kids' garden

At Play in the Backyard – Kids’ Gardens

If we don’t make time to teach young folk to love gardening, who is going to plant trees, flowers, fruit and vegetables in the future. Will it be drones? Enter kids’ gardens!

Busy parents of young kids can’t be blamed for thinking that gardening is just for geriatrics sitting on a porch surrounded by neat flowerbeds. The alternative they choose is to place another electronic device in their offspring’s hands to keep them occupied. And if they do realise that the kids need some exercise (they should – they spend their own evenings in the gym!), they pack them off for a ‘playdate’ or take them to Spur to play in the ballpit. But the best solution to the problem, a lot of fun, healthy exercise and educational play, lies just outside the backdoor. Let me ‘tweet’ you the following…

Firstly, kids need to be taught how to play and have fun in a garden, and also how to garden themselves – this does not come naturally. The reason why you are holding this magazine in your hand is because you are a gardener – somebody must have taught you about soil, trees, flowers and insects. Not true?

Secondly, many gardens don’t invite boisterous and interactive play, and few are child-friendly spaces, because they were not designed with this in mind. Some gardeners are also too neat (and maybe even too selfish?) to share their gardens with kids. I know of a public garden where kids are invited to pick some of the fragrant herbs and flowers growing there to smell them, to harvest ripe gooseberries specially planted for them, to run around freely, to check out the critters in the compost heap, to have picnics under the trees, and to climb a rustic jungle gym. And the neighbourhood kids love it!

Kids’ Garden Design ideas that won’t break the bank

Don’t even consider planning the family backyard without the input and help of your offspring, or they will criticise your every move. Round up the troops and get them to help, first with the ideas and then with the work. Turn them into ‘stake-holders’ rather than mere ‘onlookers’.

Wish-list stuff

If you don’t have a lawn but would love to install a soft and natural looking play surface for your kids’ gardens, consider artificial grass – a no maintenance, durable alternative to lawn.

A place to run

Kid’s gardens should have a space for running and ball games, to keep their muscles supple and develop their hand-eye co-ordination. A patch of lawn (even if small) is a must. Even if the lawn isn’t big enough for a rugby game, you can at least teach the young ones how to use a hula-hoop or catch a Frisbee.

Good advice: A dense, low hedge of something tough, like Searsia crenata (dune crow berry) or Westringia fruticosa (Australian rosemary), will protect softer shrubs and perennials bordering a lawn from boisterous play. Simply inform the kids in a friendly manner that what’s beyond the hedge is your play area, not theirs.

A digging patch

Kids love to dig, play in the mud, and to create little imaginary gardens in the soil with sticks, stones, leaves and friendly flower faces like daisies and hibiscuses that they are allowed to pick from the garden. A sandpit filled with all kinds of plastic toys is an option, but I have found that they have much more fun if allowed to get really dirty and muddy in ordinary garden soil, close to where you are digging and planting yourself. Remember: kids love to ‘help’ you in the garden, but soon do their own thing. Collect old kitchen utensils like sieves, colanders, pots and pans, and spoons for them to play with.

Wish-list stuff

Kid-sized gardening tools, small wheelbarrows and pull trolleys and pint-sized garden focal points, hobbit houses and even dainty little artificial plants to build fairy gardens with. Big garden centres nowadays stock a wide range of kiddie’s tools and ornaments for miniature landscaped gardens

A chance to play with water

Playing with water is great fun, but even the smallest garden pond can be dangerous. Rather build an outside shower or a narrow and shallow rill where sailing boats can be floated. There must always be supervision, even around water features such as these. Cover all ornamental ponds by installing a steel grid panel just under the surface of the water to make them safe for toddlers.

Good advice: When watering the lawn with a sprinkler on a warm, late afternoon, call them to run through it – they love it! If you don’t have water restrictions, invest in a plastic pond for them to play in over the holidays. If left on the lawn for a few days it will cause a yellow spot, but the grass will survive – it is gazing at that slowly-greening-again yellow spot after they have gone back to school that will remind you how much fun everybody had. Buy cheap spray bottles for them to play with – they love spritzing each other (and you) with water. The simple trigger systems on these bottles teach little fingers to become strong and dexterous. Fill a shallow dish with water and give the children kiddie’s watering cans to fill up and water your plants – it must be done under your stoep-sitting supervision, but it will keep them busy for hours as kids can be extremely persistent and patient not to miss any plant.

Kids’ Gardens for fantasy play

Incorporate some garden statues for children to play dress-up games. Just keep in mind that these features must be placed on a sturdy base so that they don’t fall over. My little cement Buddha sitting serenely on a low garden table often gets a new hat and necklace made from string, leaves and flowers. An arch covered by a creeper is a wondrous thing and leads to many ‘marriage ceremonies’, with the ‘bride’ wearing an old kitchen curtain and a crown of garden flowers. Secret corners to play hide-and-seek in are also a favourite, so study your large shrubs to see which can be pruned to create such hideaways – definitely worth the effort! Kids love to explore and discover – lay informal pathways throughout the garden and they will follow them rather than walking all over smaller plants.

Wish-list stuff

Living structures like a bean tepee, sunflower house (you simply plant the seeds in a circle and later tie the tall plant’s tops together), or a plant tunnel (a home-made tunnel structure covered in creepers). Tools for measuring the weather: a rain gauge, sundial, wind sock. Places to relax: swing, hammock, kidsized garden furniture. Birdbaths and bird feeders are a good way to teach children about garden wildlife – they will be more than willing (sometimes too eager!) to keep them filled for feathered friends.

Giant kids’ garden mushrooms

Give your children a corner of the garden to decorate and they will spend more time outdoors. What you need: Metal stove plate covers Plant pots Universal spray paint (we used white) Acrylic paint Paintbrush Pencil Step 1. Spray paint the stove plates and plant pots in a base colour. Step 2. Make circles on the stove plates with a pencil. Step 3. Choose a colour and paint between the circles. You may need a few coats. Let it dry and place in the garden.

Include areas of sturdy paving in your kids’ gardens

We all had to master kick scooters and tricycles before graduating to bigger and more powerful stuff, but our streets are not safe and we don’t have public parks designed for these activities. Allow for a solidly paved area somewhere in the garden or install a strip of brick paving around the house for these activities. There are also skipping rope games accompanied by sing-song nursery rhymes that need a firm surface, as well as hopscotch, which requires a paving block pathway to jump on.

Entrepreneurial succulents

The easiest way to teach kids about the wonders of garden plants is to start a own collection of succulents like echeverias, graptopetalums, crassulas and sedums. They either produce rosettes that root easily, or they can simply be grown from detached pieces. My little succulent bed next to my office has given me and my grandchildren hours of gardening pleasure, since I allow them to take ‘cuttings’ (they can’t do too much damage to these forgiving plants), which they can then plant into small clay pots. Over the years they have learnt about making potting soil to fill the pots, how to harvest cuttings and to plant them, and even the goodness of mulching every pot, since we use pretty shells, gravel chips, pebbles, and brightly coloured glass marbles to do so. Their planting efforts keep enlarging my stock to re-plant in the bed, and the only disadvantage to me is that they now con me into buying them back at a fairly steep price.

Good advice: If you are not too precious about your empty clay pots, you can turn your baby-sitting hours into a more peaceful time by allowing the kids to paint them with bright poster paint before planting them up. All it takes is a few sheets of newspaper to protect your patio table, your old t-shirts to protect their clothes, and old paintbrushes – peace and good conversations with kids (while you are gently reminding them that clay pots are breakable) are guaranteed!

A cutting garden for garden flowers

Here are some popular annual garden favourites to plant with and for kids’ gardens. They grow fast and are easy to care for, and if you allow them to go to seed most will show up in another season. Sow: Bachelor buttons, cosmos, feverfew, marigolds, nigella, poppies, snapdragons, sunflowers, sweet peas, and zinnias. Edible flowers include: Borage, calendula, nasturtiums and violas.

You have to plant veggies in your kids’ gardens

It’s true that most children kick up a fuss when you place a plate of vegetables in front of them, but if they have helped to plant and care for those vegetables there’s a good chance that they will begin to appreciate the crunchy sweet taste of young carrots or the wild fragrance of a freshly picked garden tomato. Planting edible flowers and lots of herbs is also your opportunity to teach them to create fresh and colourful salads, and also to teach them that some flowers might look innocent but are poisonous and should be left alone. Kids’ gardens are an exceptional learning tool!

The Gardener