Gardens for children--ideas?

reyesuela(z7a)May 23, 2009


I have two main areas of gardens: grown-up spaces and children's spaces. While largely distinct, I want the children's spaces to have sophistication and the grown-up spaces to have a hint of, dare I say it, whimsy.

The overall garden space is about 125' long and 125' at the broad end narrowing to a petite 60'--a large wedge. The entire yard but the very front is high shade, and my garden "rooms" are defined by the trees. (Sorry--my pencil sketches aren's scannable.) Of this, a 100'x40' section is the children's garden, along with the 50'x20' stretch in front. The main section going to be divided by peninsulas of shrubs, which will mostly interrupt sight lines, into three distinct parts. The first will be a "fairy garden," the second a water play garden, and the third the train garden (with a playhouse tucked into the shrub boarder with a double entrance--one from our garden and another from the neighbor's side--YES, this isn't allowed by zoning, but no one else can see it, and the neighbors think it's great as a shared playhouse for the kids).

The extreme front stretch is a "secret garden," which will be accessible only through two carefully spaced arborvitae. It will be a grassy place to spread out a blanket for picnics, bordered on one side by evergreens and on the other (outside the dimensions listed) by a tall front screen of sun-loving, flowering shrubs. (Mainly flowering, and largely deciduous.) In the summer, it will be entirely hidden from the road.

I want to include the few shade plants that attract butterflies throughout the children's section.

Now, on to specifics....

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This is a wee bit embarrassing because I feel like I'm earnestly talking about the gnomes I'm putting around my pond, but despite the abuses, I think a child's fairy garden can be delightful without being twee.

For the fairy garden (for our daughter), what I absolutely don't want is horrible, tacky dolls shoved among hosta. The day I put glitter in a garden is the day you may kill me with a gardening fork. In the center will be a hopscotch course (there's one I'd kill to replicate--it has the magpies rhyme!), and the overall idea will be of a woodland garden, with stones, moss, etc. A small selection of extremely plain wind chimes, at a height for small hands to ring, is appealing to me. (We got very little wind even before the shrubs were put in, so it won't be obnoxious.) Any sort of "fairy garden" sign is RIGHT out, but toad houses of the single color glazed ceramic sort seem right. And small, decorative metal bird cages, some hanging from the trees for evening lighting and some on the ground as "fairy houses" (but not FAIRY HOUSES, if you know what I mean), realistic mushrooms, even a turtle or hedgehog sculpture half-hidden in the leaves... I may go so far as a fairy door or two. (Oh, dear. Too twee?) Any actual fairies will be toys, though--to be taken out and played with and brought back inside!

I'd love to know whether I can affix faces to trees without damaging them, too. Yes, okay, that's probably over-the-top, but it IS for a little girl!

I am shaky on a color scheme for that part of the garden, though. I know there will be quite a bit of white and a WHOLE lot of green. My impulse is pink, lavender, and blue, too. Dicentra, lily-of-the-valley, azaela, pieris, rhodos, hydrangea, etc., though dominated by foliage.

Does anyone have any ideas to add? Any arguments against any of my tentative plans?

    Bookmark   May 23, 2009 at 3:02AM
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As it is, the kids are in the hose just about every day we let them. I'm envisioning a central water play zone in the next area with a small paved space of smooth, loose stones.

I'm thinking in the center, something like this, mated to a garden hose with a pole with clips affixed at various heights so that they can take it down and spray one another or hang it and point it straight up, out, etc.:

(It would come in in winter, of course!)

I'm also thinking of a circle of ground-level sprinklers in series (three...) with the hose buried in the stones, plus a small, spitter-type fountain, like this:,34-625,default,cp.html

I'm largely at a loss as to the actual garden here, except that it'd have to take everything from normal garden conditions to very wet ones, depending on the kids. I don't know what stones I want or what colors or pretty much anything. I'm thinking, tentatively, of using blue ceramic pots as a grounding idea (yes, yes, I know, so five years ago--but darn it, blue looks GOOD in the garden!). Pots would dry out quickly even from frequent dousing. I'm thinking that it might be very interesting to give the garden, however oddly with the containers, a Japanese inspiration. No dorky lanterns, gates, structures, etc. Just Japanese plants in a Japanese balance of shape versus bloom.

    Bookmark   May 23, 2009 at 4:00AM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

Will you adopt me please? ; ) Your garden ideas sound like so much fun.

The good thing about making a fairy garden for children is they get to use their imaginations to fill in all the blanks -- so it's good to leave a lot of blanks. If you pre-define their fairies and fairy houses, they don't have as much opportunity to be inventive.

I can remember making a "Barbie jungle" with my friend in her father's garden, complete with hose-fed waterfall and tree root swings. I've no idea what the woody shrubs were that inspired it, but it entertained us for an entire summer. (Notice Barbie and fairies are quite different...)

Once, for my children and their cousins, I planted a sunflower house -- a rectangle of sunflowers with space for a "door", and a walkable groundcover for carpeting. It was less than perfect, but it was still a big hit. Ephemeral, but memorable.

Oh, and a friend has one of those faces on her tree, and it's fine, no problems with the tree.

All your instincts are good, run with them.

    Bookmark   May 23, 2009 at 12:49PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

Plow & Hearth has a cute, mushroom-shaped stool. It comes in two heights (though for younger children you might want to bury the 13" stool an inch or two in the dirt or gravel). Not cheap, unfortunately. Link below.

Folks in the Hypertufa forum could tell you how to make one -- cheaper and whatever size is best -- but it would probably be too heavy to move.

Someone who's good at woodworking could do clever things with old tree limbs and lumber scraps.

I have fond memories of cheap 2" plastic baby dolls with moveable arms and legs whom I dressed (badly) in scraps of fabric and seam binding from my mother's sewing and housed in Christmas-card boxes (wonderfully portable for carrying into the back yard). Seeds, pods, rose hips, and rosemary twigs were their harvest. Pistachio shells functioned as bowls, and walnut shells made bushel baskets. (And to this day I save little plastic thingies, because you never know what they'll come in handy for....)

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   May 23, 2009 at 4:10PM
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>The good thing about making a fairy garden for children is they get to use their imaginations to fill in all the blanks -- so it's good to leave a lot of blanks.

>I have fond memories of cheap 2" plastic baby dolls with moveable arms and legs whom I dressed (badly) in scraps of fabric and seam binding from my mother's sewing and housed in Christmas-card boxes (wonderfully portable for carrying into the back yard).

Exactly. Thought that kind of thing would be a WHOLE lot more fun than even if I could find a gloriously gorgeous and tasteful fairy series (at some obscene rate)! What kids want is mobility and flexibility. I want a sketch of a fairy garden.

I think that they get tacky when you get too specific--when you tell instead of suggest. A bird cage still feels like a suggestion to me, but a full-blown cottage is "telling." Maybe there's something about gardens and imagination in there. A dolllhouse is better when there are more specifics. But a garden is the opposite. Too many specifics, and beauty is lost. I guess a dollhouse is a model of a home, while a garden, even a very formal one, is a model of nature through the hand of people....

Or I'm just making nonsense up just justify what I like. :-P

I do like the stools if I'm careful about them. They're a wee bit rich for my budget, though. I'm the sort with champagne tastes on a beer budget because if I manage to get the best champagne at the budget of beer, I have money left over for the flutes and the fireworks, too. ;-)

    Bookmark   May 23, 2009 at 5:01PM
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For theme ideas (not really fairy stuff) Try a search for Michigan State University 4H Children's Garden... I just looked quickly, so probably didn't come up with best link, but try this,1607,7-125--66589--s,00.html or They are also on Facebook, but my quick look didn't have the best pics. They had a labyrinth that was of an Alice in Wonderland-type theme that ended into a Secret Garden. They tore out the arbovitae used to make that last fall and when I was there in March it hadn't been replaced yet; not sure if they are going to do something else or start over, but it was very cool. They have several theme areas and my kids enjoyed many happy hours there. If only I had the budget to recreate some of it! There is a video you can view as well, I could not view it at this moment. Their main site is under construction but I'm sure a search will turn up something nice. A few of their themes: Tree house, Dinosaur Garden, Cereal Garden, Pizza Garden, Alphabet garden (a train runs through it on special occasions)it's where we discovered the eyeball plant- how fun. Oh they also have a 'Monet Bridge' I'm sure you'll see that in the pictures. There is a gate kids can swing on and it makes water spit!

    Bookmark   May 24, 2009 at 11:45PM
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Oh, heck - I'm blanking on the exact title, but there is a dvd and book about making a fairy house. It was more about using natural materials and nothing man-made, but the girl in the story made the house (Kristen?).

I've sometimes made elaborate plans in my head, but the budget hasn't covered it. ;). This year, my dd (5) helped plan a border of annuals that is HER garden. She also planted a few cucumber seeds in there, lol. Thankfully, we are getting good germination, although she is getting impatient since there are flowers in Mom's garden but not in hers. But, sometimes, you can't plan the best parts. Like, this morning, when she decided to tickle a tree!

By the way, the children's garden at Huntington Gardens is really cool for ideas (or to visit, if you can). A train gardens is a major project. If budget and time are issues, I might cut that one unless you have a majorly train obsessed kid.

    Bookmark   May 25, 2009 at 10:16PM
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Thanks for the suggestions and the links! I had looked up childrens gardens but hadn't seen those. One actually gave me an idea for a place in the backyard--an arbor bench that's wide enough to lie down on.

We homeschool, so the train garden will be a part of school (next year, I think, for the main part, and the year after to finish). It's going to be quite small, and it will be raised off the ground by 1' or more to for a kind of "tabletop mountain." The track will be a VERY simple figure 8, but it'll seem bigger with a tunnel and a bridge. I've noticed that really big train gardens seem small if you see too much at once, and small ones seem big when raised and hidden.

That will be my nursery for dwarf conifers. :-) They'll start out there as 4" pots and get moved into the garden when they get too big. I can't afford miniature and dwarf conifers of any reasonable size, but I adore them. (The only place I'm splurging is when we redo the foundation plantings--then, I need stuff to look good right there, tight then.)

This year, I'm starting the water garden. But it probably won't be until much later in the season. Right now, I'm still busily snatching up clearance shrubs and placing them according to my plans and color schemes. I'll get more expensive shrubs, too, but I can use quite a few common pieris, hydrangea, rhodos, etc.--and can also often score some of the more unusual shrubs the big box stores occasionally stock. (I actually got an interesting 5 gal hydrangea--a pale pink (or blue--probably blue!) mophead for $2. It was marked down to $12 but looked dead, and I joked about it with the manager, who happened to standing there, and he marked it down to $2 for me. I planted it, and lo and behold, a number of leaves perked up within 24 hours! Poor thing just needed a dose of high shade, cool earth, and water!)

I've always loved the idea of a maze, and the kids LOVE playing hide-and-go-seek, but there's no room at all for a real maze anywhere on the property. There will be "maze-like" paths throughout the rooms, instead.

Well, honestly, there won't. :-) The paths will actually be really simple, but by half-hiding the minor ones, it will SEEM like a maze!

In the back, DS helps me with the raised potager garden. (Right now, it's too small for potager and is just veggies, but we WILL have more beds one day!!!) I want to put in a bed of brambles along the back of the slope (I loved berry picking as a kid!) and somewhere, somehow, I'll make room for a flower cutting bed. We've pretty much got a pizza garden already--I lurve me some basil. ;-)

    Bookmark   May 26, 2009 at 2:14AM
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For the water play, a cascade made of ceramic pots or pipes could be fun - we saw something smilar recently, and my kid spent a long time floating a bottle cork downstream.
A bird bath made of a flat stone could also serve as Galadriel's mirror.
Do you have trees suitable for rope ladders or swings? Fairies are a tree-dwelling species, as I've heard.
One more note - I would avoid lily of the valley in a children's garden. The plant, and especially the berries, are toxic.
Good luck with your project and have fun!

    Bookmark   June 3, 2009 at 3:50AM
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It sounds like some great ideas. How are the gardens progressing? Do you have any pictures?

    Bookmark   September 1, 2010 at 12:52AM
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Those got derailed by the baby and an emergency bathroom remodel! (When it rains downstairs every time you take a bath, something needs to be done.) She ended up being super-duper-amazingly high intensity and hasn't gotten any easier until this summer.

I decided to start with the front beds of the house and the driveway garden instead of starting something new--places that were already landscaped but sorely neglected. The front of the house has these extra wing-walls added to it and a side-loading garage attached, so it's 107' long. Because of the severe lack of windows facing the front, I've made the beds 10' deep so I can get some substantial (if very upright) conifers in there. I have 7 trees to plant this weekend and the "planted patio" (I think I just lost a contract, so the real patio will have to wait) of ajuga repetens for a little space I have staked out for chairs to sit in while watching the kids tear around the yard. :-) I also have to do my final adjustments now that I have stakes and twine to the new front stepping stones--there was no walk at all when we moved in.

In the driveway bed, I'm going to fill in an insane curve in our driveway with gravel (it will probably last for the next 10 years), finish ripping out the last of the yews (deer-chewed, overgrown, and unattractive), plant some 14 holly "Nellie Stevens", plant all the daffodil bulbs I divided, divide all the the muscari, and take out 3 more individual trees and a clump of unhealthy birch that was put in a bad place. Then I'm going to plant a row of hydrangeas and maybe a couple MORE understory trees....and then I'll have finished the driveway beds, which are about 120' long and 10' wide on one side and 5' on the other.

Then I'll keep picking away at the front bed while I haul a huge amount of "top soil" that ended up being little better than fill dirt from the back to part of the yard where soil quality doesn't really matter.

Oh, and today, I'm going to finish staining the back deck I had powerwashed. It's "only" 20x60'. I'm also going to fix the chainsaw. *sighs*

After that, I'll be able to concentrate on the kid-specific gardens and the veggie beds. ACK!!!!!!!

I've been working in the yard 20+ hours/week for 6 weeks now, with DH joining me for about 6 hours on the weekends. I've still got a long way to go, but I'm moving in the right direction slowly.

I'll post pictures as soon as anything looks like everything! Right now, I'm splitting between stuff that costs money and stuff that takes a lot of time and effort. The stuff that's mostly time and effort really doesn't look very exciting. I've got 19 shrubs and 1 tree in the front already, but it still looks mostly naked as I've got whole swathes still completely without any anchoring shrubs. It'll look enormously better with 10 more key shrubs in. Right now, it still looks quite nude, even with 3 boxwood and a picea taller than me!

    Bookmark   September 2, 2010 at 11:22AM
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