ton of sweat equity for the pair to bring Hilltop Cottage into its current glory. Although previous owners had planted and gardened in the yard, “it had pretty much been left to fend for itself,” when the two purchased Hilltop Cottage, said Metcalf. “If you looked through that, you could see there was a lot of potential.”

Metcalf set about rebuilding the gardens and the ponds soon after taking occupancy. Although it’s a constantly evolving project, Metcalf says that, at this stage “it’s pretty much rebuilt as a mature garden. If you’re going to put something in now, you’ve got to think about what you’re going to take out.”

Metcalf owns Washington Water Gardens, so he paid special attention to the two ponds on the property. “I didn’t even see the koi pond until the second time I was there. I was down there going through the jungle, and it was just a rectangular depression in the ground. Of course the walls were gone, and it was unrecognizable. There was stuff all over it, including an abandoned baby carriage,” said Metcalf.

Each garden that’s open to the public costs $5 to view. “All that money is donated straight to the Garden Conservancy,” said Metcalf.

“The money we raise helps to preserve as many gardens as possible,” said Friedman. “It proves to people that there are still exceptional American gardens being created. And people get ideas for their own gardens and can talk to the owners to share expertise.”

Metcalf says the exchange between gardeners is one of the highlights of the program. “It’s fun to see other people who are gardeners come in. Some people look at it and say, ‘They’re out of their minds.’ Some people, like a client who came here recently, said it was her dream garden,” said Metcalf.

“This is both a fund-raiser and a great way of getting people to appreciate gardening,” said Stephanie Werskey with the Garden Conservancy.

Metcalf said he expects roughly 100 people to come to Hilltop Cottage to view the gardens this weekend. Because there are only three gardens on the tour this year — the others are the home of Mike and Barbara Simon in Fairfax and the Ridder Garden in Arlington — the Garden Conservancy is unable to estimate the number of people who will attend.

“People can buy the entrance ticket right here for $5 That’s good in a way, because if they don’t make it to others, then at least they don’t have a ticket left over for something they didn’t go to [but paid for],” said Metcalf.

Hilltop Cottage is located at 2046 Rockingham St., McLean. It’s on the McLean-Arlington border. The gardens will be open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

The Garden Conservancy has information available on its Web site:, under the Open Day’s Program. The 2004 season includes Open Days in 22 states and British Columbia and features more than 450 private gardens.