Garden: How to put up a good front

What are the best flowers and shrubs to make the most of that awkward space outside the house? Ursula Buchan advises
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Over the past 30 years, the look of our towns and large villages has been transformed by the widespread rejection of traditional street patterns, in favour of the many-branched cul-de-sacs of private housing estates. This has had social and architectural implications but what interests me is the challenge it has presented to householders to design the public space in front of their houses.

It may seem hard, initially, to know how to lay out such a front garden. The area is never extensive and can often be measured in only a few square feet; instead of being rectilinear or square, as is usual for the traditional street front garden, it can sometimes be L-shaped or even partly curved. In the case of semi-detached houses, the garden will probably be shared, without intervening hedge, with "next door".

If you live on a modern estate, you cannot fail to have noticed that your neighbours plant this space in many different ways. For many, the obvious solution seems to be putting it all down to grass, while others prefer to plant a row of dwarf conifers or an impenetrable shrubbery, a patch of hybrid tea roses or even a tiny wild-flower meadow. No doubt, it has struck you that some solutions are more successful than others.

The space outside your house is important to you and to your neighbours who look out on it. It can be highly indicative of your personality, which may or may not be an uncomfortable thought. It is what you pass as you dash out of the house in the morning, and it is there when you park the car at night; you want it to look at least presentable, and preferably colourful and welcoming. Yet wind-borne litter clings to its plants, children ride their bikes over it, the soil is often thin and even rubbly, there is a damp-proof course in the house wall that you must not cover and there are ground-floor windows that you won't want to shade.

You have a challenge on your hands, but not an insurmountable one. After all, there are some points in this space's favour: it is likely to be protected by the surrounding houses from high winds and bad frosts; winter temperatures will be higher than in gardens in open countryside; even if the space is not actually in full sunshine, at least it won't be shaded too closely by high buildings and other people's hedges and trees. And, if you are on good terms with your next-door neighbour, you can consider designing the space together.

What is required are plants that will give you some colour and interest throughout the year. At least a proportion should be fragrant, for you need something to gladden your heart at the end of the working day. As the area is probably flat, you will need a few taller, conical shapes and ground-huggers. The plants do not need to be bone-hardy, but they should be able to exist in poor, free-draining soil. They must be short and should not have a dense habit. All should be sturdy enough to discourage bike riders and should be slow-growing and never invasive. They also should have shallow, non-questing roots, unlikely to block drains.

A lawn is often a waste of time. Mowing will mean carting the lawnmower from the shed in the back garden, which will be irritating; discarded sweetie papers will show up on the green sward; and the area is likely to be too small for a lawn to look anything but makeshift and dull.

It is an understandable reaction to plant such an area with dwarf conifers. They have shallow, fibrous, unthreatening roots, are short in stature, and are evergreen, so that there is all-the-year-round colour. The problem is that a number of dwarf conifers don't stay dwarf and many look the same all year round. The colour of the foliage changes so subtly that you may not notice it; you will have little sense of the changing seasons. I am not ruling out dwarf conifers, in fact they have a place here, but only if leavened with a good sprinkling of deciduous plants and flowering evergreens.

Depending on the size of the plot, my choice would include: a small deciduous tree with an airy branch system, such as one of the `snakebark' maples which, if necessary, can be grown as a multi-stemmed shrub rather than a tree; well-mannered deciduous shrubs, with scented flowers, fruit or good autumn colour, such as Viburnum x juddii; woody sub-shrubs with evergreen or semi-evergreen leaves, that thrive in a poor soil in full sun, and are highly fragrant; evergreen ground cover plants; and plenty of flowering bulbs to add colour in spring. If the house has a porch, I would pick a scented pillar rose, to entwine with a late-flowering clematis, as not being too vigorous for this situation. The lists in the box (opposite) are just a small selection of the many plants which are suitable for such a space.

Plants For The Front Garden

Trees: Acer capillipes, A davidii; Betula pendula `Laciniata' (syn `Dalecarlica'); Malus tschonoskii, M coronaria `Charlottae'

Low growing evergreen shrubs and sub-shrubs: Artemisia stelleriana `Boughton Silver'; Ceanothus thyrsiflorus `Repens'; Chamaecyparis lawsoniana `Minima Glauca'; Daphne retusa, D tangutica; Euonymus fortunei varieties eg `Silver Queen' and `Coloratus', which also will slowly climb a wall; Hebe albicans, H x franciscana `Blue Gem','Pewter Dome', H pimelioides `Quicksilver'; Juniperus horizontalis `Wiltonii'; J communis `Compressa'; Lavandula `Loddon Blue' (makes an excellent low hedge on either side of a curved or straight path), L spica `Hidcote', L stoechas (in a sheltered sunny spot); Santolina chamaecyparissus `Nana'; Sarcococca humilis (intensely fragrant flowers in winter)

Evergreen perennials: Bergenia `Sunningdale' (autumn colour, winter flowers); Dianthus (Modern garden pinks) (summer-flowering; scented); Grasses eg Helictotrichon, Festuca

Pillar roses: `Golden Showers'; `Leaping Salmon'; `Highfield', `Celine Forestier'

Clematis: `Hagley Hybrid'; `Mme Edouard Andre'; `Victoria'