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Hedging bets: Turn your front garden into an oasis of calm

Low-maintenance, attractive, a foil for rubberneckers...there's nothing like a privet hedge to turn an urban front garden into an oasis of calm

A pushchair is a useful accessory when you are rubbernecking down city streets, taking in the front gardens of terraced houses. Standing on the pavement on my own, gazing intently at someone's downstairs window, I would certainly catch the attention of the local Neigbourhood Watch. But pottering along behind a pushchair, you are well disguised. It's got to have a baby in it, of course, preferably one between nine months and a year, old enough to take an intelligent interest in privet hedges and bay trees.

The wonderful thing about babies at this age is that they are riveted by anything you point them at. The fists clench and unclench, the feet twirl round like windmills, a series of strangely pitched squeaks and fantastic rumbles gives you conversation at least as interesting as Eminem's. And all for a privet hedge. "Mmm darling. Lovely," you murmur, and all the while you can be taking in the detail of the Victorian path, a happy survival in a sad make-over that has done away with the original slated roof and substituted uPVC windows for wood.

Privet hedges are miracles of survival. Turning into a street in say, Vauxhall or Stockwell or Brixton in south London, the first thing you notice is the presence or absence of green. Street trees are good, but even better, in many ways, are the little bulwarks of greenery that protect the houses from the street.

Some of the houses, at least. The worst streets are those given over to off-street parking. Estate agents flaunt OSP as a huge plus to would-be purchasers. I can't think of a bigger turn-off than arriving to view a house with all its defences torn down, a cracked, litter-strewn piece of concrete thrown over the earth, and the view from the front window filled with glittering tin.

Ah, the difficulty of parking. Ah the vandalism, say the defenders of OSP. Parking, for residents at least, is ceasing to be a problem in many city suburbs because of restrictive permit schemes. Vandalism and thievery will never go away. So, in a dodgy neighbourhood, perhaps you should drive the kind of car that even the keenest vandal would be ashamed to touch.

"You just don't understand about men and cars," my husband rightly says (he is very attached to his Alfa Romeo). I do understand about privet though and how it humanises a city street. It's uncomplaining too. Who ever thinks to feed a privet hedge? It would respond well though, if you did it, some time between now and next April.

They also respond well to cutting back and many of the ones I see, pushing the pushchair between the various playgrounds and swings provided by Lambeth Council, could do with hard pruning. It would release more breathing space in front of the windows. It would let in light for more gardening behind the hedge.

So if you are trying to reclaim a front garden where OSP has ruled, where do you start? By breaking up the concrete, though not the path to the front door, if that is still in place. Then I'd put in railings, mounted in a low brick wall – Leighton Ironcraft (020-3212 0077) do excellent replicas to suit any period. You notice, wandering round city streets, that where this has been done it has had an extraordinary effect on the way the house presents itself. Choose railings that are much fatter than at first seem appropriate.

After digging and manuring the earth, you have a choice: put back a hedge, or use the railings as a prop for a froth of clematis, the fiery trumpets of Campsis x tagliabuana 'Madame Galen' or a strawberry leaved vine. I'd leave those delights for the back garden and put in a hedge – privet of course. It will grow in sun or shade. Set young plants 12-18ins apart in the ground any time between now and April, and cut back all shoots by a half. Next year cut the new growth back by half again. This will make the plants bushy and strong. After that, clip them over in October and April. With that one simple manoeuvre, you will have done more for the "environment", as it is hideously referred to, than any government think tank.

Railings are one of the many delights of wandering through Edinburgh in the winter. The restrained detail of house fronts stands out in low winter light. All frippery has been pared away. From the National Gallery on The Mound in the centre of the city you can walk out to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art housed in an elegant building (set up in the 1820s as a home for fatherless boys) on Edinburgh's western edge. Elegant to us now, but terrifying perhaps to them, too big, too little like a real home, too forbidding.

The streets around here, Lynedoch Place Lane and the like, are lined with terraces of stone-built houses with small front gardens, about as wide as they are long. The one I liked best was laid out as a sunburst, naff turned witty. A stone paved path led to the front door with the garden on the right hand side of the path. The quarter circle of the sun was marked out in the top left hand corner of the garden, nearest the door. From this point, five equally spaced rays fanned out to the boundaries. The furthest ran along the top edge of the garden, parallel with the house and its area railings. The closest ran along the side of the path, with the other three rays carefully spaced between, widening as they moved out from the sun to the edges of the garden.

The whole design was planted in neatly clipped box with gravel paths between, retained in edges of steel. In the sun's own corner, an elegant Japanese maple rose from the quarter circle of clipped box. It looked like the coral bark maple, Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku' (the one that used to be called 'Senkaki'). Whatever it's called, it's a beauty, all the branches a soft, bloomed-over coral pink. Winter is its best season, better even than autumn when the leaves turn a good, clear yellow.

This was a simple idea, but it was beautifully done, the gravel carefully chosen to fit in with the colour of the stone fronts of the terrace, the edges crisp. And the maintenance minimal, if that's what your lifestyle dictates. Chance encounters like this lift the spirits immeasurably. Fortunately for me, there are also plenty of babies available at the moment, to share the pleasure of other people's front gardens.