The sun beating down on your face, the sounds of birds singing and children laughing the fragrant aroma of plants and flowers all around you, a sense of total relaxation – wouldn’t you love a garden that enables this to be a regular experience?
Although it’s not possible to guarantee constant sunshine – not in the UK at least – it is possible to create a family-friendly garden that works for everyone; a garden that keeps the kids safe and entertained AND which allows you to enjoy your own little piece of paradise outdoors too. Here’s how…
When it comes to creating a family-friendly garden, you really do need to put safety first. Of course, you want your kids to be able to play in the garden safely, but if you have to watch their every move the whole time you’re out there YOU won’t get to enjoy your time there. That’s really not fair, so what you need to do is make your garden as safe and secure as possible so that you can let your hair down and relax most of the time.
Secure the Borders
The first thing you’re going to want to do if your garden doesn’t already have one is to install a secure fence or wall, and a lockable gate, so that you can be sure young children won’t be able to get out and onto the road when you’re not looking.
If you also have a four-legged friend to think about, choose a fence design that doesn’t have any gaps and have the fencing company use long posts that go right down into the ground so that you can foil any great escapes your dog attempts to make.
Avoid Poisonous Plants
Another aspect of family-friendly garden safety that often gets overlooked is the issue of plant life. Plants and flowers are at the heart of any garden. They add colour and texture, not to mention wonderful aromas, that make the garden so appealing. However, many of them are toxic to people and pets, and should, therefore, be omitted from any truly family-friendly garden design.
Here are some of the most common plants that are toxic and should be avoided, but you should check the safety of each and every species you plant before you put them in your garden:
- Horse Chestnut
- Morning Glory
- Angels Trumpet
- Lily of the Valley
- English Ivy
- Calico Bush
You can find a full list of potentially toxic plants and some info on what to do if they are touched/ingested on the RHS website, but it’s far easier to ensure that you don’t have them in your garden in the first place, and to teach your children that plants and flowers in the garden should never be eaten, unless they’re fruits or vegetables that you’re growing for that purpose, of course.
You might also want to avoid any plants and trees which are spiky and could potentially cause injury should a child or pet run into them at speed.
No Water Anywhere
Ponds and water features are undoubtedly beautiful, but they are for grown-up gardens only. Young children can so easily drown in even just a few inches of water, which means it is not worth having so much as a modest fountain in the garden, let alone a deep pond. Ideally, you should not even have water butts or buckets of water in gardens that are accessible to young children.
If you’re a bird lover, it may be safe to have a birdbath, instead of using a traditional one, which would be low enough to pose a risk, hang a bowl or saucer from a tree and fill that with water instead. The birds won’t mind and it will allow you to enjoy your feathery friends without posing a risk.
Split the Garden into Zones
If you want your garden to be truly family-friendly, by which I mean that it can be enjoyed by everyone in the family in their own way, you might want to think about splitting the area into as many separate zones as you need to make this happen.
A good way to do this is to split your garden into rings, starting near the house and spreading ever further out. The zone nearest to the house will usually be the safest area because you will be able to see and hear the children even if you are inside. This would be a good place to place play equipment like sandpits and mud kitchen.
The next zone out from that could be an area of lawn space where your children can play football or tag or run around with the dog… well, you get the idea.
The zones following that can then be used for growing plants, flowers and herbs, and for more adult entertainment such as barbecues and lounging in the sun. For that, you might want to add a paved area, and you’ll definitely want to add a gazebo or some other form of shade, along with comfortable garden furniture.
If you have space, the furthest part of the garden can be used for practical stuff like sheds and greenhouses. These buildings often contain tools and other things that could potentially be hazardous to children, so it’s good to have them as far away from the fun parts of the garden as possible, although you should obviously take measures to child-proof them with padlocks, etc. anyway.
Rather than completely blocking each zone off, simply plant some hedges or shrubs so that each zone is clearly separate, but some mingling between them is allowed. After all, although you may all require your own spaces at times, you’ll want to actually spend some time together too, and being able to easily move between zones without having to deal with gates and fences, will make this a whole lot easier.
Children love to play and encouraging them to get active out in the garden is one of the best things you can do for their physical and mental health. Playground equipment is perfect for this. However, lots of homeowners hate the typically bright plastic, primary coloured slides and climbing frames that are so ubiquitous. The good news is, there are more sympathetic alternatives. There are now a lot of companies who offer timber playground equipment, which although not as cheap, blends in more neatly with the environment. If you use timber play equipment, you’ll need to weatherproof it annually to keep it in a good, safe condition for the kids.
You may also want to create a safe soft area around the play equipment. Lining the ground with bonded rubber chips is a good way to do this. It’ll help to keep little ones safe as they enjoy their play equipment.
Get the Kids Involved
There’s little point having a family-friendly garden if you don’t get the kids involved in it and creating some of your own DIY features is a great way to add some personality to the garden too.
Projects you can do together include creating bird boxes and feeders, building your own wendy house or den in the children’s zone, and painting pots and planters that you can then dot around the garden to inject some more colour.
Shrubs and Trees
When it comes to planting a family-friendly garden, shrubs and trees are your best friends. There’s no reason why you can’t have lots of pretty flowers too, but these are best placed in the adult zones or in pots and planters where they are less likely to be trampled by children having fun, or so that they can be moved out of the way if a game of football is about to be played.
Not only are hardy trees and shrubs like Santolina and rosemary and Hawthorne the safer option, but they present endless opportunities for children to play fun games like hide and seek, and you don’t have to worry so much about them being damaged.
Having mature trees and shrubs is a particularly good idea, not only because they’re great for making dens or hiding behind, as well as attracting local wildlife which is fun to see, but also because they provide a lot more shade than young trees, which means you can all enjoy the garden without getting too hot, or even worse, burned by the sun. Oh, and they’re pretty low-maintenance too, which is always a bonus when you’re a busy family with limited time to tend the garden.
If you’re the kind of family that loves nature and you want to attract wildlife to your garden, there are a number of things you can do from hanging bird feeders from trees and poles (this helps to ensure that it is the birds who get the seed) to planting wildflowers that will attract butterflies and bees. Having a wildlife zone near the back of the garden that you let to grow a little wilder than the rest of the garden is a great way to incorporate these elements. You could even rig up a wireless camera or two so you can watch the wildlife even when you’re stuck indoors because it’s raining.
Perfection is Overrated
Although it is perfectly possible to have a beautiful family-friendly garden, it is fair to say that your garden is not going to look picture-perfect at all times when you have young children, pets, friends and neighbours who all enjoy spending time in the space, and that’s perfectly okay.
There will be times when your garden is muddy or when the lawn is covered with all manner of plastic toys and picnic blankets, but that just shows that it is a wonderful place to spend time. So, although you should make a real effort to maintain your garden, at least while you’re children are young, you should aim for enjoyment above perfection and you’ll always have the best garden for you.
Creating a family-friendly garden will certainly take some time, effort and proper planning, but it is totally within your reach. The key to getting it right is sitting down and taking the time to think about each member of the family and what they would like the garden to be for them. That way, you can create lots of different zones to suit everyone and ensure that whether you love busy barbecues or sitting on the lawn making daisy chains and having a chat, your garden will allow you to do it.