The front garden and the back garden are very different beasts, and this is especially true if your front garden is visible (as mine currently is) to passers by. The front garden is a framing device for the house, a semi-public space which will be passed through on one’s way elsewhere. Architects call this ‘negative space’, as opposed to ‘positive space’ for dwelling in, and in my opinion the main purpose of a front garden is to be functional as one passes through it – and to please the eye when looked at from a variety of viewpoints. At the rear of the house one gardens purely for oneself: at the front of the house one gardens for the neighbourhood.
Although both front and back will be influenced by the style of the house, the issue is not just one of degrees of design formality: it is that one is public, the other private. I would no more sit out in my front garden within view of the street than I would have a picnic by the side of a motorway. I suspect that many people instinctively feel the same way: I defy you to find anyone out in their own front garden who is not engaged in some form of garden, household or vehicle maintenance. In my own highly idiosyncratic book of etiquette, it is acceptable to catch the eye of someone in their front garden, and say hello. This rule does not hold in the back garden: the pretense must be maintained at all costs that one does not notice one’s neighbour talking loudly – merely yards away – on the other side of a porous hedge. Palpable squirming ensued on both sides of the boundary earlier this year when my then seven year old heard our (lovely) next door neighbours in their back garden and cheerfully yelled a greeting through the hedge at them, before I could stop him. He knows better now.
Modern houses often have large expanses of glazing – frequently floor to ceiling – and the treatment of the front garden in relation to them needs careful thought in order to preserve the balance of maintaining views and light while ensuring privacy. I do not share the apparent insouciance of the inhabitants of many glass houses featured in architectural magazines, who seem happy to carry out their daily lives permanently on display. Frankly, it makes me twitchy even to think of it.
Our house has four main areas of glazing (and one minor vertical slit window) on the elevation facing the street, all of which need some form of screening. The first storey window is currently my study (from which I write this post), and a wooden slatted blind on the inside controls of views in and out. As an aside, during the design process we noticed that The Blind seems to be the only form of window dressing even remotely acceptable to contemporary architects. God forbid you should besmirch their lovely clean lines with a curtain. Time after time our request for hanging space for curtains in the bedrooms would be noted (with, I now realise, a barely suppressed shudder); time after time that hanging space would fail to materialise on the plans.
The first of the main glazed elements on the ground floor consists of the front entrance, behind the outer storm door which is closed (above left) at night but usually kept open during the day (above right). The picture below left is taken with the storm door open, from the inside of the glass panel looking south towards the front garden. The glazed panel at the entrance is fixed – the inner front door is around the side and to the left of you as you look out. This conceit of a fixed panel and unobtrusive offset front door is a mixed blessing: while undeniably a masterstroke of pleasing design, we have had enough people walk smack into the glass thinking they were walking into the house to need to put a bench in front of it (or, as is visible in the photo below right, to hang a wreath on it) to prevent the buildup of piles of dazed visitors and delivery men.
The photo above right is taken from the deck in the courtyard back garden, looking through two sets of glazing towards the road*. It turned out that it was this location rather than the direct approach along the datum that really needed screening, because an unintended consequence of the building angles meant that there was a direct sight-line from the pavement on the street outside directly through the glazing to the courtyard deck. This destroyed any sense of privacy, and I felt thoroughly unsettled while I looked for a design solution.
After much musing** and sketching out various options, I settled on a large rectangular bed abutting the slate datum, planted with a stylized interpretation of a birchwood (I will keep the planting list for another post). The bed was carefully positioned to be at a distance where the multi-stemmed birch trees would break the sight-lines and thus screen the courtyard deck from sight of the road, and at the same time provide enough space between it and the house for private parking for household members.
This solution is proving highly satisfactory: the trees are in leaf during the summer when we are likely to be sitting outside on the deck – in the winter it does not matter. The next project is what to plant between the house and the road to screen the view from my husband’s study and the TV room (the large floor to ceiling glass window to the far left of the house and the horizontal slit window, respectively).
I am planning to continue the beech hedging along the boundaries by the road, and to plant panels of beech with gaps in it between the grey slate datum and the lawn. I have spent much of today pacing the front garden, armed with 50m tape measures and bamboo canes, squinting along sight lines. More on this later.
* The reflections in the glass are as delightful as they are confusing: the green sunlit lawn to the right in the photograph is in fact the reflection of the back garden behind the camera. Our house is characterised by myriad reflections, inside and out, and I will write a post solely about them at some point. It has taken the dogs a while to adjust though.
** I could never make my living from garden design: it takes me even more time to come up with a design that pleases me than it does to write these posts.