The nub of the problem is that there are a number of what the estate agents described as 'mature shrubs' in the garden, including a vast bay tree. As a novice gardener whose previous experience is confined to a balcony, I have no idea whether these shrubs are worth saving or not.
There is no doubt that they give some privacy and would provide a good background for the sort of low-maintenance, foliage-based garden we have in mind, but they seem very big for the garden and past their best. They cut out light and make large sections of the flowerbeds unusable. It goes against the grain to cut down mature trees, and we'd like some reassurance before we do so. I WOULD handcuff myself to the bay tree rather than see it cut down. It is a superb feature in Lalage Clay's small, overgrown garden, sitting in the back left-hand corner as you look at the patch from the house. It is growing beautifully in a roughly conical shape about 20ft high, and provides support for the climbing roses, summer jasmine and clematis that have flung their arms into it.
It is certainly big for a garden of this size, but there are ways to reduce its bulk, especially at the bottom, where wide, lax branches are weeping over the ground, making planting underneath the tree impossible.
The way to do it is to trace back to the main trunk the growths you want to get rid of, then cut them off flush with the trunk. Gradually, taking one branch at a time, you can lift the whole canopy off the ground.
I took along my Rolcut loppers to show Ms Clay how to do the job. It did not occur to me that there would be a problem walking through London with these, but I was stopped three times. What was I doing loitering with intent around The Oval with a pair of bolt cutters in my hands, asked the law? 'Do I look like a housebreaker?' I replied. Worryingly, there was no reply. Fortunately, at close quarters, they could see for themselves the crucial differences between bolt-cutters and pruning tools.
Anyway, a few lunges with the loppers were enough to persuade Lalage Clay that she need not be afraid of her bay tree - indeed, she should boast about it to anybody who will listen. As well as cleaning up the base of the tree, we reduced one or two higher branches that were reaching too determinedly into the middle of the square (you don't have to reach far to find the middle of a 15ft garden), then left it in peace.
The main problem was not the bay but a monster pyracantha. It enjoys a north wall, which many shrubs do not, and the house extension needed disguising. But it was not a good idea to have left the thing to its own devices: the main trunk was thicker than my arm and, with no growing room behind, it had lurched forward into the half of the garden not claimed by the bay.
Pyracantha is easy to train if you do the job while the branches are young and pliable. But the growth had become too unwieldy for there to be any chance of training it back against the wall.
I suggested to Ms Clay that the shrub, which had been planted on the extreme left-hand edge of the wall, should be trained out instead, in parallel rows leading over to the right-hand edge.
First, she and her husband, Stephen Bath, would have to reduce it to manageable proportions. If it were mine, I should cut all the branches down to the ground to force the shrub to make new growth for pinning and training. This is a drastic step, though, and London gardeners like their greenery. The extension would look naked while the pyracantha gathered its guts for a second assault on the wall.
The compromise was to take out the biggest trunk, which would immediately release a further 5ft of garden, and to phase out the rest of the old trunks more gradually. This was a job beyond the loppers. I needed my Sandvik saw, which I had not brought with me. Just as well, or I would probably be in Kennington clink by now, accused of 'going equipped'.
Ms Clay thought she might pass the pyracantha over to garden contractors for treatment. 'Well, while they're at it . . .' I said, looking meaningfully at a grim euonymus, crawling with aphids, which filled the back right-hand corner of the garden. It is about 5ft high and wide, evergreen, its shiny leaves variegated in gold. But it is not earning its keep and is pulling in blackfly from the whole of south London to feast on its new shoots.
Lalage Clay and her husband wanted to put a seat against this back, south-facing boundary. With the euonymus gone, there would be room for a seat and a large tub in the corner that could be used for seasonal plantings.
The run of board fence on the left of the garden, joining the short distance between the pyracantha's branches and the bay, is mostly filled with a large sprawl of summer jasmine, the new growth resting on a vast thatch of old dead stems. The thatch has been building up for so long that the jasmine is sticking way out into the garden, making planting underneath impossible. It needs sorting out, and the simplest way would be to cut the whole thing down against the ground.
The whole jasmine edifice could collapse anyway when the main trunk of the pyracantha was removed, for tendrils of jasmine had wound into it and would not be able to support themselves so high up without the pyracantha prop. Cutting the jasmine down would save a muddle, and it would sprout again quickly.
With those four shrubs brought to heel, Lalage Clay and her husband would find themselves in possession of almost the full 15ft of their garden, rather than the little bit in the middle.
I had ideas for the middle, too. At the moment it is scrubby grass, drifting into the areas not overhung by pyracantha, jasmine or bay. The smaller the lawn, the more perfectly it needs to be kept, and this is not easy. Turf is demanding.
Why not get rid of the grass altogether? Make an informal gravelled path leading through to the back where the seat will be, with massed planting either side? Japanese anemones, hostas, pulmonarias, London pride . . . I could see it all. But Lalage Clay was wearing the glazed look of a person who has heard one suggestion too many on the subject of her garden. It was time to go.
If your garden presents an interesting challenge, write to Anna Pavord at: Weekend, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB. Gardens chosen will be featured in 'Workshop', but Anna Pavord cannot enter into individual correspondence.
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