A Child's Garden

It wasn’t so long ago that I lay on a blanket in the grass, under the filtered shade of our Acacia trees, my daughter curled up beside me on a pillow. And there I made up a story for her, “Beatrice’s Britches’. It was a silly story about a brave young girl who was not allowed to wear britches just because she was a girl, and all the trouble she got into when she didn’t listen. When I recall that magical afternoon, part of what made it so special was that she and I were lying under a bright blue sky, smelling the green grass, the pungent salvias around us, and listening to the hypnotizing sound of bees going about their business nearby. It was a moment of pure bliss in a garden.

A garden is a different world for children. To a child, a garden can be a place of magic. As a parent, and as a designer, I certainly consider all the ways a garden can educate and stimulate a child, and it is vital that every child understand and respect their undeniable link to the natural world. However, there is also an incredible opportunity for a child to understand themselves, to discover who they are, to let their imaginations roam. So how can we, as the adults, help create this special place for our children?

Mystery. Secrecy. A place of their own. First off, children need to have a place in the garden that is not subject to the willy-nilly interference from the grown ups. Allow your child to have the control to determine who is allowed to visit their world, and who they are allowed to keep out. This sense of privacy can be created in any number of ways and depending on the age of the child can be made more or less transparent. Trees, old established ones are ideal. Old trees bring their own magic, so if you are fortunate enough to have one, consider it the heartstone of your child’s garden. If that’s not possible, consider delineating a part of the garden for your child with a simple picket fence covered with vines; taller plantings that separate one part of the garden from another; or something a little wilder like a series of brightly painted stools lined up and interplanted with salvias.

Shelter . Once in their garden, a child will want to have a sense of a protection. Where else can they weave their spells, hide from the evil sorcerer, or cook up a batch of special cookies for their guests? The shelters can be created with something as readily available as a tent or a canopy draped with colorful sheets. Other options could consist of a small trellis planted with grapes or flowering trumpet vines, or perhaps a simple shelter similar to the Hebrew sutkah, can be constructed. Or, as my sister and I used to do, just throw an old blanket over some poles and call it a teepee (some stabilizing might be needed).

Amenities. Whether hiding in the fort or surviving a wild storm in the mountains, your child may want a place to burrow or at least to sit. Easy solutions are blankets and pillows, or cushions from an old couch. Certainly you can find small chairs, low stools or benches that will work. Garage sales provide wonderful unique solutions. In fact, take the kids with you and let them pick. Whatever they use, it needs to be something that can get dirty and can be tossed at the end of the rainy season.

Speaking of garage sales, some of these castles that are springing up in your backyard may need to be more fully outfitted. So consider if your little one needs some old pots and spoons for making potions or cake batter. Perhaps, an old poster tube makes a grand telescope for the journey across the ocean your boys will make this summer. There is certainly great joy to be found for the parents when we allow our imaginations to remember as well.

Creating wilderness. Now that they’ve created their castle, ship, fort, etc, let’s consider what we would want to tuck into their wilderness. First off, we’d need to incorporate plants that a child can ‘use’ in whatever capacity they needed. In a nutshell, we need plants that are non-toxic (there are more toxic plants out there than most folks realize) and have no sharp edges or thorns. So, if berries are plucked to make a soup, or leaves are gathered to make a fairy’s bed no harm is done. Beyond that, think of plants that would appeal to a child’s senses, and how those plants could be used to stimulate their imagination: Lamb’s ear soft to the touch, grasses rustling in the ear, jasmines sweet to the nose, strawberries tangy to the taste, and passionflower decadent to the sight.

Water. The next item is water. Whether they use it for mudpies, or simply take it to splash on their little sisters, what child doesn’t love water? Again, safety is foremost, so if you are considering a fountain, make sure it is properly installed and consider the depth of the water. It’s been said accidents have happened with 6” of water. Other options include a spigot. There are some geared specifically towards children that turn off automatically. If need be, fill up a couple of those pots you bought at the garage sale and let them go to town. They’ll figure out what to do, even if we don’t.

Critters. Last but not least, we want to invite nature’s little beasties, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. As a child, and now an adult, it doesn’t get much more fascinating than the birds and the bugs. There are a slew of resources on plants that attract birds and butterflies, and common sense tells us the birds need a place to nest, something to eat, and something to drink. Same for the butterflies. So plant a tree with high branches to avoid the local cat; add salvias or berries for food; and include a source of water to bring them in and keep them there season after season.

More Critters. There is other intriguing wildlife just at your children’s eye level: all kinds of bugs and critters that are fascinating to watch and play a crucial role in the life cycle. For example, earthworms, those pink squiggly things that make us squirm, but are so fun to watch as they burrow back into the dirt when we uncover them. It is also thrilling to discover salamanders or lizards as they rush off on their tiny legs. How about rollypollies? Remember as a child, how you’d touch them, just to see them roll up into tiny little balls. And of course, lady bugs and beetles, colorful and full of good luck.

These tiny critters have the same needs as any other: a safe haven, food and water. For some, small logs or branches or stone clusters create cool hideaways. Or allow leaves to pile up in a corner allowing for rich build up of compost that would host any number of the little guys.

For insects like the lady bugs, remember they are actually carnivorous and are looking for aphids to dine on, so plants like fennel make awesome hosts, plus they smell so good. As far as the water, even a simple dish with water is enough for a butterfly to take a sip.

One thought, it never hurts to provide an easy reminder to children that all things have a place in the world and to touch those things smaller than us, gently. A good reminder for us parents as well.

One final thought on this child’s garden: As we have learned, much of life is about the journey, not just the destination. So, as you consider your children’s garden and bring in your little ones to help you dream it, consider the opportunity to embellish the journey as well.

The secret key to the garden is you and the magic of the love you feel for your children. In helping create this garden remember simply what it was to be a child, what it was that made you happy, the great wonder of the outdoors, and then let your imagination fly.

Poetic Plantings
Landscape Design