How many of us really invest in our front gardens? Too often they are seen simply as a place to pass through, or as a bin store or bike shed. Sometimes it is felt that too much evidence of care and expenditure can attract burglars, or simply smacks of showiness. Then there are the thousands of gardens that are paved over to provide parking space – because of crowded streets, roads with double-yellow lines, or multiple-car families. The result is that many people as good as give up when it comes to the front of the house, perhaps investing in a smart door, but otherwise keeping the space plain and simple to the point of austere.
Professional garden designers, fortunately, tend to be pragmatic. Permeable paving can relieve the problem of where all the rainwater is going to go, and even with car parking to contend with, it’s possible to make the area green and attractive as well as functional. For many designers, the front garden is not a “Cinderella” space that will never get to go to the horticultural ball, but is, in fact, one of the most important parts of their brief.
Andy Sturgeon is one such example. “I’m interested in the idea of the ‘welcome home’ – a front garden that is like a dog that jumps up to greet you when you get in,” he says. “I think it’s really important to have something flowering or something scented in it. The way I do this at home [in Brighton] is by rotating pots and using scented shrubs like Sarcococca. You can create a real comfort zone for yourself, with lighting as a part of that – in the winter especially.”
The traditional view of designers is that the four main elements – gate, path, door and porch – should all work in harmony, but Sturgeon goes further than that. He believes that a front garden can impart a strong sense of personality, and decries the uniformity of the typical “smart” versions – “that Holland Park look of high pleached hedges and clipped topiaries”. He persuades clients to adopt a less generic approach by looking at the style of the house as a whole. This is especially useful if an interior designer has been engaged as well. “We always investigate what materials they are using,” he says. “Or it could be an idea such as ‘simple and muted’ as opposed to ‘colourful and cluttered’. However, the whole ‘inside-outside’ idea [of interior and exterior seamlessly blending] I take with a pinch of salt.”
Sturgeon has devised a number of front gardens that integrate a car-parking space. (His work costs from £250 per sq m for hard landscaping, and from about £100 per sq m for planting.) “At one of our projects in Putney, the garden was quite open, with a long frontage across two conjoined houses and with several cars out front,” he says. “We added staged bands of box hedging with more colourful, cottagey planting between them.” He used lavender, daisy forms such as Leucanthemum, and tall, diaphanous subjects, including purple Verbena bonariensis. “We put in Yorkstone setts for the cars to park on and flagstones of the same stone leading up to the door,” he says. “The idea is that even when no cars are there, it reads like a garden.”
At another London house, with a much smaller plot, Sturgeon used low-growing plants such as thyme, Geum and Helianthemum in the gravel next to where the car is parked. “What you plant rather depends on how often the car is there,” he says. “In that case the front garden is often empty, but if it’s going to be shadier we will also use things like little ferns.”
Ann-Marie Powell, another Sussex-based designer, agrees with Sturgeon. “You walk through this space every day, even in midwinter,” she says. “It’s always the last thing to be added to the client’s brief, but in the end, it often seems to be the thing they like best. The truth is, most people hardly go into their back garden when it’s freezing cold, damp and grey.”
Many of Powell’s designs feature a naturalistic approach. She has used a woodland theme at her own home, and for one client made what she calls a “foraging” garden, at a cost of about £25,000, focused around a strawberry tree. Hollyhocks are another traditional front-garden plant that have been making a comeback in recent years, alongside the lupin, a flower that was all the rage in the 1920s and 1930s.
But not everyone has the space to create the feel of a woodland out front. At one village house in West Sussex, Powell used clipped topiary with 18th-century-style reproduction stone urns to create a type of knot garden with a note of formality and definition, softened by plantings of native flowers, shrubs such as hawthorn, and hedgerow flowers, including Angelica and other cow-parsley types. “It’s on a country lane and I really like the way the planting blends in with its surroundings,” she explains. It’s a “shabby-chic” effect that’s typical of the 20th-century country-house style: considered, but not ostentatious. Such a look, which cost about £50,000, will set the tone of the household as a whole.
If space is constrained or the garden is paved, Powell advocates planting a single tree in a pot – “a native tree such as an ash or crab apple (Malus species) that will attract lots of wildlife, or a specimen tree like Amelanchier lamarckii, which is one of my favourites. Grown in a pot, these trees can become slightly bonsaied, because you are controlling the roots, but you can have colour for much of the year, as well as flowers and fruits.”
Pettifers is a 17th-century Cotswold stone town house in Oxfordshire that has earned plaudits for its superb garden, which has been designed entirely by its owner, Gina Price. Price has gone through a process of “editing” the space over the past decade and the result is a series of perfectly weighted areas, including the unusually wide and shallow front garden. Here, a yew dome, Wisteria and certain key shrubs – including the fizzy yellow-green-leaved Ptelea trifoliata “Aurea” – have been treated almost as specimens, allowing them the space in which they can perform.
Then there’s the Norfolk-based designer George Carter, whose uncompromisingly traditional style has won him a following among clients who are in most cases instinctive formalists. For Carter, the gardens of the 17th and early 18th century are touchstones, and he seeks to create something of the atmosphere of the great baroque houses, even in a humbler setting. (A half-day consultation in London starts from £600, while small hard landscaping costs from about £5,000 and planting costs from about £3,500.)
“It’s all about creating a sense of arrival,” he explains. “It’s a traditional axial approach, but in miniature. In the 17th century, you might have had an avenue and a series of courtyards in front of the house. You can recreate a notional version of that by means of a sense of enclosure, or through the addition of flanking elements for the gate, door or path, so that the house is effectively framed by the garden. Topiaries can easily play the role of gate piers.
“I recently completed a front garden for an early-19th century village house in Norfolk with iron railings,” he continues. “I’ve created a series of little enclosures or courts articulated with structured clipped evergreens in different species, so you get alternating textures and colours. There is a base of gravel with a grid of Portuguese laurels rising out of box cubes, then a row of pleached limes rising above the railings, then very clipped and controlled Virginia creeper to green up the wall space and frame the doorcases. I also like using architecturally trained Pyracantha to do that job – it’s something John Evelyn [the diarist and horticulturist] described seeing in France in the 17th century.”
Carter also extols the virtues of tree planting, particularly if it is a tree with an open habit, such as a crab apple or Prunus species. “I like the native wild bird cherry, Prunus padus,” he says. “Trees create something of a screen while allowing those inside the house to see out. Pleached trees or stilt hedges can also be good: you’re hidden from view but get a glimpse out by creating slots in the hedge.”
Even for a formalist such as Carter, vehicles and dustbins have to be factored into the equation. “I like to design wooden enclosures for the bins,” he says, “and always keep it simple.” And while not really approving of cars in front gardens, Carter acknowledges that sometimes the client will view it as a necessity. “It’s unbearable sitting inside a house and looking out at cars, and I don’t think people always think about that point of view. But you don’t have to see them. You can make the most of the basement level, for example, by digging down to make the well wider, then greening up the blank wall with light-coloured or variegated ivies, trees or tiers of planting. I’ve just done a garden in Kensington where I created a sort of framed picture in front of the basement window – a tiered bed of evergreens of differing colours and textures. The owners can’t see the cars at all from inside the house.
“A big focal ornament can work well here,” he adds. “A half-urn is a good idea, as it can sit flat against the wall, or a bust on a plinth. I’ve recently used a bust of Milton in that situation for a client. Reflective galvanised steel – not a mirror – can bring in a sense of light, and of course, there is always artificial lighting.”
Carter’s enthusiasm for ornaments in the garden brings to mind an aside in one of Sir Roy Strong’s books about creating small period-style formal gardens, where the focus might be a sundial, obelisk, statue or urn. “Whatever you buy should be the best of its kind,” he writes – rather uncompromisingly, perhaps, given the cost of antique garden decorations. But Strong goes on to explain: “It is better to have a fine large empty terracotta pot in the middle of the garden than to spend the same amount of money on a badly cast reproduction statue.”
One of the wonderful paradoxes of gardening is that it’s perfectly feasible to design formally while using ecological principles. “One thing I would like to do in a front garden is create a rural hedge that is clipped but has several species in it,” Carter reveals. “Things like hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel and native privet. I do like privet – it’s very good for moths as well.” Proof that one can be an obelisk fancier and a bug fan at one and the same time – and that the front garden might be the very place to display the catholicity of one’s tastes.