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Property: These gardens are for you and the world

"The front garden is the great neglected area in British gardening," says Gay Search, who has written two books on the subject. "People who will spend a lot of time and love on the back are afraid of expressing themselves in the front. And yet it is so important. If you drive down a road and come across a beautiful front garden, it really lifts your spirits."

Isabel, who lives in central London, agrees. She has a passion for front gardens. "It's so important when you live in a city. When we take our children to the park, me and my friend Lucie are constantly looking at other people's front gardens, smelling flowers and getting ideas."

There is something altruistic about a front garden. Your back garden is just for you, the place you escape to, and what most people yearn for is privacy. But, like it or not, you share your front garden with the rest of the world. It is also the means by which the world makes its first judgement of you and your house.

Americans understand this. The rigour with which suburban America vies to have to have the best front lawn on the block is the nub of many a joke in films and on television. King of the Hill, the ultra-ironic adult cartoon, dedicated a recent episode to exactly that theme. In the film Burbs, the scariness of one family is denoted by the mess of their front yard.

In Britain - certainly inner-city Britain - the same rules do not, sadly, apply. Most front yards have become a place to dump the rubbish and the car. But not all; the wise understand that this little space between the front room and the street can be a haven that separates a happy house from the city outside.

"The front garden really matters," says Isabel. "It can serve all sorts of functions when you are inside the house. It offers privacy, it distances you from noise and it gives you the view from your front room."

It can also be useful. Isabel's friend Lucie lives in a flat with her two children, and her only outside space is the front garden. She has turned the space - barely 8ft deep - into a play area. The fence on to the street is low so it is nice and light, and she has painted the inside of the wood bright blue. She has nurtured a patch of wild flower meadow where the children can sow seeds and watch them grow, and beside this is a miniature sand pit. Last year's Christmas tree grows on in a border and the children decorate it all year round. And it still provides a home for the dustbins.

Even if you are set on a car space, that is no excuse for making it unattractive. "If you pave the area, leave space for some plants," says Ms Search. "Get a couple of really big tubs, maybe something formal like a lollypop shrub, and then change the flowers underneath it with the seasons. It doesn't have to be difficult; choose easy care, low-growing shrubs. If it's north facing, go for something formal - gravel with shrubs around or maybe a block of something like white busy lizzies.

"Use the features you have. You can make lovely little Victorian-style front gardens. If you have a tesselated path, pick up the colours from it with plants. You can do really imaginative things like using coloured grasses to make patterns."

It doesn't really matter what you do, just do something. "People should make an effort to make it living and colourful - don't worry about what the neighbours say, just do it," says Ms Search. "It makes such an important impression. Any estate agent will tell you that. "

q "Front Gardens" and "More Front Gardens", by Gay Search, are published by BBC Books.