Let there be light

Workshop: spare rampant trees and lift the canopy, Anna Pavord advises a couple arriving in a splendid old home
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The Independent Online
We have just moved to a house where there is a large number of overgrown shrubs, a mossy mess of lawn to the front, and a multiplicity of hideous holly trees almost everywhere. There is an almost unrecognisable rockery and some impressive feature trees, including a couple of pines and monkey puzzles, but they can't be appreciated because of the encroaching undergrowth. The road is moderately busy and the only benefit of the overgrowth to the boundary wall is the screen it provides to the noise and visibility of traffic. But the overgrowth is ugly and takes up a lot of space. It restricts the view from the house and makes the garden seem smaller than it is.

Keith Purcell and his wife Susan have spent just four months in their house in the West Yorkshire village of Baildon. It is a splendidly solid home, built in 1915 for a Bradford wool merchant, Henry Holroyd. The garden that he laid out round the house, with its screening trees, is now what estate agents tend to call "mature" and the rest of us simply call overgrown.

But that is less of a problem than a patch where there is nothing going on at all. Especially up here on the heights overlooking Bradford, where winter winds must be cutting. But Keith, 44, and Susan, 38, are used to that. They are both Yorkshire born and bred. "Wild horses wouldn't pull me from this place," he says fiercely.

The garden, with its handsome trees, has great potential. It sits roughly in the middle of a corner plot, with roads running along the south and west boundaries. The drive comes in from the west side, hugging the larch lap fence that divides the Purcells' garden from their neighbour's. The fence replaces an old holly hedge that Mr Purcell had cut down to the ground, but the stumps were resprouting merrily.

It was obvious from Mr Purcell's letter that he did not share my passion for holly, but instead of pouring poison on the stumps (his first instinct) he could perhaps allow some of them to grow up, then keep them trimmed as thin, tall pillars, to make an enfilade down the the left-hand side of the drive. They would only need clipping once a year. The fence behind could be disguised with some vigorous roses, trained out against it on parallel wires. `Rambling Rector' would do the job. Or `Seagull'. Or `Felicite Perpetue'.

In front of the holly stumps was a narrow shrub border, with potentilla and too much crocosmia (montbretia). But the border could easily be thickened up with other flowering shrubs to contrast with the potentilla. You wouldn't want anything that grew too big. Brooms (the border faces south) such as Cytisus scoparius `Zeelandia' would provide cream and lilac flowers in May and June. A daphne would give delicious scent early in the year and by the gate, where there is a little more room, evergreen choisya would make a handsome, welcoming feature, if it could take the winters. I'd be tempted to experiment.

The right-hand side of the drive is bordered by one arm of the intriguing rock feature that than bends round to run all the way along the western edge of the garden. That needed to be cleared gradually of the leafmould and pine needles that had silted it up, obscuring the fine stones. The L-shape encloses a lawn, mossy and as Mr Purcell had said, not very good. But the soil is acid, and the grass shaded by trees - not propitious for lawns.

But much can be achieved by lifting the canopies of trees and this is perhaps what Mr Purcell should do with the fine pines, and both the monkey puzzles (Araucaria araucana). All were disfigured by rings of dead branches. Without those, the trunks would look superb - monkey puzzles have trunks as creased as elephant's legs - and more light would be let through the canopy.

Mr Holroyd, the original owner, had overdosed on various kinds of chamaecyparis, which, unlike hollies, are not trees that grow old gracefully. Some, set forward of the boundary screen, needed to go. When they were out of the way, perhaps Mr Purcell would come to love the hollies around the south and west boundaries of the garden. They were smothered in berries. They didn't even have prickly leaves. And they were doing a brilliant job in protecting him from wind and the sight and sound of traffic on the roads outside.

If he nibbled away gradually at some of the lower branches of the hollies, taking them off close to the trunks of the trees, they would seem less oppressive. And the big old rhododendrons that had once been intended as foreground planting would gain more living space. They were all leggy and in some cases, half dead. But with careful pruning, spread over a couple of years, they could be reinvigorated. The effect of more light and air around them (and a thick mulch) would do wonders. The rhododendrons are evidently old cultivars, perhaps now unobtainable, and would be worth trying to save.

The lawn that now fills the space between the southern boundary and the house was once occupied by what an old neighbour remembers as a "maze". I'd guess it was a formal arrangement of box edged beds, typical of the Edwardian period, filled perhaps with roses. Just one reminder of it remains on the lawn, a circle of box hedge with a young, very scraggy abies inside. Although it was odd, I'd keep the box circle as a reminder of the garden's past history (but not the abies), bringing it down in height and gradually reducing the width of the hedge by clipping round the inside. A rugosa rose such as `Roseraie de l'Hay' would fill the centre and provide a long succession of scented flowers.

Mr Purcell was keen to to something to brighten up the southern boundary. It does need it. But the lawn was already quite short in proportion to its width, and more shrubs in front of the sheltering boundary would do nothing to improve the proportions. He could compromise by setting three or four big, handsome tubs along in front of the evergreen screen, filling them in in spring with great armfuls of tulips and in summer with a tumble of white petunias. The tubs would give the Purcells an opportunity to vary the way the garden looked each year

They have taken on a garden that needs their kind of energy. It needs the skills of a tree man too, to fell some of the dross and grind out the stumps that presently disfigure the rockery. And when the hollies' berries ripen and start glowing among their glossy foliage, Mr Purcell perhaps will feel differently about them. Here's hoping.