Gardens For Our Little Ones

By Ruby Simpson

I love my garden. It is my own peaceful little nature-haven where I can relax, unwind and enjoy being outdoors with wildlife – whether that’s lying around, soaking up the sun and listening to the birds, or getting muddy in the borders planting bulbs and churning up worms for the visiting robins. No matter how I’m feeling, I am always healed and refreshed after an hour or so in the garden.

Now that I’m a parent, I get to share my beautiful oasis with my not-so-calm, not-so-quiet, very excitable two-year-old daughter – and while this is the opposite of a relaxing experience, it is indeed magical in a completely differently way. You hear people talk about how much more fun the world is through a child’s eyes, and it’s absolutely true – my little girl loves running around in the fresh air, smelling the flowers and watching the bees and butterflies. When we are having breakfast in the morning, she will watch the birds on the bird feeders and talk about what they are doing, and she even tells me if its windy outside by watching the trees swaying.

Nature

There are a few things to consider when designing or adapting a garden with children in mind – and they aren’t as obvious as I first thought. After talking with our in-house Forest School Co-ordinator, Annie, I realised just how much I had forgotten about playing outdoors as a child. It’s not just as simple as sticking a swing and slide on the lawn. We are all so bogged-down in our “adult brains” that it sometimes just takes a bit of imagination to get back into the right frame of mind.

Children need to explore the great outdoors for themselves. As tricky as it may be as a parent to take a step back, it’s more effective if we stop trying to micromanage our children’s activities and allow them to get creative, messy and figure things out on their own. This is hard for me personally, as I like to feel as though I am in control of situations, but when I think back to playing outside as a child, I don’t remember parents being around constantly or setting up little tasks for us to complete. The most wonderful childhood memories I have are of having picnics with my siblings under the “Mulberry Bush” (a big weeping Pear tree – not actually a Mulberry Bush!) in my Grandparents’ garden; making dens with my friends on the green near our house; mixing “perfume” with my friend and my sister by crushing rose petals into water; concocting mud potions and pies, and playing hide and seek in various gardens. All these things were, presumably, vaguely watched by the adults in the background, but generally we were left to our own devices. It was so much fun!

Children and nature

Children love nature and wildlife – they are far more in touch with it than grown-ups, who can often be too busy moving on to the next important task to really pause and see what’s going on around them. Children find bugs, beasties, creepy-crawlies and other creatures fascinating and enchanting. If we provide log piles, bird houses, hedgehog houses, bug hotels, bird feeders and various food and habitats, they will be transfixed on what the animals and insects are doing. You can help them build bug hotels (the internet is a brilliant resource for this type of thing, particularly the RSPB website) and they will be excited to see what new residents might have moved in each time they are out in the garden. My parents and grandparents tell me stories about when I was a toddler and would sit beneath foxgloves, watching bumble bees dip in and out of them and putting fallen flowers on all my fingers. I had obviously been told not to eat the flowers (they happen to be toxic), but this is part of learning about nature – knowing what you can and can’t eat!

The best thing is that a child friendly garden can be very beautiful, but also low maintenance. Don’t cut back all your borders in the autumn, and instead leave your plants to develop seed heads. They look beautiful in the frost, they can be cut and spray-painted to create beautiful displays and wildlife will prefer a wilder winter garden. Plants such as Phlomis russeliana, Verbena bonariensis, Echinacea purpurea, Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ and poppies have beautiful bright, summer colour, as well as intricate seed-heads after flowering. Stachys byzantina, (also known as Lamb’s Ears) has tactile, velvety leaves and Stipa tennuissima has a wafty, soft grass-like feel – both plants are texturally interesting to children (and adults!). Don’t rake up all the leaves – you can show toddlers what a lovely noise dry leaves make when you run through them. Both those tips will also greatly reduce your garden task list! Having a small herb garden with lots of deliciously scented herbs awakens the children’s sense of smell, as well as benefitting your cooking… You could try mint, thyme, lavender, rosemary and chamomile – although the list is endless! Edible flowers such as nasturtium and borage can also add to the sensory experience. Willow (Salix ‘Britzensis’, Salix viminalis or Salix purpurea) can be planted in two lines to make a tunnel, and trees with a weeping form, such as Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’ or Cheal’s Weeping Cherry (Prunus ‘Kiku shidare-zakura’), are excellent for playing beneath.

Verbena bonariensis

Verbena bonariensis

Allium ‘Purple Sensation’

Allium ‘Purple Sensation’

Stachys byzantina

 Stachys byzantina

It’s important to take a step back and remember that we all used to be children once. We don’t tend to have fond memories of playing on a specific slide, but we do have lifelong memories of den building, picnics and playing make believe with friends and family in the garden. Our gardens can be beautiful, low maintenance, magical, educational and inspiring all at once. Use your imagination, embrace your inner child and see what amazing ideas you might conjure up!

Children picking apples

About the Author

Gardens For Our Little Ones

Ruby’s background is rooted in the garden – at a young age she by chance discovered a passion for plants and nature which led to her choosing to work at the local Garden Centre and Nursery. Besides the practical day-to-day work of potting up, pruning and advising customers, she took several courses in Plant Care and Horticulture, with a natural flair for plant design. Joining Nicholsons as a CAD Technician in 2013, Ruby now bridges the practical and the theoretical, detailing up the designs and putting together planting schemes with utmost accuracy and professionalism.

Favourite Garden? Broughton Grange
Why? Because of the stunning naturalistic herbaceous borders that look effortlessly simple, yet contain combinations that deliver throughout the seasons, punctuated with stunning topiary.

Favourite Plant? Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’
Why? Because it looks so beautiful in so many different settings – prairie gardens or herbaceous borders and the luxurious deep purple colour fits so perfectly with many different colour palettes, not to mention – low maintenance!