1. Designing a front garden can be difficult. Look around, attractive front gardens are few and far between. Most of the effort goes into the back garden and not enough on the front. Consequently, most people are generally dissatisfied with their front gardens. Yet the front garden more often seen both by the owners, by visitors and, usually, by anyone walking by. In fact the owners normally walk through it at least twice a day, at least 5 or 6 days a week all year round. The front garden also establishes a first impression about the property and its owners.

2. Front gardens can, in fact, need more design attention than back gardens because there are more difficult practical, and functional factors involved than in the back garden, eg. the car or cars, where to be parked, how to get the car in and out, where friends might park, carports, garage etc. Similarly the front path can be a source of problems - the shortest route taken by the postman is not necessarily along the path. Other problems include how to keep stray dogs out, noise, pollution, litter and the need for privacy .

3. And we haven't even begun to think about the look of it - often there will be a nasty tarmac drive or the path maybe set in solid concrete. Owners generally try to work round these fixed elements with few ideas, but the difficulties tend to discourage rather than encourage.

4. Large front gardens with drives can be costly if resurfacing is required - the main problem is to consider the decorative value of materials which are suitable for drives. Inexpensive materials tend to be less decorative, so limiting what the designer can achieve, though gravel can be a very useful material on level sites. Front gardens, without drives, tend to be small - therefore it may be possible to transform it at a reasonable cost.

5. The rewards are great. Visually, it will give pleasure several times a day and the year. Practically, its functionality will be improved and maintenance will probably be lower.


Front Garden practicalities

1. Make a list of all the practical needs eg. everything to do with the car, pedestrian needs, boundaries and enclosure needs, dustbins, lighting etc..

2. Arrange these in a practical, yet imaginative way. Don't go for the obvious straight line for drive, straight line for path, straight line for border on the edge of the boundary with a bit of weedy lawn in the middle which has to be mowed every week. All those straight lines will emphasize the squareness of the garden. Be imaginative - a curved drive is instantly far more interesting than the straight one. If there is room, a turning circle can be made into a good looking feature and be very practical.

3. Cars present difficult practical and aesthetic problems. With street parking often difficult, hardstanding of some sort will be necessary. A garage or carport will require access to and from the street, and to and from the house. The driveway will need to be wide enough for passengers to get out of the car without ending up in the flowerbeds. These days, most families have at least 2 cars. Because of the size of the driveway, it will inevitably tend to dominate the front garden and its colour will have an amazing impact on this dominance. A black  asphalt or grey concrete drive can be overpowering and very difficult to do anything with. If possible, choose a softer feel, such as consolidated gravel - a very economic material which associates well with plants. If it has to be a tarmac drive, ask the contractor to roll a layer of gravel on top of the wet tarmac.This will soften the look considerably. A pattern in the drive will also tend to break up the large expanse of driveway and there are many types of block paving or imprinted concrete products available. Natural stone products, such as granite setts look great and will take the weight of cars, but is expensive. When choosing materials for the drive, remember that is must withstand the weight of a car and durable enough to be driven on. If a tarmac drive has to be retained, perhaps for economic reasons, screening it with trelliswork, decorative fencing such as picket fencing or ironwork or even by using plants may be a solution.

4. Pedestrian access is also very important. Obviously there must be a path from the front door to the street and this should be hardwearing and allow for clean, dry access to the house. The shortest route from street to front door is the most logical and will be the preferred route of all visitors. However, it may be more practical if the path to the front door led to the street via the garage or carport. It may also be desirable from an aesthetic point of view. Ensuring that everyone keeps to the path, instead of taking shortcuts, is easy with a little forethought. A large spiny Rose or Mahonia can be a very effective deterrent. On a more positive note, sweetly scented plants near to the path can be a wonderful welcome. Some plants release their perfume when their leaves are crushed. One of Gertrude Jekyll's favourite ploys was to put Rosemary near a path or door, so that when she brushed past it, it would release its wonderful aroma.There are many scented plants that could be used, and many are scented in winter too. The material used for the path will be as important as that used for the drive and should relate to it.

5. The choice of material/s should also relate to the house. There may be a material or colour used on the house which may prompt the choice of path material, a particular brick for instance. The architecture of the house is also important - a small house with lots of detail may need a simple design in the garden. On the other hand, relationship of scale is also important.

6. Check regulations which may apply, eg. whether it is a conservation area, whether there are any Tree Preservation Orders, legal liabilities in relation to party boundaries or rights of ways. Planning regulations may also apply, and many estate houses have regulations which need to be complied with, and even some council estates and local authorities have rules too. On a positive note, if there are restrictions, such as those applying to a conservation area, there may be grants available.

7. Disabled access should also be taken into account. In some cases it can be a planning requirement, but it is always worth thinking ahead and considering the future.


The overall design and look of the front garden

1. The architecture of the house, and the size of the house is important in the overall design and look of the garden. The design should relate house to garden, whether its a cottage or Victorian terrace, 30's semi or a new estate house. Each will need a different approach.

2. Look at the size of the house and its features, eg. a small house with lots of detail would perhaps benefit from a simple, uncluttered front garden. A general piece of advice is to keep it simple and use the best possible materials.

3. Most front gardens are small, and since the drive and path may have already divided up the garden, chopping it up further with lots of beds will make it look even smaller and fussier.

4. The traditional use of grass in the front garden should be reassessed, particularly as it requires a lot of maintenance and is unlikely to be used to sit on or for children to play on.

5. When choosing the colour of plants, hard materials, window boxes, containers etc. consider colours on the house. The colour of the paintwork can be influential. The colour of the front door and windows can be picked out in the colours used in the front garden in the plants or hard materials, eg. a black front door of a Victorian house could be used to influence the choice of black tiles with red tiles in a diamond pattern to make a traditionally Victorian tiled path, with black rope edging. Window boxes or wooden tubs can be sprayed to match the paintwork on the house.

6. The colour of the house should also influence the choice of colours in the flower beds. Red or deep blue flowers tend to disappear against red brick, and yellows and oranges can clash. Paler colours might be better. A house painted white is easier, as the bright, bold colours look striking and soft pastel colours, subtle. Using one colour scheme can be very effective.


Choice of plants for the front garden

1. For a keen gardener, the front garden will provide more space. I know one gardener who grows vegetables in a cottage garden style in the front garden. This can be a good ploy if the back garden is small.

2. Front gardens are usually the opposite to back garden and therefore provide the opportunity to use totally different types of plants, eg if the back garden is sunny, the front will probably be shady  - or the opposite may be the case.

3. The choice of plants for the front garden must take into account the fact that, unlike the back garden, this will be looked at at all times of year.

4. There are so many winter flowering plants and attractive evergreen foliage plants that one could very easily create a winter garden, and still provide interest at other times of the year. Flowering plants such as Viburnum bodnantense "Dawn" and Viburnum tinus, winter Jasmine, Christmas rose and other Hellebores, and Witchazel are a few examples. These can be complemented with many winter flowering bulbs, trees with winter bark and flowers, conifers etc.

5. If a predominantly winter garden does not appeal, than a mixed season garden can be designed. A good proportion of evergreens should still be used (between a third

and a half), and if these flower in the winter, summer interest can still be attained by planting summer flowering Clematis to grow through them. Remember that many evergreens also flower in summer. Bulbs are invaluable in a mixed season garden, flowering not just in spring, but also in summer (eg Alliums, lilies); autumn (eg Nerines, autumn crocuses) and winter (eg Cyclamen coum, Galanthus, Eranthis hyemalis, Iris reticulata).

6. Evergreens need not be boring. There are many golden forms, such as the golden shrubby honeysuckle, Lonicera nitida "Baggeson's Gold". There are silver/white variegated foliage plants such as Ilex "Silver Queen", Pittosporum ‘Silver Queen’ and Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’; and golden-variegated foliage plants, such as Eleagnus pungens maculata or Ilex "Golden King". There are many beautiful silver leaved plants, such as  Artemisia, Phlomis, Helichrysum, Lavender, Elaegnus x ebbingei, Santolina and Convolvulus cneoreum. Cream-variegated foliage plants are also useful, such as Euonymus fortunei "Emerald Gaiety". Shiny green foliage, such as Fatsia japonica and Choisya ternata will tend to reflect light making them more useful than matt green foliage. There are also glaucous, blue tinged plants such as Eucalyptus and Ruta graveolens ‘Jackman’s Blue’.

7. Bark and berries will add to your palette of colours. Small trees such as Acer griseum and Prunus serrula will give bark colour all year round whilst the winter flowering cherry will brighten dull wintry days. Berried plants such as Cotoneaster and Pyracantha, the rowans and crab apples provide interest and food for wildlife.

8. Apart from colour, think about form or the shape which the plants create, on their own or in groups. The strong dominance of the drive can be countered by the vertical lines of small trees and fastigiate shapes. Low growing plants emphasise the flatness created by the drive, whereas plants which lead the eye upwards break up the flatness.

9. Use large specimens and groups of the same variety of plants, instead of too many single plants of many varieties which will give a spotty effect. Restrict your colours to perhaps three which are complimentary to each other and do not contrast too much.

10. Use contrasting foliage shapes and textures, but not so many that you create too busy an effect.

11. The whole thing should flow in an interesting and three dimensional way, whilst still remaining practical and easy in terms of maintenance.

After - The parking area is the same but cobbles and granite setts add texture and form. Before - Black tarmac takes up over 70% of this steeply sloping front garden.


AFTER - Nowadays this BALI award-winning garden would require changes in its design to comply with the new planning regulations on driveways, parking and drainage.

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Designing a Front Garden or Drive

Below are Naila's teaching notes entitled, 'Front Garden Design'. Planning a front garden is a challenge even for professional garden designers.  

NOTE. Since these notes were written the planing laws as regards driveways and drainage have changed. Before undertaking any works it is a good idea to check that your plans conform to local planning laws. The two links below will give you some idea of what's required if you are altering or extending your drive or parking areas.