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Any advice for a newbie's front garden?

Hi all

I'm wondering if I can possibly pick your brains (and I apologise in advance, this is a loooong post!).

I'm looking for advice/inspiration for my front garden.  It's an awkward triangular shape, gently sloping, and has really dense clay soil.  It's south-east facing and largely unshadowed so on sunny days it's lovely most of the day, but that dries out the soil into brick-like clumps, and on wet days (of which there are many in Gr Manchester) gets all claggy and lumpy - so i tend not to do much out there as digging is so flaming exhausting!  It has been undergoing a major overhaul for the last few years, caused in the main by issues inherited from the planting and layout choices of the previous occupants, so it's now by and large a blank slate - and since i know nothing about gardening, is pretty intimidating.

We have taken out 5 x 40' conifers, replaced the (old, rotting) fence with a shiny new one, lifted and relaid the flags running along the front of the house (to sort the drains that had been assaulted by roots of said 40' conifers), removed about half a tonne of gravel (since reused elsewhere) and re-levelled the ground where the previous occupants had removed a pond and various shrubs before they moved out.

The only plants remaining are a gorgeous pieris something-or-other (blazing red at the moment) which was about 25' tall and all stringy as it had been all but consumed by two of the aforementioned conifers but has reacted well to being chopped to a more sensible 6', and a rose bush which has refused to allow my naive ministrations to limit its lifespan.  There's also an azalea (about 2' tall) which was relocated to the back garden when we started major groundworks, that i'd like to bring back to the front again.

Here's a carefully highlighted chunk of a google map to show you what I'm on about as my descriptive skills are lacking:


 with the pink blob being my pieris, two dark green blobs are my neighbours holly bushes, and the pale green blob my neighbours gigantic conifer (recently lopped to about 20' tall, is at least 8' in diameter).  As you can see, the path bisects an already silly-shaped space into two long thin areas.  It's 44' from gate to front door, sloping down towards the house.  We will have lawn in most of the lower triangle area south of the path, but the area north of the path is baffling me.  We will have a bit of lawn up here too, but I'd really love some plants up against our new fence.

Does anyone have any ideas for planting?  I keep cruising round the garden centre but there are just so many options (and I want them all) that I haven't made a single decision yet.

In a nutshell, I need plants that can cope with heavy clay - although I'm happy to (let my husband) dig it over and add more sand, full sun for most of the day, not mind getting a  little bit waterlogged if it rains for 5 days on the trot, will complement the pieris, can tolerate but not attract cats (we have one, and there are at least 15 others in the surrounding houses) and cope with small children kicking footballs into them.  And maybe provide year-round interest.  And not need too much technical knowledge/ability to maintain.  It's not too much to ask, is it?!

Thanks in advance,



  • Thank you Verdun, they all sound like great suggestions.  I've just googled the sacred bamboo and like the idea of colour-changing in autumn - it would be a great counterpoint to the pieris doing the same in springtime.  I'm not sure about hydrangeas - i do like them, but every house on my street has at least one and i have two in the back garden... although i could potentially move one of them to the front - do they mind being moved?

    Ferns are already on my list - having been to the fern garden at Cragside years ago, I've fancied a fern-tastic garden, but didn't realise i could put them somewhere so sunny!  This changes everything image

    Moving the path has actually been on the "might do" list for two years now, and recently taken off again - partly because we've run out of energy for moving concrete flags (again) and partly because I don't want to spoil the symmetry of our little cul-de-sac, weird as it sounds (paths to 8 houses all radiate out from the access path).  The real reason we're turfing most of the front area is for when i inevitably change my mind and decide to move the path after all - it won't be too heartbreaking to carve up the lawn.

  • hogweedhogweed Posts: 4,053

    Have you thought about lifting all the grass and replacing it with gravel? Then using small groups of plants in the gravel a la Beth Chatto? That way you could concentrate on improving small areas at a time.

    'Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement' - Helen Keller
  • Hi Hogweed, I'm pretty set on having lawn - mainly cos most of it is already there and i can't afford to change it; also because there are so many cats about: when we first moved in the whole of the front was gravel and conifers, and it was the biggest cat toilet.  I think gravel is a bit too much like cat litter in their minds image

    I've spent the evening reading up on Beth Chatto, though, and now i want a trip to Essex!  Her gravel garden does look stunning.  Thank you for bringing her work to my attention!

  • Katherine WKatherine W Posts: 410

    Just a thought that hydrangeas, ferns, and hakonechloa are rather half-shade to full shade plants, or at least they are here, in SW France... maybe they can take the full sun in the UK, but they would be fried to crumpets here... so just to make double sure, ask the "natives" image

    Whenever designing a garden or a piece of garden, I always think, first thing, WHEN I am going to spend time here? If it is an area where right in front of the house, or beside a main path, the answer is "year round", so I would make double sure to plant lots of things for high summer, autumn and winter intrest (spring will always take care of itself). Make sure you have at least one shrub for each season, and add smaller erbaceous material in front and in between shrubs.

    Again think of having some intresting perennial for all seasons.Browse lists of plants "by season", and pick things you like, then try to visualize combinations of them before deciding on what to buy. Especially in a small place you want to get decent colour combinations... clashing contrasts can be uplifting, but work better in big places, where they can be spread out a bit (jmho).

    Add climbers if you can, to use vertical space on the fence and walls (if the neighbour allows). And leave some empty nooks for annuals. They are too much fun to leave them out altogether. image

    But before doing anything, I'd really really really take the time to work on that clay... it can be terribly frustrating to plant stuff that just peters out in the tough soil or struggles and mopes and nevr take off. The difference in a well dug, well fed soil is unbelievable.

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