Country & Garden: No chainshaw required

There are good tree men and bad tree men. Good ones don't look at trees as an excuse for a carve-up
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It is a brilliant, sunny morning and the bank outside the window is blazing with cotoneaster. It's not a shrub you think about much, but this is its hour and it's making the most of it. Gradually, the garden is changing gear. The white mallow, a summer annual still flowering in the front border, looks ridiculous now: a frou-frou guest at the wrong party.

The plants of the hour are Callicarpa bodinieri, covered in improbable purple berries, like designer beads, and ruby chard.

Now that the weather is chillier (though we still haven't had a frost), the green of the leaf has turned a dark, dangerous-looking bronze, fantastic against the traffic-light red of the stem.

I'm changing gear, too. Summer gardening is a matter of stemming the tide - furious weeding, mowing, cutting back, harvesting, propping up. Now, longer-term projects come into focus. There's a drystone wall to be continued, one of those Great Wall of China jobs that we may never get to the end of. And the pergola needs repairing. Again. But now I've discovered the delights of green oak, I need never curse a larch pole again. That's just as well, because I was running out of curses.

Any day now, Mr Smith will call, to catch up with the trees. November is a kind of benchmark in the garden. This month sap will be falling, so trees can be cut - and Mr Smith has a chainsaw, which we don't. Men with chainsaws can be disastrous in a garden. Avoid any who are incapable of understanding that the saw itself is nowhere near as important as a sympathetic eye. A good tree man takes in the balance or imbalance of a tree, its problems, its possibilities, and, most important of all, its essential nature. Is it a spreader? Is it a drooper? Is it an exclamation mark of a tree? Its characteristics need to be enhanced, not suppressed.

Good tree men love trees and do their utmost to keep them on their feet. Bad tree men suck their teeth and invent nightmarish scenarios. "Those tree roots are blocking your drains," they say. "Gobbling up your foundations as we speak." Silence. "I wouldn't be in your shoes, love. Not with that branch leaning over the roof like that." Silence. "What about your kiddies? Could be crushed in their beds."

Another dramatic pause. "And look at that poplar! What fool planted that poplar there? Dangerous trees. You won't get it on your insurance, you know." The "it" is unspecified - and is designed to be more menacing because of it.

A good tree man will look at the old Portugal laurel leaning over our gate and watch the way it moves. He'll see that, although the tree itself is now dead, the huge cloak of ivy that has subsequently clothed it is doing a good job in protecting us from the east wind, as the tree itself used to do. He'll know that the trunk and roots are not of a kind to rot quickly. In his eyes, this is not a dangerous structure.

But he will perhaps recommend that he takes the top off this extraordinary totem pole, with its great, cascading cargo of ivy. It will make the whole thing less top-heavy, put less strain on the tree's foundations. This way, we have a better chance of preserving the windbreak and the ivy, which is a magnet for birds and insects throughout the winter. The doom- sayers, would have had the whole thing down instantly. "What about your hubby? What's he going to say when that thing crashes down on top of his Saab?" It's typical that they should know the name of the car, but not of the tree.

Some of our tree work is done to help the trees themselves, some to improve the way that the garden looks generally. Mr Smith has been gradually nibbling away at an old yew tree that was dying back, letting more light in on its trunk, caressing it back into a more enthusiastic frame of mind. He's succeeding. Small green sprouts are now erupting from the oxblood bark.

Sometimes he acts as a kind of referee. Two trees are perhaps fighting for the same air-space. Which one is to be favoured? Better to have one decent tree than two malformed ones. If, for instance, the choice were between a beech and a sycamore, I would unhesitatingly go for the beech. A choice between beech and ash would be more difficult. Sometimes, in a garden, a slow-growing tree has been partnered with a quick-growing one, the intention being that the quick one should come out when the slow one has filled sufficient space. But gardens change hands, intentions are forgotten, and the trees are left to their own devices. The good, slow tree cowers, more and more misshapen in the tiny patch of light left to it.

On a smaller scale this happens with shrubs, too. I have just noticed that a big cotoneaster has got far too bossy and is hanging over and into a choisya under it. The choisya won't like that. It won't fight the cotoneaster, which is faster growing. The whole of that overhanging branch must come out.

I've taken the saw (my little triangular Sandvik saw) to the decaisnea, too. The weird name commemorates Joseph Decaisne, a Victorian director of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. It is one of the top shrubs in our garden, with leaves about 3ft long, strong midribs (which take for ever to rot down in a leaf clamp or compost heap) with up to 10 pairs of leaflets arranged along it. The foliage is handsome, but the real point of it is the fruit: strange navy blue pods, about the size and shape of broad bean pods, but as soft and squidgy as sausages.

The same navy blue washes over the leaves when they first come out and also colours the tops of the flower clusters, which hang in greenish panicles in spring. In our garden the decaisnea grows in quite deep shade, but the ground is rich. The stems will grow to 15ft. But this is a shrub that you can yoke to your own agenda. The oldest growths on our specimen had lolled forward over the grass, which had then died. I don't mind that, but the shrub itself began to look odd, poking out so far beyond the natural line of the border.

So, now that the leaves and pods have fallen, I have lopped off four of the oldest, most forward-leaning branches. This will encourage the younger shoots that are springing up from the back of the shrub. They are growing how I want them, straight for the sky. By taking out some of the old wood each year, you can persuade the decaisnea to produce a constant supply of new stems, which are more fully clothed with the extraordinary great leaves than the old ones. They tend to bear leaves only on the top half of the stems.

There are other shrubs and trees that you can manage in this way, to enhance performance rather than anything else. I like ornamental elders, but our purple-leaved one has now got twiggy and less productive than it was in its youth. About a third of its stems must come out, cut right down to the ground, so that it will throw up more young canes with better foliage. But they will be too young to have heads of flower. That is why it's best not to cut the whole thing down at once. Try explaining that to the chainsaw cowboys.

This illustration by Agnes Miller Parker is taken from `Silva: the tree in Britain' by Archie Miles, published by Felix Dennis/Ebury Press, pounds 30