Landscape designer Catherine FitzGerald explains how you can give your front garden a makeover in time for summer, whatever the size …
I am always peering into front gardens, over walls and gate piers and through railings, or stopping dead in my tracks to wonder at something startling: a towering blue Echium spike (Giant Viper’s bugloss), or the winning combination of purple wisteria and a yellow banksia rose flowering at the same time on a townhouse wall. Rather overgrown abandoned ones can be just as tantalising as something new and exciting. I remember one particularly atmospheric front garden with a winding path leading to an faded duck egg blue door with a dusty fanlight, silvery cardoons and Giant Snowflakes (Leucojum) in the unkempt grass. It was so romantic I wondered about it for days. I’m a hazard in the car: when the traffic slows down, there I am craning my neck out the window to get a better look at something, then suddenly it stops and I find myself careering into the back of Ford Galaxy with one of those irritating Baby on Board signs on the back.
During the pandemic, front gardens have really come into focus more than ever before. Whether you have a generous space where you can plant a tree, shrubs and perennials, or a small square of gravel to bring to life with a group of pots, we long to look at something uplifting as we pound up and down the same streets or to the park and back. Chatting to neighbours over the garden wall or having friends for a socially distanced drink by the doorstep have all become the norms over the last year. It’s so good to be able to enliven the senses and the conversation at the same time: scent, colour, texture and the buzz of insects and “Can you please tell me the name of that gorgeous claret geranium?” A friend of mine held her daughter’s birthday out front during the last lockdown, putting a rug down, and a table and chairs for various aunties and Granny to sit on, hanging bunting from the porch to the pollarded lime on the street. And what about cheering up the postman?
We can all manage a window box but it’s refreshing to get away from the predictable tidy-looking annuals grabbed at the garden centre. Last summer I noticed a really clever all-year-round scheme. The planter was a generous size which is key – more space to get soil in – which means healthier plants. The structure and year-round interest was provided by Golden twig dogwood (Cornus stolonifera “Flaviramea”). Amongst its glossy green leaves and lacy white flowers was interplanted handsome Agapanthus: a dark blue mid-sized variety, “Northern Star.” Coming through the narrow strap-shaped leaves was the purple May/June-flowering Allium “Purple Sensation” – all doing their thing fabulously together. In autumn, the bright green dogwood leaves turn yellow and pink and then fall to reveal the dramatic vertical golden stems giving winter interest as well – the addition of snowdrops would be the perfect final cheering touch.
Front gardens whatever size they are do benefit from a good strong structure that holds the design in place all year round – I often use Magnolia stellata or M “Merrill” as the key specimen tree. Box is becoming less and less viable because of the spread of Box blight (though Buxus “Faulkner” does seem to be slightly resistant variety). Euonymus varieties, Hebe, Choisya “Aztec Pearl,” Pittosporums and Taxus baccata (yew) are increasingly coming to the fore. Rather than framing the plan with the traditional box hedge edge, I tend to arrange hummocky evergreen yew domes of different sizes to “bolt down” the scheme which I keep “cloud pruned.” I plant them off centre perhaps or in alternate corners – in groups of three or five – with looser, softer planting spreading around their feet onto the gravel or paving. In another corner or at the turn of a step I might use Pittosporum “Golfball” as a punctuation mark – a fantastic neat shape which barely needs clipping. Pittosporum tenuifolium “Cratus” is wonderful for a less definite looser cloud-like effect and Pittosporum tobira “Nanum” is perfectly dome-shaped and lush and glossy all year round. I love them planted in a carpet of the Japanese grass Hakonechloa macra and if there is room for a tree fern (or three) the exotic green effect using only three different elements is devastatingly chic.
Once the structure is in place it’s time to have some fun with the lighter frothier planting. If the garden is in shade, the very low but tough Geranium macrorrhyzum “White Ness” is invaluable. Its neat, carpetty leaves always look a good matte green which get a touch of pink in autumn and the small white plentiful flowers brighten up dark corners. I often plant it with White Foam flower, Tiarella “Iron Butterfly”, Tellima grandiflora (Fringe cups), Brunnera “Jack Frost” for its frosted leaves and Euphorbia “amygdaloides var Robbiae”. Clumps of the Chilean Libertia grandiflora provide an exotic spiky foil for the hummocky shapes and delicate white butterfly-like flowers in May. The biennial white foxglove carries the scheme on with its vertical accents in midsummer and Anemone “Honorine Jobert” can come into play in September. Spring summer and autumn bulbs come and go – always a talking point – snowdrops or winter aconite give joy in the dead of winter and early spring.
If the garden is south-facing, I often plant the evergreen shapes in a sea of Gaura “Whirling Butterflies” which never stops flowering and gives a wild romantic feel. Taller diaphanous Verbena bonariensis planted at the back mixes well with grasses such as Golden oat grass (Stipa gigantea) if there is enough space, to soften and shimmer in the evening light, or smaller Stipa tenuissima. And I can’t do without Euphorbia characias subsp. “Wulfenii” – and the dotey self-seeding Mexican daisy which soon smiles out at you from every corner.
Let’s hope the postman approves!
Catherine FitzGerald is a landscape designer based between London and Ireland.
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