11 ways to give your front garden a makeover

Bunny Guinness shares her tips for creating the perfect first impression
Bunny Guinness shares her tips for creating the perfect first impression - Tony Buckingham

The front garden, and the area directly around the front door, is often a neglected, under-utilised space. Yet you see it every day, each time you enter and leave the house, and it gives visitors that all-important first impression of your home. If you’re planning to sell your home, this prime space really counts, so it’s worth putting in a little effort to ensure you make it look as good as possible. Here are 11 things to try that will give the front garden a lift.

Position your parking wisely

Cars, tarmac and oil tanks or heat-exchange units are too often the most dominant features at the front of the house. If drivers are able to pull their bumpers up to the threshold of the front door, they will. If you design it so that this is not encouraged, and people are forced to walk a few metres to get to the door, your scope for creating a welcoming façade widens massively.

Visitors usually get their signal of where to park by taking the cue from existing parked cars. If you have the space, and can move your cars to a less prominent position – perhaps on one side, or possibly behind a lowish hedge – then visitors will follow suit. My ideal is to try to keep the front elevation clear and tuck the cars behind something, be it trellis, planting or a wall.

Separating space: use hedges and trellises to break up the driveway from your garden
Separating space: use hedges and trellises to break up the driveway from your garden - Tony Buckingham

In my own front garden, as I have the luxury of a decent-sized courtyard, I have separated the drive/car-accessible area from the garden area. I used yew hedges broken up by stone piers to form a mixed green and masonry wall so cars are now invisible from the front garden – bliss! I have made low trellis fences with scrolls and gates (I copied them from Villandry)  to the two entrance paths from the car area to the front and back doors. We all noticed the difference when the gates went in; for some reason, we felt far more secure, even though the gates are frequently open.

Choose a surface that suits

The surface you choose for the area outside your house is key. Tarmac is practical but it really shrieks “car park”. Gravel is Marmite – some love it, some hate it – but usually, the latter reaction is due to its being incorrectly laid, often so deep that you have to wade through it, and frequently made up of rounded (rather than angular) particles, so it does not knit together.

Choosing the best size of gravel is important. It’s not straightforward, but I tend to go for 18mm down (the down indicates it has smaller particles in it too, which helps it to bind), angular particles (for better cohesion), and have them laid about 25mm deep. The colour you choose will depend on your area: in the East Midlands, for example, we have a lot of honey-coloured gravel, which goes well with the stone buildings.

Driveway, stone paving
Use a mixture of surfaces such as paving and gravel to mix textures in the entrance to your home - Marianne Majerus

A combination of surfaces can be the solution. At a recent front garden I worked on, the slope was too extreme for gravel, and very small, so the continual manoeuvring of cars would have left loose gravel very “scuffed”. The bound gravel options, where the gravel is stabilised, are feasible, but they are generally quite pricey and very perfect-looking.

Instead, we decided to go for more affordable Indian stone setts (small units of paving around 100x100mm), but were able to limit them to the steeper rectangle in front of the house, and use loose gravel for the rest.

Soften the space with planting

Planting within the gravel softens it, and the plants will self-sow and establish in the areas where the tires tend not to roll. Adding in a pattern of stone setts or bricks laid flush with the gravel immediately allows you to create a strong shape within a gravel area. You can create a rectangular, oval or square shape – or whatever shape complements your house best – using the setts, and fill the inside of the shape mainly with gravel.

Stipa gigantea, clipped box ball, Alchemilla mollis, Erigeron karvinskianus and hylotelephium syn. sedum in front garden border by driveway
Softening space: Plenty of planting makes a driveway less imposing - Marianne Majerus

We created a rectangular shape with stone setts at a garden project and added a baseless pot on each of the four corners of the rectangle, with small trees in them to create greenery at eye level. It now looks more like a courtyard than a carpark, and helpfully it deters cars from driving into the central area, although when it’s raining hard or an elderly friend visits, it can be used for parking.

Delivery drivers are always in a hurry, so make it easy for them. A secure box or something similar, placed conveniently for you and them, so that they can come and go with as little hassle as possible, can work well.

Deploy colour

My daughter, Unitym changed the colour of her front door recently, to a bold pink, and it transforms the look of her early Victorian Stamford terrace house; strangers even stop her in the street and admire it. It also makes her house very easy for visitors to find: no one misses the one with the snazzy pink door.

Unity Guinness ( Bunny's daughter) at her home Stamford. Dolly the dog.
Tickled pink: Unity Guinness, pictured with her dog at her home in Stamford, Lincolnshire, chose a bold colour for her front door - Tony Buckingham

Paint colour does make such a massive difference and sends a strong signal. The basic rule is that bright white (that only came into being in the 20th century) really punches out. So if you have windows or doors that are not appropriate to your house’s age or are just plain ugly, this is the worst colour to choose.

A pale sludgy grey/green really knocks back ugly window frames and works well with brick and stone. There is no shortage of subtle lichens, greys and the like to choose from. A lot of the designer paints have a short repaint interval, so I often copy them using Jotuns or Zinsser paints; Brewers (brewers.co.uk) are extremely useful here, as they have a machine that will copy a colour pretty accurately from a sample.

Use pots and plants

Pots in front of a property are like candles on a cake. They can also help to signal to visitors where to go. I discovered a clever idea developed by Luke and David Hoskins of Lead it Be. Apart from making all things lead, they make lead planters with two or three sides so you can use them to disguise a plant in a not-too-great pot. This gives you great flexibility for wheeling out sequential pots of beautifully flowering bulbs, annuals or whatever, without having to repot each time.

Use plant pots to direct guests to the front door, like these ones developed by David and Luke Hoskins of Lead It Be
Use plant pots to direct guests to the front door, like these ones developed by David and Luke Hoskins of Lead It Be - Tony Buckingham

Nearly all my pots are baseless, to remove maintenance and to give healthy plants. My house, like many, has various different ages and additions, from the 13th century to the 20th century. I use repeated quince trees (in baseless pots) to link the different façades around the courtyard. By planting a small tree in a baseless pot you can position it near the building and still walk under the tree. You need some green at eye level to pull the architecture together.

I frequently use this strategy; it softens all manner of architectural sins, and you can position the trees to highlight your architectural gems. I often paint the pot the same colour as the doors and windows to link the garden and buildings.

Big it up with topiary

I formed a topiary yew from a self-set seedling that fell in the perfect place. I love this; it’s a metre or so from my front door and is now pretty imposing at around 2.5 metres high. I am looking for a huge old church bell to go near it so that frustrated visitors can make a din when everyone is gallivanting elsewhere outside.

Bunny trimming her topiary yew
Bunny trimming her topiary yew - Tony Buckingham

In other gardens I have highlighted the front door by putting a hornbeam arch around it and widening the steps up to the door. I am currently making a couple of yew arches in the garden, and they are much quicker to form than I thought. All the pruning of the sides really speeds up the vertical growth it seems, and in four years, from a 90cm plant I will have a decent 1.8-metre yew arch over a trough.

Pay attention to the porch

Porches are often perfect places to sit in, and can really elevate a front door. Simple wood trellis ones with timber shingles on the roof look good, and wire trellis as an arch for a climber can really lift a front door. Luke from Lead it Be transformed an old fire surround he found in a skip and upcycled it by adding timber posts to give it extra height. Now it is ready to give a distinctive touch to a doorway. Old fire surrounds are inexpensive to pick up on eBay and the like, and adapted in this way, they can add a distinctive look to a doorway.

Hebe rakaiensis around brick steps leading to front door, Rosa 'Iceberg' hydrangeas
There are multiple ways to transform your porch and make it different - Marianne Majerus

Grow lush planting for privacy

When I visited the actor Jim Carter’s house in north London, I was hugely impressed with the garden that he and his wife Imelda Staunton have made, especially the front garden. The planting was generous and lush, enabling the two actors to sit out there enjoying a glass of wine without being ostentatiously “on show”: the Queen and the butler having a cosy chat! Even a couple of small trees can create a degree of privacy for both the garden and the house.

Additionally, if you have room for a small bowl of water and a bird feeder, you will be surprised at how the level of birdsong increases and your perception of less desirable noises is reduced. Other front gardens have become the perfect space to grow some veg. Good-looking raised beds kept well stocked throughout the year can look pretty impressive, so you don’t necessarily need to banish the veg to the back garden.

Create privacy with generous planting
Create privacy with generous planting - Marianne Majerus

Get a gate

Gates to the front garden can be really key to how you use it, especially if you have dogs and young children. Quite a few clients remark that putting in high solid gates really does allow them to use their front gardens very differently. Incorporating a bell that rings in the house when the gate opens alerts you to the fact that someone is there.

Look at levels

It is always worth taking a good look at the levels to your driveway or front garden. At one fine Queen Anne house in the Cotswolds, the ground sloped from left to right across the perfectly symmetrical frontage, giving it a lopsided look. By bringing the right side up a bit, it transformed and gave visual balance to the property. I have come across this scenario a few times and the adjustment is never as invasive as you think; earth-moving nowadays, especially if you don’t have to remove or bring in materials from site, is way easier and cheaper than it was in Capability Brown’s day, when spades were the main tool.

Don’t forget scent

The one place I really love fragrant plants is by the doors. I have two Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ by the kitchen door; they have been in four years and grown to almost two metres in height from the tiny plants in three-litre pots that they started as, and are bushy and smothered in pale pink, highly fragrant flowers. It’s a stunning scent that even permeates the keyhole.

Jasminum polyanthum
Place plants like Jasminum polyanthum near your door to fill your home with sweet smells - Marianne Majerus

A Jasminum polyanthum sits nearby, in a pot so that it can be dragged under the porch and fleeced if the temperature falls below freezing. I love this vigorous, semi-evergreen plant that flowers from spring to summer with white, heavily scented star-shaped flowers. It twines up the outside entrance of the porch, reaching to around three metres in summer. Apparently the fragrance improves your sleep and is as effective as Valium for relieving anxiety.

Other favourites are Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, which has long-lasting yellow flowers on bare branches between December and March. My local garden centre and nursery, Welland Vale in Uppingham, stocks a good range of winter colour.

I make sure I have a great supply of scented plants to nestle by my kitchen door, whatever the time of year. Favourites for the summer are night scented stock, Zaluzianskya ovata (the night phlox) and tobacco plants, which come and go to make sure you always have a scented greeting.

Watch Bunny’s video How to Transform Your Front Entrance on YouTube and listen to the latest edition of her podcast Bunny in the Garden