Having a place to park a car by your home is important, there is no arguing about that. But is it more important than having an open green space to welcome you, visitors and nature to your front door?
As traffic increases and time-hungry householders opt to pave or concrete their driveway to avoid garden maintenance, there is little doubt the state of our front gardens is spiralling downwards.
Yet, points out horticulturist Joe Swift, the front garden should be the first point of a welcoming haven.
Swift, one of many gardening experts appearing in Great British Garden Revival, a new ten-part BBC 2 series starting on Monday, December 9, visited one such haven in award-winning Rockcliffe Avenue in Whitley Bay, north Tyneside, where residents have transformed their paved street with colourful plants and containers overflowing with flowers.
The result is not just aesthetic, residents have also reported a much greater sense of community, with kids no longer causing havoc in the street and people no longer dropping litter because the beautiful gardens have given them a sense of pride.
“A lot of people just concrete or pave their gardens over and just forget about the plants, but research shows how important plants are in reducing pollution, for wellbeing and house prices,” says Swift.
Creating a planting buffer between your home and traffic is also like putting a filter paper between you and the pollution, says Rob MacKenzie, professor of atmospheric science at Birmingham University.
“If you put plants very close to the traffic then they have a greater chance of soaking up the pollution and making a significant reduction, perhaps as much as 10 or 20 per cent,” he says.
Some three-quarters of households in Britain have cars, 40 per cent of those have two cars, and the increased use of concrete or paving to accommodate them has led to huge drainage problems in some areas.
Swift says there are products out there that can accommodate both plants and vehicles. In the BBC programme, he looks at reinforced hexagonal plastic mesh, which goes into the ground, and you can park your car on it when it has been filled with either gravel or plants. You lay it by firstly putting landscaping fabric over the soil to allow water to drain through and suppress weeds. Then, place a layer of sand on to the fabric and embed your mesh into it. Next, you fill your hexagonal slots with loamy topsoil and sand, which is perfect for sowing grass seeds. Sow the seed in late summer, early autumn or spring. Before long, the grass will be growing above the mesh, but you can drive a car over it.
Alternatively, use gravel or a combination of gravel and grass seeds or other low-growing plant, like thyme or camomile.
“It’s a way of softening the ground, but still making it durable and tough enough to drive a car on. There are several products out there and you can get them online.”
Herbaceous ground cover like hardy geraniums and alchemilla mollis are pretty tough and can easily be incorporated into many front gardens, he says.
“If your front garden is in a shady area you could go for plants such as hostas and ferns, anything that can take a bit of a battering and which you can get into the ground.”
He also recommends planting strongly- scented plants in your front garden, such as a Christmas box and a really tough evergreen, which you will notice as you enter or leave your front garden every day.
“Wintersweet is another good-scented plant, as are a lot of winter flowering viburnums, which can fill the whole street with an incredible fragrance.”
Eyesores, such as drainpipes, can easily be covered with climbing plants, which can be trained using a semi-circular trellis specifically designed to frame the drainpipe.
“People are very cautious about planting climbers up their houses, but as long as the pointing is sound before you start, plants like ivy and climbing hydrangea, which self-cling to the wall, can actually protect the wall and insulate the house.”
If you do not have soil, you can always plant climbers such as clematis armandii in pots and, provided you keep them well-watered and shade their roots by topping the pot of compost with decorative stones or gravel, they should soon start climbing up the trellis.
If you have a number of dustbins and recycling boxes, think about creating a trellis framework, which you can tuck them behind and then grow plants up it to screen the bins.
Those who live in urban areas may be more limited as to what they can grow because some plants do not thrive in highly polluted areas, Swift says.
“It depends how far back you are and if you have a physical barrier like a wall or a hedge between the garden and the road. Vegetables and herbs might not do so well in an extremely polluted area.
“But, according to research from Birmingham University, plants with small hairy leaves, like lavender and convolvulus cneorum will create a barrier as pollutants stick to them but will not kill them.”
If you are having your driveway gravelled, break it up by cutting the membrane under the gravel and planting some tough plants in there like grasses, asters, cosmos, rudbeckias or even a small tree.
“Pots are also a fantastic way of adding seasonal interest and getting more plants in where you have paved areas but you will have to water them. And do not scrimp on the size of the pot. Two or three really big ones is a better option than five or six small ones.”
Swift asks: “Do you have a car or a front garden? There’s definitely a solution – there’s always a way of getting both in.”
Joe Swift appears in the first episode of Great British Garden Revival, starting on BBC2 on Monday, December 9, at 7pm.