Pastures new: A garden can be a poignant reminder of the person who tended it

Adrian Padfield made a most generous bid for me in The Independent's Christmas auction. He intended it as a present for his wife, Gillian, a keen gardener and expert flower arranger, but tragically, in early January, she died. The garden became a painful thing for him to confront, stitched through with the plants his wife had chosen (many of them specially for her flower arranging) and which she, over the 20 years they had been in their home, had looked after. For her sake, Dr Padfield wanted the garden to continue. But, though he had been involved in its planning and construction, the actual plants in it were in many cases a mystery to him. Before he could learn what needed to be done with them, he had to know what they were.

He'd bought the quarter-acre site at auction in 1984, part of the garden of an early 19th-century property, Endcliffe Cottage, in the southwest suburbs of Sheffield. It sloped quite steeply to the south and was covered in big trees – chestnut, oak, ash, sycamore, holly, beech. Dr Padfield's plan was to build a Swedish-style, energy-efficient wooden house among the trees, facing south over the valley.

The house arrived from Scandia Hus in two container lorries and went up in 10 days. The garden took a little longer to make. A biggish, roughly rectangular pond was dug on the west side of the house and the spoil used to build up a flattish area for a lawn immediately in front of the south side of the house. The lawn was one of the concerns Dr Padfield had written about in an earlier letter. "It is dire," he said. "Very wet and mossy. Nevertheless, for the sake of the grandchildren, I'd like to keep it and possibly extend it westwards to the pergola, which could be demolished. It's 20 years old and the posts are rotting."

In design terms, the lawn had to be considered along with the pergola which, running at an angle from the corner of the house to the boundary, divided it from the pond at the side. If Dr Padfield decided to extend the lawn, he would have to re-align (or demolish) the pergola and incorporate some kind of boundary or screen on the lawn side of the pergola to keep his grandchildren away from the pond (another concern).

The lawn was in a lot of shade – one of the reasons it was struggling – but on a sloping site like this, flat areas are precious and the grass set off the woodsy nature of much of the rest of the garden below. In the report I sent Dr Padfield after my visit, I set out a lawn improvement and maintenance regime, but in the end, however much you do on top, the appearance of a lawn is most affected by its underpinning: fertility and drainage. If those two factors are not ideal, as I suspected they were not, then fertilisers, herbicides and moss treatments can only be props, not cures. Low nutrient levels and poor drainage are the usual causes of moss building up. Mowing too close also has an effect. The cut shouldn't be shorter than 15mm.

Dr Padfield, a consultant anaesthetist, now retired, had talked about extending the lawn westwards into the area where the pergola stood, more for the potential benefit of his grandchildren than anything else. I questioned whether that was worthwhile, given the fact that the grass did not grow particularly well here and that the problem of shade being cast would be little better in this area than in the existing one. The chief constraint for grandchildren (footballs, etc) would be the width of the lawn, not the length. Given the lie of the land, there was little he could do to extend the width.

But the pergola supports were rotting, and at some stage he is going to have to do something about them. A controlled demolition would be easier to manage than a wind-induced one. There were three options: to replace the pergola in its present position, to realign it or to do without it, which would cut down on maintenance (a third concern). He had to think of some way of closing off the pond and I thought the best solution was to replace the pergola with a simple trellis fence. It could be covered with the same kinds of climbers as he had on the pergola, but would be lower and so an easier proposition to manage.

During my visit, we discussed the specific concerns that Dr Padfield had raised, but after a day spent with him in his garden, it seemed to me that his chief worry was learning how to maintain the place. The steeply sloping site is not easy, but the layout is pleasing and the wilder bottom part of the garden could easily be left to its own devices, if he wanted to cut down on work.

The mature trees are a defining feature of the place and it was obvious that over the years, the Padfields had worked at lifting the canopies, which has made it easier to garden under them. But it means that, apart from the area round the pond, this is predominantly a shady garden which dictates to a great extent what is possible, in terms of change. There was space, though, to introduce some seasonal colour close to the front door. Camellias would like the shade and the acid soil and provide bloom at a good time of the year. Masses of snowdrops would also be a cheering sight in winter when spirits are at a low ebb.

Given the nature of the garden, composed more of trees and shrubs than herbaceous plants, controlling growth will always be an important job. In the future, though (the future a difficult place to look into at present), Dr Padfield could enhance the appearance of the garden considerably by learning how to prune. Quite a few of the shrubs and roses have got leggy and will be easier to manage (and flower better) if they are properly pruned.

Pruning is not the same thing as cutting back. I tried to explain the difference when I was with him. Cutting back is something you can do with laurels of all kinds, yew, holly, privet, conifers and general evergreenery. When it gets in the way (as laurel frequently does) you can just chop it back, wherever and whenever.

Pruning not only keeps a shrub within bounds, it can also enhance performance. Many shrubs and roses flower best on new wood, but this wood won't be produced as liberally as it could be if the shrub or rose isn't pruned quite hard, by taking out some of the old wood altogether at the base of the shrub. If you just cut back the edges of a lilac, for instance, it will produce new growth from just behind the cuts, so in effect, you haven't reduced its size. But if, over a period of years, you take out one old branch entirely, slicing it off as close to the ground as you can, it will throw new shoots from the base, which is where you want them to come from.

So, as part of the report, I wrote a quick beginner's guide to pruning. One day, Dr Padfield may find, as so many of us do, that working in his garden provides the best antidote to despair, the best balm for sadness, and the most enduring way of coming to terms with grief. In the most profound sense, this is what I hope.

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