Working outside in your front garden can help people meet and encourage neighbours to become friends, says Hannah Stephenson.
YOUR front garden could be a space to make new friendships, alleviate loneliness and promote a sense of community.
So says celebrated designer Jo Thompson, who is designing the RHS Garden for Friendship at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show.
Jo is teaming up with BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball to promote making friends through gardening — highlighting how working outside can help people meet and encourage neighbours to become friends.
Bold colours, striking features and a place to sit and chat in the front garden will all encourage neighbours to engage, she says. It may be time to bring down your high wall or other barriers to the world to increase social prospects.
“It’s all about getting out into the front of your house or property. The fact you’re outside means you have more of an awareness of what’s going on. Just as a neighbour might notice that you haven’t been around for a while, you might notice the same about somebody else,” she says.
Thompson offers the following tips to help make your front garden a more sociable spot.
Dazzling flowers, like pink geraniums, can be a conversation starter.
“There’s a little garden I often pass by in London. It’s the ground floor of a block of flats, which is completely open and filled with pots, but what catches the eye are the colours,” says Jo.
“At Chelsea, we are using a lot of easy annuals to achieve that, such as poppies, sweet peas, nigella, marigolds and nasturtiums — a real rainbow of colour from easy plants. You don’t need to be a great gardener to achieve that.”
Create a showstopper to spark conversation.
Thompson’s RHS Chelsea garden will incorporate a tree fern planted as if it is in the pavement, although Thompson warns that anyone doing this in their own front garden will need to wrap their dicksonia in fleece in the colder months.
Roses also create a focal point which can spark conversations, she says.
Sharing knowledge is a good way to make friends.
“Gardeners are very generous with their knowledge. You may be planting something you know is simple to grow, but there will be somebody who passes by who doesn’t know how to sow a marigold, for example, and just that little conversation can help,” says Jo.
Social media can also be a lifeline for the lonely, she adds.
“You can be posting pictures of your plants to neighbours and friends and you may well get a response,” says Thompson.
Think about long grass instead of hedging.
“l understand that people need privacy, but I can’t help thinking that if you put up a high hedge, as well as shutting yourself off, you’re also limiting the benefit to wildlife. You also cut out light,” says Jo.
Plant things that create a haze, such as the lovely tall grass Molinia caerulea ‘Transparent’ to create a veil of planting, advises Jo.
“It has beautiful tiny brown flowerheads which create a shimmer, with Verbena bonariensis, which will attract butterflies and bees, perhaps with hardy geraniums at the base, ” she says.
Create a seating area out front, adds Jo, as seating areas provide a social space.
“I passed a tiny front garden about 1m x 2m right on the street, with a low wall with railings, and there were two people in there having their breakfast around a tiny bistro table. Even that smallest of space can be a social space,” she says.
“You can use your front garden as an informal eating area — and people will stop and have a chat. Or even just put a bench outside the front wall.”
Grow edibles for sharing. Sharing veg can prompt conversations.
Growing herbs can be a great way to strike up conversation, she adds, whether it be about how to grow them, or giving your neighbour a bunch.
“I was talking to somebody who told me they liked to have pots of cherry tomatoes tumbling through their railings, so anyone passing by can help themselves,” says Jo.
“Grow colourful cut-and-come-again lettuces in pots or window boxes; cut some for neighbours and start a communication through that. Grow herbs which you can snip and give to people.”
Leave bunches of summer flowers for neighbours.
If you have too many cuttings, a glut of fruit or a surfeit of sweet peas, which need cutting constantly to prolong flowering, leave them on your wall with a sign saying, ‘Help yourself’, Thompson suggests.
This can often lead to engagement with those who have done just that.