Jennie Reeves’ Manicured English Gardens Delight Highland Park

Jennie Reeves tends to her lovely English garden, tucked inauspiciously behind the family’s old Highland Park home.

Jennie Reeves’ garden has plenty of color. “From every window of the house, there’s something satisfying to see,” she says. Reeves prefers planting to arranging. “Ironically,” she says, “I don’t belong to a single garden club.”
photography by Steve Wrubel

The way Jennie Reeves figures it, she was meant to live in the charming 1918 English stone manor house on Alice Circle. Every family portrait she ever commissioned—even way back when the family lived in Richardson—took place in the park across the street from the house. So when the house became available in 1990, she knew she had to have it. Never mind that she and her husband, Stuart, were all set to build on a nearby lot. Jennie insisted that they abandon their plans—as well as their completed (and expensive) architectural drawings—and make an offer. “This is a door I have to go through,” she told her husband. To her delight, the door opened.

While the house is special, it was the 1-acre lot—and its many possibilities—that appealed most to Reeves. “The house is perfectly sited to take advantage of the lot,” she says. The manor sits atop a hill—made mostly of limestone—alongside a thicket full of ancient cedars, chittem woods, and live oak. The thicket opens up to a clearing, ideal for her gardening plans. “It’s unusual to find wilderness in the middle of a city,” she says. “It’s this accidental, charming little spot.”

Despite the property’s appeal, Reeves had her work cut out for her. “Things were not in good condition,” she says. But she had a plan. She wanted to develop the thicket and create something manicured to enhance it. “I wanted it to look like we stole the gardens from the wild.” Drawing inspiration from her experiences living in England where she had studied a number of manor houses, she planned for a series of small gardens, which would become increasingly formal the more proximal to the house they were. She and her team set to work on the less formal rear gardens, tending to the azaleas in the side garden (“They were so old, and we had to be so careful.”), and creating steps up the hill to the upper lawn.

As for the swimming pool, “Brits don’t like to see pools, and neither do I,” Reeves explains. So her pool is hidden by a stone and iron wall and surrounded by  wisteria blooms, which can reach up to 1.5 feet long all around the pool. “There’s nothing like the romance of wisteria. The fragrance almost knocks you over,” she says.

The Reeves family doesn’t entertain in the backyard exclusively; the front yard was the site for last year’s Fourth of July bash.
photography by Stephen Karlisch

Even with the designs in place, the garden is always evolving. She explains, “If you take out a tree then you think about how you can fill the space. But then you think about letting the sun heal the azaleas. It’s fun because you always have projects, and there’s always a new look for the space.”

Sometimes the look of the garden changes for unexpected reasons. Due in part to the weather, her roses have taken a hit. “I did have the most beautiful roses, but I’ve lost most of them along the way. There’s been so much drought,” Reeves laments. “But the back of the house is still covered with them around Mother’s Day.”

When they are in town, the family entertains often. The front yard, upper lawn, and “thunder house,” a British term for gazebo, naturally lend themselves to parties. It’s the thicket, a room of itself really, that gives Reeves the greatest pleasure. She extends invites, which she calls “thicket tickets,” to friends and family to come in for a rest, a portrait sitting, or to merely read the The New York Times. It’s also her granddaughters’ favorite spot, and for good reason: It is there that Reeves and her 13-year-old granddaughter spend hours setting up for tea parties. Once everything is to their liking, they sit down and enjoy a very dignified Highland Park Pharmacy grilled cheese sandwich while Reeves’ 18-month-old granddaughter provides entertainment by jumping around and dancing all over the grounds.

When asked what advice she has for budding gardeners, she says, “Everyone does flowerbed after flowerbed. Let the bones, structure, and trees mandate what you plant.” She also advises a visit to a good greenhouse to find a professional who can give guidance on what grasses will work best, whether certain flowers will flourish, and which trees can be saved. “Too many people don’t keep trees,” Reeves opines.

Reeves’ goal was to create destinations—a series of pleasant places—such as this sitting area, to take in the scope of the garden.
photography by Stephen Karlisch

Most of all, she says, have fun. She certainly does. Although son-in-law and photographer Steve Wrubel, has told her, “Jennie, you could charge,” she encourages people to enjoy her gardens. On weekends, there are always passersby snapping pictures. Artists sit across the street from the house and paint landscapes; sometimes they even knock on the door and gift her with the canvases. She wouldn’t change a thing. “I’m gratified when people say, ‘Oh, I love your house.’”

(right) Purple and white foxglove preen.
photography by Stephen Karlisch
(left) The azaleas are a big hit with everyone who sees them. “There were two photographers at the gates just today,” Reeves says. (right) A stone planter filled with fig ivy and impatiens.
photography by Stephen Karlisch

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