Great family gardens do so much more than grow plants -- they nurture terrific kids and are friendly places where everyone can hang out. While plants usually prefer to stay put, children love room to zoom, places to go, and things to do. Even a modest backyard can be a whole universe to a child.
Kids starting out on trikes and bikes always love a nice unbroken stretch of concrete where they can really get going. A front sidewalk will work, but while kids are young, don't be too quick to change that concrete side walkway into flagstones. There will be plenty of time for that later on. A circular cement walk around the yard's perimeter provides a racetrack for scooters or pedal toys with engines that sound suspiciously like young voices saying brrummm-brrummm. Dad is the cheering squad.
Comfortable seating and tables draw family life into the garden during the warm months. Think tree branches overhead for cooling shade, or a large umbrella or a pergola with a cover to provide both shade and protection from rain. If the ground surface underneath is paved, graveled, or decked, it can be hosed down or easily swept clean. In addition to dining, think of the table as a place to play board games, to create arts and crafts, to prepare vegetables for cooking, or to arrange a bouquet. An outdoor room can let you leave home without getting in the car, and can provide a setting that encourages celebrating the good life with friends and family.
Sandboxes are like wild and creative think tanks for kids. A sandbox can be set on top of the grass, or set into the ground so that it is at the same level as the lawn. Wattle fencing woven in basic basketweave-style from garden prunings makes a picturesque divider between the sandbox and the outdoor dining table and chairs. The arrangement of furniture, grill, and sandbox lets everyone have a place for work and play in close proximity. When kids outgrow a sandbox, think wet. Remove the sand, outfit the sunken spot with a flexible waterproof liner, and fill with water. Cool your toes in a wading pool now. Later, the same spot can become a fish pond and water garden.
A wooden playscape equipped for climbing, swinging, and sliding is a veritable kid magnet. The structure covers a former planting bed, which, topped with 3 inches of wood chips, is now a safe landing spot for tots, daring or not, who tumble. A basketball hoop can provide fun in a parking area-cum-game court. A wisteria-covered pergola is beautiful in bloom, a leafy garden ornament all summer. And a pergola is a favorite place for hide-and-seeking, for tea parties, and for cooling off on hot days.
A memorable family garden includes projects that engage children's interest, such as a Jack-in-the-beanstalk tepee. Make one from 8- to 12-foot saplings or bamboo canes set at least 6 inches deep and up to 12 inches apart in a circle 4 to 6 feet in diameter. Pull canes together at the top and tie. Fast-growing bean vines such as 'Romano' or 'Purple Hyacinth' will soon form a hidey-hole that sparks imagination. Later, there will be edible pods to harvest. Even little kids can help plant big bean seeds, then watch as each literally lifts the earth and begins its reach to the sky.
A family garden invites grownups into the child's domain of "let's pretend." Kids just naturally recycle, forever imagining new playthings in old objects. So they have a great time stuffing worn pillowcases and discarded clothes with straw to make Mr. and Mrs. Scarecrow. At ease with magic, children love kitchen gardens where tiny seeds and sunshine produce goodies they can pick and eat right there -- sugar snap peas, young cukes, cherry tomatoes, juicy strawberries.
Adding features that engage your children is the key to a successful family garden. Kids like secret hideaways, bright colors, and make-believe. Access to water, dirt, animals, and projects with parents gets high marks. Here are some additional ideas for making your garden both kid-friendly and kid-engaging.
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, May 2004.