The trickiest garden-design clients I’ve ever had? My own family. On moving to a new home, to my own wish list of overflowing herbaceous borders and bowling-green-smooth lawns were soon added the desirables “goalposts”, “treehouse” and “labrador”. We finally had the chance to make the family garden we had dreamt of — the challenge was to make it look good without casting household democracy out of the window.
Family gardens are a tall order for any designer, as everyone will have a completely different, yet totally valid, list of things they would like in their outside space. The magic happens when all these ideas are combined in a garden that still looks like a garden, and not like a showroom full of disparate elements. Playing, dining, sitting, entertaining, relaxing; pets, safety, privacy, football: all these need to be taken into consideration, yet when I look out of the window, I still want to see a beautiful, simple, understandable space that feels as if it belongs to the house and also fits in with what’s visible beyond the boundaries.
This last point — a fundamental part of garden design — might seem rather a technical issue, but sitting well in its location is one of the main tenets of a successful project, and for a family garden it’s absolutely vital. If a garden has a good sense of place (its genius loci, no less), then it feels comfortable to be in, and what more would you want than to feel totally at ease in your own outdoor family room?
This concept isn’t as complicated as it sounds: for example, if there is a fabulous London plane tree three gardens away, there is little point trying to hide it. Celebrate it instead — when you plant your own trees to create privacy for the spot you’ve earmarked for a hammock, say, or to provide shade for the sandpit, leave a gap to frame the view and make it a focal point.
Sandpits, swings, trampolines, footballs: some or all of these will undoubtedly appear on the list at some time or other in the lifespan of a family garden. To make these look as if they belong, as opposed to being randomly added, I try to give each feature more than one use. A sandpit will need a lid to protect its contents from falling leaves and the family cat, so why not incorporate the sandpit into a decked dining area? Ensure that the decking lid is well constructed so that it is sturdy enough to support a table and chairs, and you’ll have both a play area that is near enough to the house to be monitored, and a feature that can be quickly transformed into something a little bit more grown-up where the whole family can enjoy a meal outside.
A timber archway can temporarily hold a toddler’s swing; when the toddler is a teenager, the swing fixings can be removed and the arch turned into a support for clematis and climbing roses. Thornless and almost-thornless climbers such as Rosa‘Zéphirine Drouhin’ and R ‘Snow Goose’ can even be planted while the swing is still in place. I have also used the idea to create a temporary football goal: I added fixings to a simple wide timber arch, so that a net could be added and removed, simply and easily.
On the subject of play, one of the most popular pieces of outdoor play kit is the trampoline, a great big thing that can create an unwelcome focal point in any space, large or small. My advice is sink, sink, sink, but do get professional help — large, unwelcome muddy puddles can unwittingly be created by digging a big hole without first considering drainage and soil retention. (I’d add here that, although sinking the trampoline down to ground level means less of a height from which to fall, you still might want to consider safety netting.)
My teenagers have outgrown sandpits and swings, but the good old 1970s-style swing seat is still a favourite destination for all the family (including the labrador, whose continuous moulting and muddy paw prints are a giveaway every time), so I’d definitely recommend patterned upholstery — or at least a darker colour than the optimistic cream linen I opted for first time around. Both Wilverley (wilverley.com) and Odd (oddlimited.com) have beautiful fabric-panelled garden swing seats that make the perfect spot to snooze, to hide away, to chat with a friend, or to sit and read a book to a small child on a lazy afternoon.
If there isn’t room for one of these, or if you don’t have room to store its cushions during the winter, a hammock is an excellent alternative. You don’t need two ancient oak trees to create this idyllic place to relax: concrete into the ground a couple of hardwood posts sturdy enough to support the weight of an adult (or four teenagers and an overexcited dog — do the maths first!). These posts will soon weather and become unobtrusive in the gloomier months. And to keep the dog happy, how about a bespoke kennel whose green roof is planted by the children with annual vegetable seeds and alpine strawberries? Another design double whammy.
Seating is key in any garden, and in a family garden it’s an idea to create different areas so that older children (and adults) feel they have their own space. You don’t need acres to achieve this: in a long, narrow (16ft x 45ft) London garden, I have fitted in a breakfast terrace for the parents, full of gorgeous planting both at ground level and overhead. Using a hedge of productive espaliered apples, this terrace is screened from a seating area designed with the client’s five teenage sons in mind. Here, a pair of curving timber benches face each other, creating an area invisible from the breakfast terrace thanks to a carefully staggered route along the garden. And bearing the “one item has more than one function” mantra in mind, these benches have space underneath in which to store logs, which are, in turn, used in the furthest area of this four-roomed garden: the pizza oven.
As the daughter of an Italian, I have enthusiastically embraced this notion, and encourage my clients with families to include one if at all possible. A pizza oven provides a cosy, warm focal point, and as well as providing the opportunity to teach children how to knock up an impressive, fun and easy meal, you can roast pretty much any piece of meat in a wood-fired oven. (The aforementioned client assures me that their Thanksgiving turkey was delicious.)
If you do have more space, and everyone is clamouring for a swimming pool, it is worth considering a natural swimming pond. I have long been a fan of the idea of swimming in water kept clean by plants, totally untreated by chemicals; I’m creating one such water feature at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. These ponds sit perfectly in the garden setting; their shape can be the soft, organic curves we would expect of a natural pond, or they can be designed with much more sleek, contemporary lines. We are often asked to convert old, disused pools into ponds, and with expert advice you can create an area that is useable as well as looking as if it truly belongs.
In all garden design, simplicity is key: look at your wish list and see what can be combined. The treehouse can in time become a home office, the climbing frame can become a rose arbour. Keep the lines of the design clear, and blur these lines with planting. Make the garden a space for all, yet a space you can look at and love. And above all, bear in mind that instilling a love of the garden and the outdoors in your children is a very precious thing indeed.