transform your garden with cistus flowers

The United Kingdom has a global reputation as a nation of gardeners. Yet there is an aspect of our proud gardening heritage that’s at risk of extinction – the great British front garden.

Turn back the clock to the 1970s and suburbia thronged to the hum of lawnmowers at weekends. Gardeners pottered at the front of their properties, edging neatly trimmed lawns, tending flower borders of roses and dead-heading colourful summer bedding displays.

Fast forward to 2021 and swathes of our front gardens are in a sorry state – paved to create off-road parking or accommodate an array of waste and recycling bins. This has not gone unnoticed by the Royal Horticultural Society, which warned back in 2015 that more than five million front gardens had no plants growing in them whatsoever. Shockingly, four-and-a-half million front gardens were found to be completely paved over.

Our love affair with cars is the underlying cause of front garden decline. Congested roads where parking is a nightmare combined with lower insurance premiums for off-street parking explains why cars are winning the battle over plants. These disappearing green oases at the front of our homes come at a cost to struggling wildlife, while paved front gardens are increasingly blamed for contributing to flash flooding in towns and cities.

Fortunately, cars and plants can live in harmony in front gardens – and even a few changes will enhance biodiversity while keeping your motor secure off-road. Follow our five top tips for transforming a dreary front garden into a car-friendly horticultural haven.

1. Install a Living Driveway

install a living driveway

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Torrential downpours, where a month’s rain falls in a day, are becoming common due to climate change. Paved front gardens that have replaced grass are unable to soak up the deluge, ramping-up the risk of costly flooding. That’s why the government has tightened up permitted development rules so that if an area of front garden that’s more than five square metres is to be covered with impermeable materials, planning permission is required.

However, materials such as permeable block paving and porous asphalt are exempt, while gravel can provide an excellent base to park a car (and incorporating a small grass lawn and flower borders into a front garden, alongside a driveway, provides a natural soakaway). Reinforced plastic grids are available, too, that can be inserted into lawns to allow cars to be parked on grass, ensuring that tyres don’t churn the sward into a mud bath.

A cheaper alternative is to install two paved tracks, wide enough to accommodate a car’s wheels, and surround with tough, low-growing plants that won’t come a-cropper if they’re occasionally run over – try the dwarf, aromatic, purple-flowering thyme, Thymus serpyllum; creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), a golden-yellow, mat-forming evergreen, or Ajuga reptans, with a mat of dark leaves topped by low spikes of pollinator-friendly blue flowers.

trim your hedges to tidy your front garden

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2. Hedge Your Bets For Kerb Appeal

Planting a hedge creates a living barrier, screening front gardens from pollution and traffic noise, enhancing privacy and providing dense shelter for wildlife and nesting birds. There’s no longer a need to run extension cables to the front of houses to power electric hedge trimmers because a new generation of quiet, cordless hedge trimmers make it a joy to keep hedges neat. 

Yew (Taxus baccata) is a classic choice for a fine evergreen hedge that’s stylish and easy to maintain, boosting a home’s kerb appeal. Western red cedar (Thuja plicata) is popular, too, because it’s as dense as leylandii hedges but slower growing, forming an excellent conifer boundary.

Where security is an issue, consider Berberis thunbergii – its sharp spines will make intruders think twice, while forming a slow-growing, dense hedge that’s adorned with red berries in autumn. Box (Buxus sempervirens) used to be the first port of call for formal, low-growing hedging but as plants across the UK are being ravaged by box blight and box tree caterpillar, these once stately topiary specimens have suffered a dramatic fall from grace.

3. Compact Trees For Big Impact

plant small trees to avoid the roots damaging your house foundations

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Miniature trees provide welcome summer shade, soak up groundwater, can display fiery autumn hues and enhance biodiversity. Choose carefully however, because tree varieties that grow too big risk blocking light from properties while roots can damage a home’s foundations. Compact crab apple trees are favourites for glorious spring blossom while fruits are adored by wildlife. Try Malus ‘John Downie’ which rewards with an abundance of white flowers in April and May, followed by vibrant orange and red fruits.

For unbeatable springtime fanfare, opt for the compact Magnolia stellata which is smothered in ice-white, star-shaped flowers between March and April. Garden designers often sing the praises of Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Ballerina’ which is blanketed in showy white blooms in April, with bronze-tinged foliage maturing to green. Slow-growing Japanese maple trees are a winner for leaf colour, too, with a huge choice of Acer palmatum varieties that are renowned for spectacular autumn colour.

transform wheelie bin storage into wildlife haven

Credit: Newtben33 Wikimedia Commons

4. Turn Ugly Bins Into a Wildlife Haven

Landfill bins, recycling bins, green waste bins and compost caddies can be an eyesore in front gardens. Fortunately, DIY and garden retailers offer an array of wooden bin stores that can disguise ugly waste receptacles and it’s easy to add a wildlife-friendly green roof that’ll transform wheelie bin stores into a haven for butterflies, bees, birds and pollinating insects.

Green roof kits typically include a timber frame that provides drainage, waterproofing material and root barrier membrane, while specialist green roof compost should be used (compost will only need a depth of 5-10cm). Low-growing sedum and colourful sempervivums thrive in these inhospitable environments, with sedum matting available online for drought-resistant, textured, ornamental green roofs.

5. Grow Born Survivors

plant shrubs in your front garden

CREDIT Marc Miraille Pixabay

Most of us spend time enjoying our private back gardens, so it makes sense to plant shrubs out the front that thrive on neglect. Even where the majority of a front garden is paved, planting a shrub in a corner can soften a hard landscape.

The arching, strap-like leaves of architectural phormiums in shades of red and green create a natural, coastal atmosphere even in land-locked situations, and where soil is acidic, camellias work a treat with glossy foliage and glorious springtime blooms. Provided that soil is moisture-retentive, hydrangeas introduce a traditional cottage garden look.

There are plenty of plant varieties that will thrive without intervention in sun-soaked front gardens where soil is poor: aromatic lavender is a must (bees adore it) while the rock rose (Cistus x purpurascens) with its profusion of papery pink blooms is an ideal gap-filler that’s unbeatable for flower power.

Will you be transforming your front garden? Do you have any tips to turn your front garden into a car-friendly horticultural haven? Let us know in the comments.

Marc Rosenberg bio
Marc Rosenburg at Powderham Plant CentreMarc Rosenberg is a freelance garden writer and editor. A former journalist with Amateur Gardening and Horticulture Week magazines, he holds seven Garden Media Guild Awards. Marc has written for publications including The Garden magazine, BBC Gardeners’ World and RHS online.