Front Gardens: Keeping up with the Jones’s

SGS_Tree framing view from neighbour

When I approach a new client’s property for the first time I pay particular attention to the surrounding streetscape, not just their street but those adjacent as well. By doing this I get a feel for the sense of place, the history, the general demographic and who of course has set the benchmark with regards to garden design.

By and large it’s always a pretty mixed bag; from the big house with no garden scenario through to the occasional gem that is discretely hidden by decades of growth and then everything in between. Some people are very house proud and give their garden a spit and polish, well usually a hose down. Then there are those that feel that their runabout looks just fine carving a wake through foot high Kikuyu.

A front garden says a lot about a person and that’s why I always like to start there. Whilst some clients may request our services for a specific problem, generally they require an appraisal of the whole site, an overview of the strengths and opportunities.

SGS_Everything in this one

The first thing I do once greetings are out of the way is to drag the clients out on to the street to take a look at their house from the outside in, from a visitor’s perspective. It is very easy for a professional to pick apart the problems and provide recommendations to improve. Clients often just get used to things. The front garden is not a place to become complacent. Unless of course that same complacency extends through the house and all the way to the back fence.

The front garden should provide a taste of what we will find on the inside.

That is particularly easy with a major overhaul but not every client is in the position for such change or may be holding off due to larger house renovations planned down the track. That doesn’t mean that a staged approach can’t be considered though.

In most cases the first design element I concentrate on is the larger vegetation requirements because that is usually the biggest problem. As home renovation continues to spread, the houses become more and more imposing on the street scape. Trees and large screening shrubs are often cleared for new homes and renovations and then replacement ones often overlooked with the new garden design. Of course it is human nature that we want our house to at least look different to our neighbours and if we are honest better would be favourable too. As a consequence we end up with quite a mix of architectural styles in some streets and it is very hard to appreciate these when there is no filter between them.

Front and side hegdes

I always ask our clients who is the garden for, is it for you or for the street? And by that I mean are we to screen you off from the street providing maximum privacy and a green outlook from windows and doors or are we to ensure the house is not concealed and that particular details are always visible, catering to an open outlook in both directions.

Front hedge

Gardens settle the architecture into the streetscape and regardless of what height the front boundary planting may be, it is essential that we cater for some large scale planting at least on the side boundaries. When I look at the subject garden I want to enjoy as much as possible about just that house and garden. Not a behemoth of a house towering next door and the one next door to that.

Planting to screen neighbours

This approach of screen planting on the side boundaries then frames the view and separates us from our neighbours, providing a more sympathetic delineation between properties, regardless of whether the architecture is contrasting or harmonious.

Scree planting on front side boundary

I also like to see at least one tree providing a filter between the house and the neighbourhood beyond. There are not many houses that wouldn’t look better behind a tree. A well selected and positioned tree should provide the appropriate scale against the house. Not too large and of course not too small.

A feature tree will also provide a change of microclimate for underplanting plus the opportunity for up lighting and even down lighting as it matures.

Feature tree for filter

Of course the garden still needs to be massaged around the structural layout. Is there off street parking and how do pedestrians get from a to b? Is the garden level or are there major level changes? The structural components provide many design opportunities when resolving retaining walls and or floor surfaces. Steps are always a great design opportunity, get these right and you don’t usually require too many other tricks. Once the access has been resolved the front boundary can be considered. Local development controls always need to be reviewed at this stage. How high is permissible and with what degree of transparency. Are we keeping people out or children and animals in? Is an intercom required? What about numbers and letterboxes?

Screen planting and letterbox

The front boundary can get very tricky and that is why you see so many houses with a real mish mash of bits and pieces collected over time or sadly in some cases newly installed. Lights, numbers, letterboxes and intercoms need to be co-ordinated; you cannot have too many different finishes here. They are little gestures that tell a big story, a design opportunity to tell the neighbourhood who lives inside, regardless of the house façade. A good example is older homes. Restoration is not so popular anymore, rather a mix of old and new. The planting may remain soft and classic to compliment the period of the home, but the hardware, the shiny bits and pieces we use to adorn our houses and gardens, look great when taken in a more modern direction. Be careful here though, it is easy to overstep the mark. These items usually require professional input, particularly when customised which should always provide a better outcome.

Screen planting to boundaries and customised hardware

Garden bling in a front garden should be approached cautiously. Subtlety is the key in most situations. Water features are unlike children here, they should be heard but not seen if they are even required at all. They can be handy in areas close to busy roads; they do provide a sound filter, enabling you to tune in to the trickle rather than the traffic.

Screen plantimng and water feature for sound filter in front courtyard

Water feature at front for sound filter

Sculpture is nice but works best when placed carefully, to be viewed predominantly from the inside not on show to the street. Some carefully selected pots are a nice touch. One pot to either side of the door often works better than a matching pair.

Lighting is necessary at least for safety purposes, particularly when steps are involved. But lighting can also be used to highlight features and keep lowlights in the shadows. It is lovely for guests to arrive during the day or at dusk, and then depart in the evening to experience the garden at night, providing a whole new perspective that at night can be enjoyed in complete isolation from neighbouring properties. Remember to keep it simple though, Christmas only comes once a year.

Front gardens often are the last frontier. Clients understandably invest first in the rear garden to maximise the usability. I have tended to start at the front with every house I have owned because first impressions always count.

Call me Mr Jones. Catch me if you can.