Tag Archives: garden design

My Top Ten Plants for Children

I’m currently creating a tiny garden for my son’s pre-school.  In preparation for planting, I’ve just been unloading a cubic metre of compost to improve the soil.  Necessary, but hardly exciting work, so I’ve decided to take a break and dwell for a while on the far more interesting subject of the plants themselves.

With so little space on offer, it’s vitally important I make the right decisions about what to include.  As such, I thought I’d go all Top of the Pops and do a rundown of my favourite plants for children.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – it smells wonderful but is tough enough to survive children squeezing it for an aromatic ‘hit’. It will also root very easily so you can even let junior gardeners try a bit of propagation.

Nasturtiums

Nasturtiums

Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) – annuals are great for impatient children and these are easy to grow – just sow seeds in pots in spring and you will have an abundance of hot-coloured flowers which can even be eaten in salads.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) – if you plant a few of these within paving, they’ll break up monotonous slabs and release a great aroma whenever little gardeners tread on them

Stachy byzantina

Stachy byzantina

Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina) – these leaves just have to be touched – so soft, so furry, so popular with little ones

Ornamental onion (Allium giganteum) – huge purple flowerheads tower over children, yet are simple enough for them to grow from a bulb

Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) – very useful groundcover but it’s the leaves I love – they hold dew drops on their downy surface – apparently put their by fairies

Sweet Pea (Lathyris odorata) – these are fun to grow every season and best of all, children can pick their flowers everyday

Verbena bonariensis

Verbena bonariensis

Verbena (Verbena bonariensis) – I’ve never been convinced by the appeal of Buddlejas- they’re weeds in my book – so instead I use this wonderful plant to attract butterflies.  Beautiful purple flowers seen to float high above other plantings without blocking them out and they provide a great landing pad for butterflies galore

Chinese fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) – children love the tactile nature of grasses and this one has the added benefit of beautiful soft bristles in late summer

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) – an obvious choice for many reasons; children can grow them with ease, they’ll tower above everyone in a matter of weeks and the heads form great birdfeeders when the flowers go over.

I’m sure I’ve missed out some worthy candidates so please feel free to let me know my inexcusable ommissions.  Right now though I’d best get back to reality and shift some more spent mushroom compost.

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Building a Children’s Sandpit

Two weeks ago the children were making snowmen.  Yesterday they were playing in the sandpit. Ah, the delightful vagaries of a British winter!

Ava in the sandpit

Ava in the sandpit

Our sandpit was something of an afterthought in the garden.  I had always wanted to create a large sandy space – a reminder of our annual English seaside holiday – but I wasn’t sure we’d have the space (or the budget).  However, I was nine-months pregnant and in full blown nesting mode, so when our legendary landscaper, Darren, said he thought he could put it together in a day, I decided to go for it.

  • The sandpit is pretty large – 275cm x 190cm.  This gives enough room for 4-5 children to play in it together – and plenty of space for ball-runs, monster sandcastles and the obligatory burying of parents.
  • We used oak sleepers for the outside edge – you can buy these from any landscape supplier.  As a hardwood, it takes no maintenance and will last for years.  It also turns a wonderful shade of silver after a season.  The one downside is price – they cost around £25+ each and my design used 12 of them.
  • The sleepers can be laid on bare earth, but putting then on a foundation of graded rubble means that water drains away and the wood deteriorates far slower.  The first layer was laid below ground level to give an attractive look to the interior of the sandpit.
  • Darren joined the sleepers together with long brass bolts although they are so heavy, it would be possible to simply rely on their weight and bulk to hold them in place.
  • I stepped the sleepers up towards the corner to give some child-sized seating although the entire outside edge is wide enough to perch on.  I also asked Darren to sink some sleepers in vertically to give a backrest and add some interest to the sandpit design.  These were bedded into 45cm deep concrete and then bolted into the horizontal sleepers.
  • I was determined to make the sandpit as deep as possible and we eventually dug down about 75cm.  We then used tacks to fasten geotextile membrane to the bottom of the interior line of sleepers where it could hang down to cover all the sides.  We placed more membrane on the floor of the sandpit to prevent worms mixing the earth and sand.
  • Finally, we were able to fill the area.  You can buy playsand in bulk from landscape suppliers.  I ordered two large cubic metre bags which was just about perfect to fill our sandpit.
Oscar making sandcastles

Oscar making sandcastles

I was concerned that I might have created an enormous cat litter tray. Surprisingly though this hasn’t been much of an issue.  I will probably have a sailcloth cover made up so I can protect the space when it’s not in use, but I’m not in a hurry.  Also, it means the children can access the sandpit whenever they feel like it – even in mid-winter.

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Battle of the Playhouse

A visit to my parents is guaranteed to inspire feelings of envy. Surprisingly, it’s not their lovely house or well-stocked garden that brings out the little green monster. No, it’s their playhouse.

Oscar outside Walnut Cottage

Oscar outside Walnut Cottage

My father, never knowingly under-built, has surpassed himself with this one. Based in a corner tower, half hidden behind a beautiful Walnut tree, it is a medieval creation extraordinaire.

From its oak doorway with its ancient key to its feature windows with leaded lights, this is unlike any playhouse you’ve ever seen.

Everything has been custom built to two-thirds size by a somewhat eccentric Grandpa. This includes a pair of medieval truckle beds on the mezzanine floor as well as a trestle table, stools, benches, matching chests and dresser.

Ava climbing the play house ladder

Ava climbing the play house ladder

And, of course, there is a fitted carpet and mains electric – not exactly authentic to the period but a sight more comfortable.

Today, we head back home, and return to our far humbler version – Willow Cottage.

This is more of a second little pigs creation – wood rather than straw, but still unlikely to survive a wolf-assault. Having said that, it has given countless hours of entertainment to numerous children.

Willow Cottage was simply an off-the-shelf wooden playhouse from B&Q. It took a whole weekend to prepare the base and put the thing together, but it was definitely worth it.

However, the real fun was in customising it – Pimp My Playhouse is surely coming to our screens soon.

We painted ours using a couple of Cuprinol Heritage shades – they look great, protect the wood and, unlike paint, won’t flake off. I also made curtains, put in a carpet off-cut and filled it with child sized chairs, table and cupboard. More recently, I bought an old play kitchen via eBay which has been a real hit.

Willow Cottage - a far humbler affair

Willow Cottage - a far humbler affair

Outside, the playhouse enjoys its own brick basketweave patio and over time, with the children’s help, we are planting up the surrounding beds.

My next indulgence will be to buy some wooden shingles to add to the roof in a bid to hide the felt covering.

None of these embellishments will, of course, come close to the perfections of the vastly superior Walnut Cottage. Still, I guess it’s a bit like Chelsea versus Ebbsfleet United – no need to compete when you’re in a completely different league.

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The Perils of Designing on Your Doorstep

I’m guest blogging today on Landscape Juice, so click through if you want to find out how I’ve landed myself with the trickiest of design jobs – a garden with no space and even less budget for my son’s pre-school…

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Let a killer into your garden

As a garden designer, I’m always being asked by clients to ‘make sure there are no poisonous plants’ in their plans.  Unfortunately, the client is king, and I feel I’ve little option but to tug my forelock and comply.  But what I really want to do is scream, “Why?  Do you think your children are stupid?”

 

I know it’s harsh, but I have spent hours revising planting plans because some overcautious parent is paranoid that their child has nothing better to do in the garden than munch on the flowers.

 

Guess what – windows can be dangerous.  Children could decide to jump out of them.  So, do we build only bungalows, or make upstairs bedrooms, windowless boxes?  No.  We explain the risks to our children and tell them not to do it.  We even, very radically, decide our children might have a modicum of common sense and not hurl themselves towards the street.

 

I have always included toxic plants in my own garden.  Not because I harbour filicide tendencies, but because some of my favourite plants and most useful species happen to be would not be good on toast in the mornings.

 

I don’t want to dig up my autumn crocus or daffodil bulbs, nothing provides such a wonderful, dark backdrop as a yew hedge and why on earth should I be without my dicentra, lupins and foxgloves. Yet all these plants have toxic and potentially fatal elements.

 

However, I believe it’s easy enough for us to teach even the youngest children not to put anything in their mouth from the garden.  What’s more, it’s useful for children to know that there are risks and dangers in life and learn to manage them appropriately.

 

I’m glad to see there are signs of attitudes changing.  In April last year, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) called for the introduction of specially made “wild” areas where children could wander around and take risks.

 

Then, last month, a guide from Play England went so far as to say “some mildly poisonous plants or berries offer both good and bad risks and that “it is almost unheard of for children to die or be permanently disabled from eating poisonous plants”.  However, they also acknowledged that “this has not stopped some local authorities and others from removing traditional plants from parks and public spaces.”  So the battle between common sense and the over-anxious element looks set to continue.

 

Right, I’m off to plant some deadly sweet pea seeds.  I may be some time…

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How to create a sunken trampoline

 

Sunken trampoline in action

Sunken trampoline in action

I think a sunken trampoline has to be my favourite family garden feature. It’s a simple enough idea but solves so many headaches. It’s safer, less intrusive and popular with everyone. 

I have sunken a couple myself. Well, to be more accurate, I’ve sunken the same one twice (note to self – decide where to put the thing and don’t change your mind after 12 months).  So I now consider myself, if not an expert, certainly au fait with the ups and downs (no pun intended).

So what do you do…?

  • First, measure up – I would say buy a relatively large trampoline (ours is 14′) but make sure that it won’t dominate the garden.  Also, when measuring up, remember to leave at least another 50cm all round for the doughnut (don’t worry, I’ll come to that later)
  • Purchase your trampoline – these are easy enough to buy online and I personally don’t think there’s a massive difference between the brands.  What is worth looking at is shape and weight limits.  You might think the trampoline will be used by the kids, but you’d be wrong – adults are at least as likely to want a bounce (and in my experience, more likely to injure themselves, but that’s another story).  So, get one that will take at least 20 stone.
  • Choose the shape and colour – mine’s round, because it suits my garden shape, but I’ve also used rectangular ones to fit into clients’ gardens with a more formal layout. Finally – don’t forget to order green padding at the side (khaki if they offer it) as it’s less jarring than bright blue
  • Mark out the size of the trampoline – I have an old screwdriver I place through the end of my tape measure – stick this in the ground, hold a can of spraymark, and run round in a circle, spraying (just watch your shoes). If it’s a rectangle, try to use a builders square to make sure you are accurate, or simply place your trampoline upside down in the ground and mark round it.
  • Get digging – OK, you can cheat and get in a man with a digger, but this is likely to cost around £300 so if you’re on a budget or need the exercise, do it yourself.
  • Topsoil good, subsoil bad – Remember, the first foot or so is likely to be topsoil and should be kept to one side.  Below this is subsoil – and if you can, I would suggest this is taken off site, or buried somewhere below topsoil.  You can see the difference quite easily as you dig down. If you’re digging it yourself, allow a weekend and consider getting in some help as it’s pretty hard work, especially when you get further down and the soil’s more compacted.
  • Drainage If you’ve got a high water table or bad drainage, I would suggest you make a mini sump in the central area by digging down an extra foot and filling with rubble or pea shingle.
  • What depth? – I’ve seen advice which says; leave the trampoline sitting 2 inches above the ground to allow air to escape.  Personally, I don’t do this.  I’ve not found the air flow an issue unless it’s been raining which covers the micro-holes in the trampoline surface and stops effective bouncing, but this is rare.  Also, if you sink it flush to the ground, it stops things falling under the trampoline, negates a trip hazard and makes it easier to mow around.
  • Use top soil to form a doughnut – I put a foot high, double sloped and flat-topped edge round the area which disguises the trampoline from a distance.  The children also love running down this onto the trampoline
  • Turf the area – this helps make a neat finish and you can fold it over at the edges if you need to fill in any holes

And that’s it, except to say, sunken trampolines might be safer, but not so safe that you shouldn’t supervise very carefully.  However, they do make it easier for all ages to enjoy – my son was happily bottom-bouncing on the trampoline before he could walk and even Eric the cat enjoys a stroll over the surface to put a spring in his step.

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