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.