A warm front: The truth about your front garden

The best way to get to know the people down your street is to get working on that patch just outside your door, says Emma Townshend

You will always hear it trotted out that people who live in big cities don't know their neighbours. Well, I know all my neighbours, and I'm pretty sure I have my front garden to thank.

A front garden is a way of spending time outside, watching the comings and goings, a talking point for conversation to begin and friendships to form. There's only one downside: I once interviewed some parks department gardeners who said that when they were putting out fancy bedding the job took three times as long as it should because of all the passers-by stopping and chatting. Yep, that ratio sounds about right.

When I first moved in, my front garden was covered with concrete thanks to the previous occupants. As a consequence, I never spoke to anyone else in the street, slipping back and forth to the Tube station like a ghost. But some time during the second summer, I hired a pickaxe and started, rather sweatily and unskilfully, to smash up the concrete.

One of my neighbours from up the street, Buster, who I'd never spoken to, but who happened to be meandering down the road in a pleasant fug, physically stopped me, climbing over the front wall to grab the pickaxe right out of my hands. "A woman shouldn't be doing that kind of work," he opined, forcefully, while swaying gently from side to side. I just had to stand and watch him for the next 10 minutes, after which I managed to convince him that we should both have some tea. I finished the job the next morning, early; while he was still in bed.

I got to know other neighbours that first year, too. One, Tommaso, an Italian who loves to chat, got into the habit of bringing his gardening things out whenever he saw me at work. "Now all the gardens will look better," he would pronounce, though I think his idea of "better" is quite a lot tidier than mine.

In the shortening autumn afternoons, my front garden remains a way to keep in contact with the other people living round me. Bonnie, a funny old lady, walks past and stops to chat about the rosemary I used to have, which was eaten away in its dotage by emerald-green beetles, fresh in from Turkey. Ten minutes go by while we stand talking in the weak sun. Then John comes past on his lunchtime trip to the cornershop. He is building a shed in his back garden of bits and pieces he salvages from other people's skips, and is in a good mood because he has just found a roof.

The postman weighs in with some feedback on my wisteria pruning; he's a landscape gardener in the afternoons. It's too cold now to stop still for long outside, but digging and bending and straightening all keep me warm for an hour or so. Twenty minutes of gardening, and about 40 minutes of conversation: it's a good recipe for a neighbourhood.

Get the look

Bright ideas

Your front garden is the one bit of outdoor space you have to look at every day, no matter how bitter the winter. Look for midwinter colour: flowering quince "Pink Lady" will have vivid blooms by late February. £9.99, crocus.co.uk

Let's talk scents

A big fragrant plant is always a talking point. Try rosemary "Miss Jessopp's Upright", with fine blue flowers on stems that can reach 2m high. £6.99, crocus.co.uk

Smarten up

Clear structure can help a front garden look tidy: try a few clean green box-balls. £24.99, crocus.co.uk

A hire purpose

Travis Perkins and other tool-hire companies are an amazing resource for the shedless gardener, with grass scarifiers, hedge trimmers, stump grinders and even just regular lawn mowers for those who prefer not to own power tools. hire.travisperkins.co.uk

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