Back to front: How to make the most of your front garden

Restrictions on socialising have turned many front gardens into the best room in the house. Making them more comfortable to entertain in is the next step

The front garden has become a place for people to get outside and socialise safely, at a distance and often across the hedge or wall. Having been downgraded to off-street parking and bin storage, criticised for its lack of privacy and relegated in favour of the rear garden, it is finally blossoming into prize real estate. 

Covid restrictions have put a premium on the value of the front garden. Homeowners are unable to host people inside the house so social interactions with family members and friends have adapted and now take place over the hedge, in the driveway or at the front porch. As restrictions went from novelty to the new normal, little bistro sets and places to perch started mushrooming up in front yards like an early crop of morels.

In Donnybrook, Maureen Fallon, who runs the local neighbourhood watch and annual street party, serves coffee to her neighbours from her front garden

Human nature, it seems, abhors a vacuum.

It’s a good thing. The set-up means elders who have been asked to cocoon get face time with relatives and some of us who had lamented the fact that our back garden had a northerly aspect discovered that the opposite was true of the pitch out front and it was time to profit. 

A neighbour of this writer’s enjoys a due west-facing front that gets glorious afternoon and evening sun. Having installed a table, complete with parasol, on dry days he and his wife, both retired, spend large chunks of time there. From those very seats they were serenaded with a carol service by family last Christmas.

It’s all about adapting to current circumstances. In Donnybrook, Maureen Fallon, who runs the local neighbourhood watch and annual street party, serves coffee to her neighbours from her front garden. Residents are invited to come to her front gate with their own mug.

Maureen Fallon serves coffee to her neighbours from her front garden on Bushfield Terrace in Donnybrook, Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/ The Irish Times
Maureen Fallon serves coffee to her neighbours from her front garden on Bushfield Terrace in Donnybrook, Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/ The Irish Times

“On a road home to a number of elders it was important to keep contact for mental health reasons,” she explains. “But we didn’t want to break the rules . . . Everyone was very cautious and responsible for their own safety.”

As the Wednesday event gathered momentum, Fallon began to serve coffee from a flask poured into disposable cups alongside individual cupcakes that she baked herself, in an effort to reduce touch. For people who couldn’t see family members, it was an opportunity to ask questions such as “How are you?”, “Are you coping okay?” and “Do you need anything from the shops?”, she explains. They have raised cups to toast landmark celebrations, including three 70th birthdays and one 60th wedding anniversary.

This type of simple socialising is the essence of community. Seeing neighbours in the front garden allows you to open a conversation with them even if it’s just talk of the weather or how good the flowerbeds are looking.

So what kind of furniture works in an environment that may share space with a vehicle and bins?

Folding deck chairs, such as those pictured that tonally match Little Greene’s Obsidian exterior paint, also make sense
Folding deck chairs, such as those pictured that tonally match Little Greene’s Obsidian exterior paint, also make sense

Helen Coughlan, retail director at Meadows & Byrne, suggests a light bistro set “that you can lift and literally follow the sun around”. Folding deck chairs, such as those pictured that tonally match Little Greene’s Obsidian exterior paint, also make sense. They can be left in the front porch when not in use or be stored down a side passage. But they are low-slung and can be a struggle for some to get in and out of. Smart foldaway chairs by The Old Basket Company are an alternative. Made of net, each costs €299 at The Garden House Malahide.

Woodies sells a plain timber three-seat design for €199 that you can customise to your home’s exterior with a coat or two of Sadolin’s Superdec, pictured here in Crazy Daze on the wall and Blue Peter on the bench
Woodies sells a plain timber three-seat design for €199 that you can customise to your home’s exterior with a coat or two of Sadolin’s Superdec, pictured here in Crazy Daze on the wall and Blue Peter on the bench

A bench set against the front wall is another easy win and is usually set at a good seat height from which to rise. Woodies sells a plain timber three-seat design for €199 that you can customise to your home’s exterior with a coat or two of Sadolin’s Superdec, a water-based product that can revive weather-beaten garden furniture. Pictured here in Crazy Daze on the wall and Blue Peter on the bench. It can also be used on timber, masonry, weathered plastic such as PVC windows or a conservatory, cladding and steel. It costs about €44 per 2.5 litres.

“People are spending more time outside and as a result sitting for longer periods on their garden furniture. Comfort is very important,” Coughlan says. She suggests going for something heavy and sizeable “that won’t fit into a car boot” so is less likely to be pilfered. The aluminium-framed Inchydoney range fits the bill. An armchair costs from €498 to pre-order.

Scatter cushions

A very simple outdoor seating solution can be found in weatherproof scatter cushions that you can sit on, on the front step, without getting what your grandmother used to call chilblains. Ikea sells Funkon cushion covers that are water repellant from €5.

Meadows & Byrne’s Maribo drinks trolly, ¤189, has toughened glass shelves and is set on wheels
Meadows & Byrne’s Maribo drinks trolly, ¤189, has toughened glass shelves and is set on wheels

If you don’t have the space to lay a table, then how about setting up a drinks station on a trolly or side table? You can serve elevenses or indeed go all out and have afternoon tea al fresco. Meadows & Byrne’s Maribo, €189, has toughened glass shelves and is set on wheels.

A Greenwich jug, €50, from Neptune, filled with homemade lemonade, will tempt most to linger a longer while
A Greenwich jug, €50, from Neptune, filled with homemade lemonade, will tempt most to linger a longer while

“It’s relatively light to move,” Coughlan says. A Greenwich jug, €50, from Neptune, filled with homemade lemonade, will tempt most to linger a longer while.

Meadows & Byrne’s balcony tabletop, ¤60, which simply lifts on and off, is a clever platform on which to put coffee mugs or wine glasses
Meadows & Byrne’s balcony tabletop, €60, which simply lifts on and off, is a clever platform on which to put coffee mugs or wine glasses

The humble wall has also come into its own during the last 12 months. It’s become a seat – you see friends enjoying coffee or ice cream on such perches all over the country. Meadows & Byrne’s balcony tabletop, €60, which simply lifts on and off, is a clever platform on which to put coffee mugs or wine glasses.

And if the conversation really starts to ignite big coats and blankets are a good idea but not enough to keep seasonal chills at bay. At The Garden House, anything to do with heat is selling, be it electric, gas or wood-fired, says owner Bryan Maher. He’s so busy that he’s stopped taking orders and is operating sales only on a first come, first served basis. He’s a fan of the Kettler infra-red electric heaters, which come in three options: table, €225; floor, €329 and a pendant that hangs from a parasol, €199.

If buying online, there are a couple of considerations to factor into your purchase, he says. “Many of the outdoor electric heating devices will need an outdoor plug and come with very short cable leads.” 

The rationale behind this is that outdoor cabling is more expensive than indoor. It may not state on the screen the cable length so you may have to search spec sheets on the manufacturer’s site to get a clearer idea of what you’re getting and where will suit to connect it. You may even need to hire an electrician to come and install an outdoor socket out front to enable an electric option to work.

There is a huge range of fire pits to choose from including Ignis by Danish design house Morso
There is a huge range of fire pits to choose from including Ignis by Danish design house Morso

For a front garden a fire pit may be an easier choice, especially now that two households can meet. There is a huge range to choose from but Ignis by Danish design house Morso is a simple and portable cast iron bowl that provides lots visually as well as physical warmth and costs from €229 to order from TJ O’Mahony stores. Fenton Fires in Greystones is another supplier.