With use in mind flexibility and adaptability are key in the family friendly garden. Creating a garden with a specific age group in mind is expensive. One year the children are playing with Thomas & Friends, the next it’s Spiderman. Before you know it, they’re off to the park with football kit tucked under one arm, perhaps leaving behind a dated design ill equipped to serve their needs, which is both costly to remove and replace.
Materials and surfaces
Surfaces should be easy to clean and require minimal maintenance to keep them looking good. A non-slip finish is important too, especially in shade. Don’t forget to also take a lead from the house. Decking around period buildings looks odd, whereas natural stone is more sympathetic option. When it comes to paths, gravel is certainly the cheapest choice, but for children – particularly their trikes and bikes – it’s impractical; the wheels only sink in and children will get frustrated that they’re not allowed to zoom about freely (however I’ve seen my son have hours of fun with just a pile of pebbles). Of course the opposite applies too. To control how children might use the garden – an area of gravel which they can’t wheel through easily is still safe but inevitably becomes a more adult orientated domain.
In tiny gardens a lawn is a waste of valuable space – it can’t be used all year round, especially when it’s wet. Plus, you’re never more likely to get cross than with a child who plants muddy footprints all over the carpet. In a larger garden, however, a lawn is the perfect multifunctional, child friendly space and a useful neutral foil to planting. Of course, it’s cost effective too. On hot days pull out the paddling pool, and lounge in the sun. Clear the toys away and after dark the garden reverts back to adult territory, especially if subtle garden lighting is also planned into the overall design.
Artificial turf is a useful alternative to grass and – importantly – can be used all year round no matter the weather. It’ll never wear like grass and there’s obviously no need to mow once a week. Most products are designed to look more like natural grass rather than a greengrocer’s market stall, although expect to pay a premium for the most authentic in appearance. The major constraint is the cost. There’s not just the ‘turf’ itself to consider, there are the foundations (and associated labour costs) which need to be factored in. On a large scale it is typically prohibitively expensive, but on a smaller scale it costs much the same as it would if the whole space was paved.
Unless there is room for semi-hidden designated ‘play space’, storage is a big issue in family-friendly gardens. With the lawnmower, compost and a parasol filing the shed, toys end up being kicked around the garden unable to find a home, and start to dominate the view. If space permits, a large shed is useful, which in part could double up as a den, or with clever design it’s possible to integrate a built in swing and/or even some monkey bars. If not, then storage benches are valuable. Plastic boxes are unsightly, tricky to hide and serve no other purpose. Instead, trunks built from reclaimed (and treated) floorboards for example are a more attractive option and the top could double up as a potting bench or impromptu seating.
Sharing is at the heart of the family friendly garden but all children crave an area of their own; a place to escape to, seemingly out of range of the grown ups. Obviously the age of the child is important to consider. Pre-schoolers need to be kept close so a covered sandpit built into the patio and surrounded with low planting would be ideal, but for infants and juniors play areas work best positioned away from the house, in a spot where children can still be seen… but not heard. Inevitably the bottom of the garden is the most suitable spot, taking advantage of what is commonly wasted space. With trellis screen, wooden louvres, or mixed plantings full of tall airy grasses and perennials (like purple top and bronze fennel) it’s possible to divide it off and mask lurid day-glo climbing frames and big trampolines, yet still discreetly monitor any activity from the house. If there isn’t the space for this then a small yurt or weatherproof tepee – even a cedar tree house – becomes the children’s’ zone, yet still looks good from the terrace and house.
If space is limited further still, a simple swing slung from a pergola covered with honeysuckle could yield hours of entertainment. Features like boulders are good to; these look great surrounded by planting and can double as both climbing and jumping opportunities for the youngsters.
Planting in the family friendly garden needs to be tough and robust but this doesn’t mean it should feature just shrubs and conifers, which is commonly the case. Plenty of colourful perennials like day lilies and cat mint can be included which will satisfy the gardener in the family and tolerate being smacked with a football. Colourful perennials also create wonderful painting and drawing opportunities for budding artists and they’ll encourage wildlife too. If a football flying about is a problem, then consider growing low hedges or positioning low hazel hurdles at the edge of the beds and borders to protect the plantings behind. These can help highlight a strong design layout too. Of course, a goal positioned in front of the patio is a nuisance; instead it should be positioned across the garden, perhaps backed by a tall hedge to stop balls flying next door. A temporary screen of woven hazel, willow or heather screens could border one or more sides. These are simple to install and aren’t expensive. Furthermore they can be simply moved if children grow into other activities. Of course, spiky, thorny and poisonous plants should be avoided, unless they’re well out of reach.
Water in the garden will delight children of all ages, and encourages wildlife, especially if planting around the perimeter is deep enough so mammals, insects and invertebrates have somewhere to retreat to if necessary. With young children a feature with an underground reservoir is safest, so there’s no standing water. This doesn’t just need to be a freestanding feature; spillways or spouts installed into walls or raised beds can entertain for hours. With larger children a pool (ideally with gradually sloping sides) is ideal to while away the hours pond dipping or simply sitting with a book.