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The perfect space for all the family

PUBLISHED: 11:45 17 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:43 20 February 2013

The perfect space for all the family

The perfect space for all the family

Garden expert Nicholas Newton has some ideas on how to create a space to appeal to both young and old

Garden expert Nicholas Newton has some ideas on how to create a space to appeal to both young and old

Over the past decade I have tried to accommodate the needs of four children into the design of our new garden so now as all bar one are grown up, it occurs to me that its probably appropriate to look at the wider issues of planning gardens for children.
In fact it would be more accurate to say that we should be planning for families because it should be a move away from just a wide open space with randomly positioned and very brightly coloured plastic play equipment. But equally there is another extreme of the highly designed and planted garden with little or no scope or latitude for fun and play. In between the two is a balance that need not be a weak compromise but whereby gardens can be fun and exciting as well as being visually satisfying.
It may seem that the usual adult objectives for a garden that include a sense of restfulness, peace and tranquillity or an indulgent opportunity for plant collecting obsessions must inevitably clash with children who are looking to ride bikes, climb trees and play ball. But it need not be so; in fact they are a positive reason to take things forward, but if it is to work and be successful it must be well designed and thought out.
It is all too easy to neglect the garden in a frenzy of internal home improvements, so perhaps the first hurdle to overcome is to start seeing the garden as important a part of the overall property as the rooms inside the house; and to budget accordingly and proportionately. Like the internal space, the family garden should aim to provide both communal areas where the whole family can come together, and private secret corners where children can create their own little fantasy worlds. A balance between these two will create a garden that can be constructively and restfully used from the beginning to the end of the day.
I was lucky as a child because although we had a relatively small garden, we backed on to an area of scrubby woodland into which we were allowed access. In all but the foulest weather this became our world of dens and tree houses, exploration and discovery.
These days we have to accept that such places are increasingly scarce and it is sadly less of a reliably safe world for children beyond the garden gate so it is all the more important that an effort is made to create those special places within the garden.
Ten years ago I had only recently embarked on family life and a ready made one at that, so it has been particularly instructive to observe how the three girls generated their play activities.
During the winter when our new garden plot was a quagmire and they were confined indoors, despite being surrounded by vast numbers of often highly sophisticated toys it was a pleasure to see how readily an old cardboard box and a dust sheet soon became a puppet theatre and some very imaginative productions followed. And it should be the same outside.
It wont take much to create those little corners that in a childs imagination could so easily become as diverse as a tropical jungle, a dragons lair, a pixie dell or just a reliably adult free place. In an era of mind numbingly uncreative computer games parents should actively seek out any chance they can to set their childrens minds to work.
Such spaces dont need to be sophisticated in any way; they just need to provide the right triggers. A few weeks ago Ben (now 9) and I set out to create a den using two blagged pallets and any other off cuts of wood and other bits and pieces lying around. We were not allowed to buy any materials.
The native trees and shrubs that we planted at the top of the garden ten years ago now provided the secret corner we needed, although the steep bank posed problems. Using redundant tree stakes we managed to cantilever one pallet out from the bank as a level platform. The other pallet was fixed on edge as a back wall. Offcuts of timber provided a framework for a roof covered in left over shed roof grit felt. After two hours Ben had a secret den thats his own domain and which has had zero visual impact on the rest of the garden. What he makes of it from now on is up to him and his imagination.
Like any garden the best starting point is to draw up a list of all the things you are looking to get out of the garden and this needs to fulfil both your needs and the childrens. If youre using a professional garden designer, this list will provide the brief that they work to. From this list you should work towards a masterplan that will be your guide to developing the new garden. If space is limited you may need to think a little more laterally with multiple uses for the space that is available. Care will need to be taken to make sure that nobody is excluded; after all the family should be all embracing.

Nicholas Newton is a registered member of the Society of Garden Designers and may be contacted on 01728 638903 for further information or


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