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Family Gardens

Creating a garden for the whole family and all their different needs may seem a daunting task, says Sue Fisher, but with a bit of thought it’s possible and fun to design

Making a garden to suit every member of the family can seem at first glance like an insurmountable puzzle.

Yet, with a bit of planning, a garden of any size can easily become a great chill-out place that everyone can really enjoy.

Concentrate on the big picture first of all and tackle the overall garden layout. The patio should be top priority as it’ll be your main place for relaxing and entertaining – and with a family you’re likely to be spending lots of time at home. Think big – the most common mistake is to make a patio too small – and make a list of everything you’ll need to accommodate. For example, a table and seats for all the family plus visitors, a barbecue and maybe even a patio heater. If you have toddlers, make space for toys like a trike and sandpit for those early years when close supervision is essential.

Choose a hardwearing, low-maintenance surface like paving, brick or stone that only requires an occasional freshen up with a pressure washer. Decking is great to create a level seating area on a sloping site without the cost and hassle of earthmoving, but the wood does require cleaning, staining and preserving every couple of years. Noise can be an issue too, when kids discover that a deck reverberates beautifully to jumping and dancing! Shop around for materials as prices vary enormously, and check out a variety of sources such as builders’ merchants and reclamation yards as well as garden centres and DIY stores.

A second seating area makes the garden even more enjoyable. Look at where the sun falls through the day and consider, for example, having a little paved area to enjoy the morning sun for breakfast coffee and croissants, or to soak up the last of the evening sun with a glass of wine. A bit of relaxation is invaluable for recharging your batteries to cope with busy family life.

Hard structures like buildings, paths and raised beds form the skeleton of the garden’s design. While it’s unlikely that garden buildings will be put up all at once, do earmark their future sites so the garden isn’t messed up in later years. Think about a shed or two for storage, a summerhouse where the grownups can hide, and a greenhouse for keen gardeners. Kids of all ages adore their own little retreat such as a playhouse or even treehouse, which can be a huge boon where space is limited indoors. There are lots of models to suit every budget, though the most useable
playhouse I’ve seen was a homemade two-storey one with the house on top and toy storage below. Other practical features to consider are a washing line and a screened-off area for compost bins and toy storage.

Decide which areas will be used the most and put in paths. They make great bike and trike tracks too, taking the pressure off a lawn that would otherwise become churned to mud. Go for a solid paved or brick path, at least 60cm (2ft) wide to allow enough space to soften the edges with plants. Avoid stepping stones – the ground between would soon get chewed up – while gravel is unstable for bikes and you’ll be forever collecting up scattered stones.

Changes in level make for a more interesting design as well as providing heaps of fun for kids, so a sloping site can be a real bonus. Terrace the ground into levels using retaining walls and raised beds – which have the benefit of protecting plants from footballs and bikes too. Make such walls low – around 30-45cm (12-18in) high – for children to climb on, run along and jump off. Steps should be wide, deep and low so tiny tots can negotiate them easily and big kids who, inevitably, tackle them on bikes have a chance of reaching the bottom in one piece. Keep a slope somewhere, as children will enjoy many delightful hours whizzing down it on any toy with wheels.

Water has a magnetic attraction and while a pond is fascinating and educational for older children, it can be a death trap – quite literally – for young ones, and the only really safe option is a feature without any surface water such as a pebble or wall fountain. If you’ve inherited an existing pond and don’t want to fill it in, either fence it off or build in a ‘safety net’ by laying a modular grid or strong steel mesh just below the surface.

Certain plants can be dangerous too and while I’m a great believer in educating children to dangers, it would be foolish to have ultrapoisonous or vicious plants in your own garden. Among the most toxic if eaten are monkshood (Aconitum), Arum, angel’s trumpets (Brugmansia or Datura), Daphne, Laburnum, oleander and yew (Taxus). The foliage of rue (Ruta graveolens) and Euphorbia sap can cause severe skin irritation, while agaves and yuccas have viciously spiny leaf tips.

Some plants have more child appeal than others. Stimulate their senses – and yours – with gorgeously scented flowers and aromatic foliage, along with touchy-feely plants like fuzzy-leaved lamb’s ears (Stachys), rustling ornamental grasses and twisted stems of contorted hazel (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’). For pure enchantment, make a wonderful living playhouse from a weeping tree such as Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’ or Salix purpurea ‘Pendula’. Or, weave a tunnel or wigwam from living willow – buy the ‘rods’ (long sticks of willow) during autumn or winter whilst dormant. Be sure to include plants to attract wildlife too, such as butterfly bush (Buddleja), Michaelmas daisy (Aster) and Sedum for butterflies and berry-bearing shrubs and trees to feed birds.

For real hands-on involvement give children their own little gardens, in a sunny spot with good soil to be sure that plants will flourish. Expect to give a fair amount of help at first but the enthusiasm generated is worth every bit
- catch and nurture their interest now and you could be giving them a gift to last a lifetime. The miracle of growing plants from seed is a thrill that can remain into adulthood but do start with easy ones – hardy annual flowers like sunflowers, love-in-a-mist, pot marigold and nasturtiums. There’s no better encouragement to healthy eating than growing your own fresh produce either, and children adore harvesting and feasting on home-grown fruit and veg. If the slugs and snails do their worst and wipe out young crops, remember that garden centres stock flower and vegetable plants that can save the day.

Ready-made toys provide many hours of entertainment. A climbing frame/swing/slide combination is a great investment if space and money permit; wooden ones look stylish but are costly while modular aluminium ones offer much better value and can be easily extended with a host of different features – excellent for birthday or Christmas present ideas. All in all, you should be able to relax and enjoy your garden while watching the kids enjoying plenty of fresh air and exercise – the perfect combination.

Boxed text – pets and gardens

Dogs and cats can be a problem in gardens despite being much loved. While dogs can be fenced out of sensitive areas, cats are more agile and delight in sunbathing on fragile plants and scratching up seedbeds. A range of repellents is on sale which are useful in keeping cats off sensitive areas. Ultrasonic devices can be reasonably effective but not in all cases.

Good hygiene is vital, particularly where children play, and ‘poop-scooping’ needs to be done frequently. Always put dog and cat faeces in the bin, not on the compost heap, to avoid risk of disease. Worming must be done regularly as roundworms can carry the parasite Toxocara that can cause serious illness in children or pregnant women.

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