Too much of a good thing

WORKSHOP; Janis Leggott has a small backyard garden that is out of control. Anna Pavord offers advice
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The Independent Online
"We have a very small back yard which needs rationalising. We kept adding plants without much thought and now everything seems overgrown and in the wrong place.

At the moment we have the following trees, mostly growing in pots and mostly grown from seeds or cuttings: 2 pomegranates (1ft and 2ft), 4 oaks (about 2ft), 3 Leyland cypresses (1ft to 3ft), 2 lemon or orange (5ft), 2 holly (6ft), blue fir (1ft), Christmas tree (1ft), wild cherry (3ft), apple (2ft), laburnum (2ft), flame tree (2ft), jacaranda (2ft), date palm (1ft), loquat (6ft), 2 small leaved box (2ft), 2 large leaved box (2ft).

The back of the yard faces north and the whole yard is overlooked by another house sideways on. In the winter there is no sun at all. We've made three beds and in the back bed are two roses, 'Albertine' and 'Mme Alfred Carriere', which I can't seem to get under control.

Earlier this year we put up some trellis on a west wall where we have another rose, 'Masquerade' and a Clematis montana 'Grandiflora' which is running amok. We also have a pieris, a passion flower, honeysuckle, a large peony, two spiraea, a golden rod, some hebes, lavender, and so on.

The yard measures about 18ft x 20ft. It seems a lot of plants for something that size, but I do like a crowded garden. I just want it a bit more organised."

When, with a proud sense of parenthood, you have watched a plant right the way through the nappy stage to its sixth or seventh birthday, it is very difficult to bin it. This is the crux of Janis Leggott's problem. She can scarcely pass an apple core in the street without scooping up the pips to sow at home. As she explains in her letter, the loquat, apple, date, citrus which stay out all winter, pomegranates and cherry were all grown from pips. The pomegranate came home with her from a holiday in Majorca. The citrus trees, beautiful healthy specimens with not a trace of sooty mould, came from her mother, who is also an inveterate pip sower. The disease is catching.

Added to this problem of temperament is another more tangible one: the clematis. It is not so much growing as galloping. It has mounded itself up on the west trellis in such a way that it now overhangs the border underneath, and practically obliterates the planting there. It has bolted around to the back wall too, where it has happily tangled with the two roses that Ms Leggott mentioned, making them impossible to prune and causing, there too, a vast overhang of growth. Two big clumps of nerines underneath are swamped and sulking.

Taking things out of a garden is as important as putting things in. Ms Leggott had correctly identified her problem: she's drowning in growth. That's better than the other way around. "Start with the clematis," I advised, feeling that she would find it easier to be brutal with a plant that she had bought, rather than raised herself from a cutting. By choosing a type of clematis that is a rampant grower, Ms Leggott has added to her difficulties. The clematis needs to be shown that it can go so far and no further.

The stopping point should be just where the border starts on the east- facing wall. Any clematis growth that strays over this unwritten frontier ought to be chopped off. There is plenty of room for it to grow the other way, where concrete comes right up to the boundary and tendrils can hang down from the trellis without causing havoc underneath.

This will free up the back boundary for some necessary attention. It's impossible to get in to work on the roses at the moment because of the web of new clematis growth. Standing there like an ostrich with my head buried in the green, I could see that there was quite a lot of dead rose wood that needed cutting out. The new growths of the rose were either waving high up in the air above the boundary wall, or were falling forward into the yard, getting in the way of everything else. If the roses are to stay, they have to be brought to heel and stuck flat against the wall. They at least, though, will only need pruning and tying in once a year.

'Albertine' is a rambler. This means that you should treat it like a raspberry, cutting out old growths at ground level each year and tying in the new growth in its place. This new growth should be springing from ground level too. But because ground level had become a dark and murky place, this wasn't happening with Ms Leggott's 'Albertine'. The new shoots were breaking at the top of the wall - the only place where they felt they could find light and air. There were just two old stems at the base. One of them needs to be cut out. I would leave this until January and then cut down the second old stem after the rose had flowered, which it does in early summer.

The growths were badly mildewed, characteristic of 'Albertine' and not made any better by the fact that it is growing here against the wall. Mildew is less of a problem where wind can blow through a rose, as it might do on an arch or other open structure. But Ms Leggott thought the flowers worth the mildew and did not intend to tie herself to a spraying routine. I agree. To control mildew, always worse in dry summers than damp ones, you need to spray at two-weekly intervals from May until October. That is a boring chore. But I would think hard about introducing so disease- prone a rose as 'Albertine' into a small garden where every plant is necessarily seen in close-up.

But what about the forest that Ms Leggott had itemised in her letter: the oaks, the jacaranda, the fir, the apple, the hollies, the Leyland cypresses, all grown from nothing, all watched over anxiously for years and years?

Outsiders are often curiously blind to the merits of one's own children. But the four oaks, bravely growing in five-inch pots, need to be somewhere where they can spread their wings. So do the five conifers and the cherry and the apple. Take them to a charity plant sale, I suggested. That way they may find a more suitable home and help some good cause at the same time. The plants would not have been raised in vain.

That still left a fine pieris, the two citrus, a pomegranate, a yew (not mentioned in the letter) and four box trees clustered together on the concrete (the base of an old air raid shelter) in the middle of the yard. Two of the box trees and the yew could be clipped into good topiary pieces and kept in pots at a manageable four feet tall. But three pieces of topiary would be enough. The other two box bushes might also go off to a plant sale.

With these gone and an axe taken to the tall gangling broom that was the original proud occupant of Ms Leggott's first tentative little bed, made about ten years ago, you would be better able to see the stars of the garden - the magnificent citrus trees, the jacaranda grown from seed brought back by a friend from Zimbabwe, the fine pieris - untrammelled by excess baggage. But there are many people who would not mind having Ms Leggott's problem, which is not that she cannot grow things, but that she grows them too well.