I got hooked on gardening at age fourteen when I found mustard seeds in my parents’ spice rack, planted some and watched them transform into little trees with yellow flowers followed by a tangy and crispy crop! I started growing my own vegies and fruit, then started planting trees in local parks when there was no space left at home. Years later, when my own children started exploring and playing in the garden, I set out to connect my children’s experience of the garden with my passion for edible gardening, and came up with the ideas behind what I do now as a designer of edible and sensory children’s gardens. In this article I’d like to share some of the things I’ve learnt over the years if you’re interested in gardening with or for children.
Observe how children use the spaces in the garden and play spaces generally. Kids are generally far more imaginative than us, and care far less about things being neat and tidy, so take your cues from your kids as to what sort of garden they would enjoy most. Reflect on your own childhood experiences of the outdoors and how this shapes your expectations now: do you expect your kids to keep the garden neat and tidy or do you encourage messy play? will you let them create their own ramshackle treehouse or will you insist on it being perfect?
Plan ahead so that your garden can grow along with your children. The garden you create for your toddler will not look the same by the time he or she is a teenager. Use flexible construction techniques such as a loose brick edging, which can be repositioned rather than having to be jackhammered up if you want to make a change. If renting, use easily transported containers, but also consider how longer-term investments in the garden will bless and inspire the next tenants who move in.
Consider how your garden will evolve over the next five, ten or twenty years. Visit established gardens for inspiration, to see how years of composting and working a garden can radically transform a space. Be guided by the permaculture principles of zoning as you position features of the garden according to how intensively they will be used as your child grows up.
Consider the changing needs and abilities of your children: in the early years supervision and safety, and being close to caregivers is important; in the middle years they increasingly explore and try out risky and messy play; in the teenage years they want to be alone or hang out with their peers. Fortunately gardens are never static, and often grow in proportion with the size and interests of a growing family! However, be prepared to redo things and change the layout or style of your garden as your family’s needs change.
3. Creativity Arising From Natural Constraints
When designing a garden I generally take my cues from the existing qualities of a site and try to work with these rather than against them. For example, large expanses of concrete aren’t very pretty, but consider the functional advantages to such a landscape: a quick-drying space for riding bikes and scooters, for creating artworks and chalk drawing, or a solid base for constructing wicking beds on. Or take a heavily sloped moist site – there are more creative ways to deal with this than terracing, blue metal and drainage pipes; a simple stone creek feature with native sedges could turn this into a lovely space which makes use of the water rather than adding to stormwater.
Another creative challenge is to use the features and materials which are already on site instead of bringing everything in. For example, an old bathroom basin or rusty wheelbarrow can be transformed into a unique herb garden display. Unwanted concrete, when cut or broken up into chunks of about 35 x 35 cm makes for perfect stepping stones.
4. Flexible Uses
The best spaces and garden elements for a growing family are ones which are flexible in their use. Kids need spaces which facilitate rather than hinder their imagination and fantasy, especially where children’s intellectual, physical and social abilities differ greatly. Our society already bombards us with rules – why not create a haven for truly free play?
For example, a wide-spreading White Shahtoot mulberry provides climbing, adventure, shade, colour, leaf mulch, stick play and healthy snacking, all at a fraction of the cost of a factorymade structure which will break, rust, get mouldy and have to be added to landfill within a few years. Or if you do want ‘play equipment’ in the backyard, consider a simple platform around a tree which holds appeal for teenagers and adults as well as toddlers.
5. Scale And Hiddenness
Most gardens are designed for adults to enjoy as passive, distant observers. While a lawn with a trampoline may be fun for a while, kids generally prefer spaces they can actively explore, inhabit and make up their own rules and uses for. This means kids are drawn to complexity and intricacy rather than simplicity and bland repetition. Kids prefer networks of small pathways over one broad path. They prefer multiple elements squeezed in rather than a minimalist landscape. Crouch down and crawl behind shrubs to experience the garden from their perspective!
Kids love being able to hide themselves away, where they can imagine and live out new worlds and possibilities. Dense lush foliage, such as a spiralling lilly pilly hedge or nasturtium tunnel, serves as a transition into a world of make-believe. I often create mounds surrounding a kids’ seating area planted with dense low foliage, which helps create this sense of hiddenness (as well as helping to protect the plants from being trampled).
Essential to a garden which promotes creative play is allowing for messiness. This can be as simple as a digging patch or sand pit, but children from about age five enjoy manipulating the soil, building forts, creating fairy parties and making ‘potions’ from things found around the garden. While it may be a struggle to see the garden being ‘wrecked’, take comfort in the fact that the mastery children experience by shaping their environment will develop into confidence to shape their world in responsible and innovative ways.
6. Interactive, Sensory, And Edible Elements
The sky is the limit for elements which help make a garden interactive and engaging to the senses. Features can be as simple as a sugary-sweet dwarf mulberry tree, tree stump mushroom seats or a space allocated to messy and dirty play. Nothing lures kids out into the garden better than the promise of newly ripened strawberries, blueberries and midjin berries; the sweet flowers of borage or pineapple sage; or the leaves of chocolate mint or stevia! Devise a ‘snack trail’ along paths and near seating areas as an alternative to junk food.
For textural interest, I use plants such as velvety lamb’s ear and feathery foxtail grass, and construct pathways made of railway sleepers, gum tree branch rounds and recycled pavers. To engage children’s sense of smell I use plants like the rose-, coconut- and apple-scented geraniums; natives like mint bush or lemon-scented myrtle; and herbs like rosemary and curry plant. Re-purposed objects such as a toilet bowl used as a pot for herbs, or a rustic wooden chest filled with succulents make for unique features.
7. Family Patterns
The habits you establish for your children when they are young have a lasting impact on their development into adulthood. Things like harvesting from the garden, composting scraps, and feeding the plants with worm ‘poo’ and ‘wee’ communicate tangibly the ways in which we are all connected to the natural systems of soil, air, water, animals and waste. Such experiences with nature also help young children develop a real sense of concern for the environment, rather than feeling overwhelmed and disconnected through abstract global problems which they don’t yet understand.
Work at creating a garden which is enticingly beautiful! Productive, interactive and fun gardens need not be boring rectangles or look like they’ve been made in a factory. Simply spending time in a beautiful garden will inspire children to value and care for the diversity of our planet’s natural ecosystems.
Now Over To You
I encourage you to get creative and be inspired by your kids’ playfulness in inhabiting and shaping their world. Start with something small and achievable – a window sill, planter box or neglected corner waiting to be transformed into a magical, edible fairy garden! Work collaboratively with your kids to dream up a space full of ever-changing wonder and delight.
Steve Webb lives in the Southern Highlands and has four energetic children who continually inspire his ideas for gardens and ways of looking at the world. He is a landscape architect and runs Edible Kids’ Gardens (www.ediblekidsgardens.com.au), a Sydney-based garden design and construction business which specialises in fun, productive and therapeutic gardens and nature-based playgrounds for homes, schools, preschools and other therapy centres.