A perfect family garden: fiction or reality?

Five years ago garden designer and mother (and crazy loon that she is) Dawn Isaac decided to make a garden that would keep her and the children happy (never mind the husband). Actually, she seems to have succeeded. But how?

Words: Dawn Isaac

Pictures: Rachel Warne

Frances Hodgson Burnett was a fiction writer. How do I know this? Because in The Secret Garden, children tend lovingly to a neglected patch of earth, sowing new seeds, uncovering bulbs and restoring its beauty. At no point does Dickon take a swipe at an allium head “for target practice” nor does Mary ever wheel a pram laden with dolls right through a border so they “can see the flowers up close.”

In reality children and gardens go together like…. well, footballs and greenhouses to be honest. But when you’re a mother of three with a serious gardening habit, you can’t let these harbingers of doom deter you. And so, five years ago, I set out to create a family garden that would satisfy my need for deep luscious borders and manicured lawns whilst still entertaining my very-far-from-fictional children.

It has not been an easy task.


Containing chaos

As a parent, some words and phrases become strangers. I parted company with both ‘Neat’ and ‘Tidy’ sometime around mid 2004. Instead I have a new friend – ‘contained chaos’. Inside, this phrase describes the playroom, and outdoors it applies to the children’s play area.

Here I placed the sandpit, swings and playhouse, giving my three kids a space to call their own, and me a place to lob back the footballs, Frisbees and hula hoops.

The natural fall of the land combined with a hedge line gives both shelter and screening although sadly, for the neighbours, it doesn’t quite provide soundproofing.

Eating out

“Can we eat outside?” is a question asked by my children at the first glimpse of sun in late winter and then repeated on a daily basis until after Bonfire Night.

For this reason the garden is smattered with places to snack: a child-sized table, a picnic-rug ready lawn, benches large and small, table and chairs positioned to catch the last sun of the day, and this - a dining area in the shade.

As well as providing a place for red-faced and over emotional juveniles to refuel, the spot also plays host to the chiminea.  This serves two vital functions: marshmallow toasting and warming parents on a late summer’s evening as they sip their gins and tonic.  Yes, that’s right. I said “vital”.

Small scale grand designs

This playhouse has been many things over the years: a doctor’s surgery, vet’s practice, shop, café, hospital and even, thanks to Tracy Beaker, a children’s care home.

For something so versatile, it was remarkably good value; just a flat pack wooden house.  But half the enjoyment for us has been making it our own using everything from carpet offcuts for the floor, to old wine boxes as window planters.

One easy way to improve the look is to cover over the roofing felt.  I achieved this by attaching brushwood screening with a staple gun before encouraging Clematis ‘Etoile Violette’ to cascade over the top.

A place of their own

Play equipment might tempt children to be in the garden, but to really love a garden, they need to feel part of it.  For me this has meant giving each of my kids a patch they can call their own.

As a garden designer this was more painful than it sounds, for not only do they now have domain over some nine square metres of prime, sunny, walled garden, they also get to make all the decisions.

I have had to bite my tongue as they’ve bought and sown plants which even Dame Barbara Cartland would have called ‘gaudy’, watch precarious ‘rockeries’ be constructed from rubble and see bright plastic toys hung from branches as makeshift decorations.

But they love their gardens, care for the plants (and occasionally weeds) and rush out every day as spring approaches “to see if there is anything new”.

Good enough to eat

Will my children eat a lovingly prepared salad at the table?  No. Will they graze on lettuce leaves they’ve pulled straight from the ground?  Of course.  Silly question.

As appealing as flowers may be it’s the ability of a tiny seed to grow into something edible that really excites my offspring.  For this reason a vegetable patch was always a non-negotiable element of our garden.

My only problem was making the space look appealing even in winter.  The solution, apart from a well-dressed scarecrow on show all year round, was to plant box hedges around the base of raised beds.  In this way they retain an attractive structure even when fallow and the crisscross pattern of pathways make a perfect mini road system for toddlers on trikes.

‘Helping’ hands

My children are often surprisingly keen to help in the garden.  Admittedly I use the term ‘help’ loosely, but it is always good to be encouraging.

If you do want to foster a love of gardening it makes sense to give them jobs with interest and reward, such as sowing and harvesting, or the chance to get extremely wet, also known as ‘watering the pots’.

Child-sized equipment can make these garden tasks a lot less problematic.  Smaller watering cans are easier to handle, and involve more running back and forth to refill so keep them busy for longer. And garden tools made for smaller hands and frames are simpler to manoeuvre and control.

Border patrol

When a child wants to get from A to B, the presence of a well-planted border between the two will be no deterrent.  About three years ago I gave up saying “No!  Use the path!” because sometimes you just know you’re beaten.

Instead I have now planted beds that can cope with their transgressions.  Thankfully, this doesn’t mean a dull shrubbery but rather a mix of near invasive spreaders, tough perennials, fecund bulbs and notorious self-seeders.

There was a planting plan, once, but now we simply let the species fight it out amongst themselves, with the occasional intervention to prevent a hostile takeover.  The real trick is keeping the colour scheme relatively narrow so that invading plants are polite enough not to clash.

Some easy things to make at home

Insect shelter

You can build a multistory ‘Creepy Crawly’ tower by using old bricks for walls and short wooden offcuts as floors.  Curved tiles at the base make good homes for toads and frogs whilst drilled logs are often occupied by solitary wasps and ladybirds.

Log walkway

Wide log sections, partly buried in the soil for stability, create a raised path that children can use to traverse the borders while mastering their balance technique.

Tyre garden

You can build all sorts of miniature worlds outside by brightening old tyres with acrylic paint and then filling them with compost.  This shady spot teamed with ferns, rocks and moss became a pre-historic land for toy dinosaurs to roam.

Scented hopscotch

Use masonry paint to transform simple concrete paving slabs into a garden hopscotch. If you add grit to the soil and chose a sunny spot then you can even plant thyme around the slabs to give the game added scent.

This and many other projects appear in Dawn’s book, Garden Crafts for Children