Design solutions: Front gardens

You may not spend a lot of time in your front garden, but it should be carefully planned and welcoming, says garden designer Andrew Wilson

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Front gardens have recently hit the headlines. TV makeovers put them in the spotlight and now these once innocuous symbols of suburbia have become political hot potatoes. Many people are paving over them with non-porous materials, creating excessive run-off to drains, and subsequent ‘flooding’ problems are becoming a pressing debate, but apart from their use as a convenient car park, the big question for most front garden owners is what to do with them.

 
Front gardens are ‘semi-private’ spaces, subject to more stringent planning regulations as they contribute to the landscape of the street. If you live in a conservation area this could affect your boundaries and how they are constructed or planted – for example, you may have to keep your hedge as part of the street scene. Boundaries along a public highway are subject to height restrictions, and the materials used may also have to match others used locally. Anything over 1m tall needs planning permission.
 
Choosing a use
Uses for your front garden are likely to be limited. Few people choose to entertain friends or have a barbecue there, preferring the privacy of their back gardens. The front garden, therefore, becomes either a decorative space or a parking space.
 
Using your front garden as a parking space is a particular problem in older properties designed before the advent of mass car ownership. If you live in a house like this and want to use your front garden for parking, you face two challenges. Firstly, you’ll need permission to access the front garden for parking and, secondly, you’ll have to decide how to design the parking surface.
 
Parking & surfacing
There is no specific planning regulation to prevent you parking in your own front garden, but you will need permission from the Highways Agency if you wish to drive across the public footpath, or create a new access point from the road. Recently, the London Boroughs of Brent and Harrow erected bollards to prevent home-owners from driving across pavements and into their front gardens without permission. In most cases where permission is granted, it’s done on condition that the height of the kerb is lowered to allow access. This work will be undertaken by the council, and you will have to pay for it.
 
Note that if you want to park in your front garden, high boundary walls or hedges can be dangerous, as they can impede vision as you drive in and out.
 
The surface on which you park your car is also significant. If you use non-porous materials, such as tarmac or concrete, rainwater can’t soak into the ground – it runs away until it finds a drain. As ever more people cover their front gardens with paving made of non-porous materials, the amount of surface water run-off has increased. Engineers are now worried that existing drainage systems won’t be able to cope with this burden, and concerns grew after the summer floods of 2007. As a result, from October 2008 anyone in England who wishes to pave their front garden with impermeable materials will need to seek planning permission. Porous materials, and products that allow water to drain through, will be exempt from this legislation.
 
One option for porous paving is gravel (see Key Points). Concrete block paving is also an option, but it needs to be permeable, mainly through the joints. Some manufacturers, such as Marshall’s and Bradstone, have new ranges to deal with this issue. Brick is also a possibility, as are granite setts. In general, small paving units are better because they are less prone to crack under the weight of a car.
 
Up front appeal
If you want a more decorative use for your front garden, there are several issues to consider. The first is security. Over-indulgence in the design and decoration of a front garden can attract unwanted attention. Do use high-quality paving and planting, but it’s probably wise to minimise the use of movable extras such as lighting, sculpture and decorative containers.
 
Storage is often a major issue, especially in higher-density urban areas. Storage for bins and recycling can be unsightly, but screens or shelters can hide bins and keep foxes and rats out. Built-in planters or green roofs can soften the impact of these structures. It’s vital, though, that both you and the refuse collector can get to the bins easily. Putting such structures on the boundary provides easy access from both garden and pavement.
 
In choosing plants and paving materials, consider the wider context of the garden and the character of your street or road. You probably don’t need to match local materials exactly, but if all other gardens in your street are fenced, use timber; if other boundaries are brick walls, use brick. The aim is not to copy other gardens but to relate to them, creating a consistent sense of character. In some cases, retaining Victorian or Edwardian tiled pathways can lend a distinctive sense of place.
 
Community spirit
In more recent ‘open plan’ developments, the sense of space has been ruined by home-owners who have planted high hedges to increase their privacy. Talk to neighbours and involve them in developing a series of gardens together. This can also develop a sense of belonging.
 
If space is tight, and there’s not room for much planting, consider purpose-built plant containers, in the garden or on window sills. Make sure they are secure from theft and can’t be blown over. They should also be easy to get to, for watering and replanting. Bedding schemes are often better for containers in urban areas, as this refreshes the planting on a regular basis.
 
All of these things can make a huge difference to the appearance of your home. A well-designed front garden can significantly increase the value of your house, contribute to the character of the neighbourhood and make a positive impression on you and your visitors.
 
KEY POINTS TO TAKE AWAY
 
1 No structures of any kind are allowed in front gardens without planning permission. This also applies to porches and may affect larger ornaments or even pots and containers. Boundary walls over 1m in height also require permission. Contact your local authority before committing to any work. They will also often publish guidance on their websites.
 
2 A typical parking space is 2.4m by 4.8m, but you’ll need extra space to allow access to and from the car. Driveways are typically 3m-3.5m wide. A second access point, to create an ‘in-out’ drive, will still require permission, even though you already have access to your property.
 
3 Keep planting and paving themes simple in the front garden to ease maintenance and to reduce the ‘bling’ effect of a garden that shows off too much. Link materials and planting to your locality.
 
4 Gravel is a readily available and is a low-cost permeable paving material. The base on which it is laid must also be permeable. To prevent excessive movement, pour the gravel into cellular mats. This material also strengthens and consolidates the surface – useful if you are planning to park a car on it.
 
5 Where space and soil conditions allow, paved surfaces can be drained to a soakaway. See the article on saving water for more details on this subject.
 
Useful websites
 
Both Marshall’s and Bradstone supply a wide range of paving, including permeable surfaces.
 
Current thinking and legislation on a range of planning issues.
 
Suppliers of Ecoblock, a cellular structure into which loose gravel can be laid to create a reinforced, free-draining paving surface. 
 
 
This article first appeared in June 2008, issue 138.
 
Andrew Wilson is a garden designer, writer and lecturer, and an assessor and judge for RHS show gardens.
 

 

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