Front gardens are for showing off to the neighbours with minimum effort. Joe Swift shows how you can do it
Front gardens are fabulous spaces. Just think how many people see your front garden. All the passers by on foot, bicycle, roller blades, by car or even on the top of the number 24 bus! The front garden becomes public visual property and also makes a statement about yourself, the homeowner whether you like it or not.
Creating a successful front garden is a completely different task to trying to create that relaxing outdoor room from your back garden space. The fundamental criteria to be considered are completely different. For a start itís unlikely that youíll actually want to sit and sun yourself in it unless itís the only outside space you have. Then thereís the consideration of it visually anchoring the house to the ground, and therefore the overall architecture of the house has to be considered. On top of all this it has to blend in with the rest of the street and neighbours front gardens, or does it? If you are a bit of an extrovert the front garden becomes the perfect place to unleash your creativity and show the world what youíre really made of.
As a child I lived in a street where our direct next door neighbour used his front garden to exhibit his painted junk metal sculptures (it was the early 70ís!). It is the only front garden in the road that sticks in my mind and I know it gave great pleasure to many passers by. To do something like this is a daring step and the general public will judge you on it. But if executed well the front garden can be the perfect place to introduce a sense of play and humour.
For most the front garden should ideally be the ultimate in low maintenance. Weed suppressing fabrics will considerably reduce the amount of work, and can be planted through and mulched over with pretty much anything. If itís a dark, shady area bare soil will only sap the light and increase the feeling of shade. Use a light coloured material such as cockleshells or beach pebbles to help lift it. Depending on how daring you are there are some mad coloured glass aggregates on the market, which will help set off the plants brilliantly.
Donít be frightened of simple symmetry, which often works best as plenty of houses are built on strict geometry. Each side of the front door is the perfect place for a couple of pots. If youíve got the space go for ones that are oversized: they may look almost too large proportionally, but will create real impact, so go for it. If itís a sunny spot try planting them with something aromatic such as lavender or rosemary, and if itís shady you just canít go wrong with box or even Osmanthus burkwoodii, which has a delicious scented flower.
In fact the front garden is the ideal place to grow scented plants. The winter and spring flowering scented plants such as sarcoccas, viburnums and mahonias are particularly suited to the front as opposed to the back. The back garden is somewhere you are unlikely to venture during the cold months whereas the strong fragrant flowers cannot be missed in the front garden as youíll pass them on a daily basis whatever the season.
Front gardens more often than not create an opportunity to grow at least one climber up the front of the house or over the front door. If itís scent youíre looking for you canít beat a jasmine or even an evergreen jasmine- Trachelospermum jasminoides. It may need a little protection from the cold, but is pretty tough and will flower well in light shade as well as full sun. Itís scent is delicious and itís pretty well-behaved and wonít try to rule the world. If you have full sun and want to cover the house with the most majestic of all climbers you simply canít beat a wisteria sinensis. It may not flower for the first few years, but boy when it does it makes one the finest of all plant displays with itís flowers dangling down like huge bunches of grapes.
Whatever you choose to do with your front garden just remember it should reflect your personality and how you want to be seen by the rest of the world. If youíre neat then go for neat. If youíre messy go for messy. There are also simple practicalities to consider, and if you are a two car family with absolutely nowhere to park, forget the garden completely and apply to the council for a car parking space!
Joe Swift is the author of the recently published The Plant Room (BBC Books, £19.99), a stunning, inspirational look at the contemporary urban garden