Gardens that Evolve

When most people think of a “child-appropriate” backyard, they have visions of plastic furniture that soon becomes faded and tired-looking, outdated swing sets, messy sandpits and a yard strewn with bikes, scooters and balls. Essentially all the things you don’t want in a sophisticated, elegant outdoor space.

The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to have an outdoor area that’s suitable for both grown-up entertaining and children at play. The trick is in the planning.

A cleverly designed space that can be easily adapted as the needs of a family change is the ultimate goal — essentially, a design that can grow and change with you. This can be anything from a purpose-built “bike path” that will later become a meandering garden path, or a sandpit that can easily be converted into a vegie garden or flower bed when no longer needed. Similarly, a decked area for children to play on when they’re small can become the spot for a Jacuzzi for mum and dad later on.

With a little forward planning, everyone’s needs are catered for. A corner of the garden that may now house play equipment, a cubby house or a swing set can be converted at a later date to a serene spot for a bench seat, gazebo, pond or even the location for an outdoor setting and fireplace. It’s all about thinking long term.

Various Life Stages

Consider that at different ages the purpose of a yard and what you can put in it will change. For example, with babies and toddlers about, things like steps, ledges they can fall from (or ride a bike off), sharp edges and water features are hazards. More to the point, they make being outside stressful as you’re constantly on alert to avoid disaster. Similarly, expensive plants that are going to be grabbed (and destroyed) by little hands should probably wait a few years.

It doesn’t mean you have to forego your dreams altogether — sometimes it’s simply a case of waiting a while. As small children become mobile and move on to activities like playing with balls and riding bikes, room to run around and burn off energy is a must so go for open space rather than flower beds or garden features. As the children get older, you can reconfigure your yard and put in that much-coveted central rose garden or rockery.

Hide Things Away

Let’s face it, most things to do with children are bright and garish — think Hot Pink bikes with streamers and fluoro training wheels or bright-red tables and chairs. That simply means you need to have a strategy in place to hide away the unsightly when you want to. Good storage is therefore a must.

Some sort of shed screened by shrubbery or a nice climbing plant on a trellis will enable you to stow away bits and pieces like bikes and furniture when you want them out of view. Alternately, if you have a pathway or space at the side of the house (or room in your garage), a series of hooks is an easy way to hang up chairs, tables, scooters and even a portable sandpit.

For smaller items like toys, trucks, balls and so on, go for hinged wooden bench seats; try building them in an L-shape around the outside of a deck. Look for other spaces that can be converted to storage, such as cabinets that can be built in under a barbecue counter.

Enclosing the underside of a deck with doors also gives you a large storage area for big items (like bikes). If you have the space for a coffee table in your covered outside space, choose one that has drawers or shelves underneath.

Look for Durability

Anything that comes into regular contact with kids is going to take a beating: couches become trampolines, tables become launching pads for wrestling matches, and cushions become weapons for pillow fights or are used to make cubby houses and forts. Therefore, anything you choose will need to be durable.

Because they’re made for use outside, most outdoor products are highly durable anyway. But there are a few decorating tips that will help even more, particularly when it comes to fabrics. As lovely as they look, forget the white linen cushions — opt for bright colours and pattern or texture where possible. Why? Because they hide marks, stains and scuffs! Dark colours and pattern will camouflage the inevitable spills and accidents and are much more forgiving than pale fabrics with no pattern.

A garden that looks beautiful but won’t withstand the rigours of family life is going to be quickly destroyed and will merely stress you out. However, your backyard doesn’t have to look like a daycare centre — it’s all about finding the balance between visual appeal and practicality.

Think about how you really live and what your spaces need to accommodate on a day-to-day basis. Be realistic and find the middle ground. With a few minor changes, you can create a comfortable, attractive space that can withstand a few small tornadoes — your children.

Clever Ideas

If space is limited, go for a raised water play station or sand box instead of a paddling pool or in-ground sandpit.

Lawns are great to give your kids space to run around, but always go for an all-purpose seed mix that can withstand high traffic and a bit of wear and tear.

If you have an area out of view (such as down the side of the house), paint a section of the exterior walk with blackboard paint for chalk drawings. This will provide hours of fun for the kids.

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If you have a sturdy, well-established tree, why not put it to good use by adding a rope ladder or a swing seat.

To keep them looking good, Scotchgard all outdoor cushions and seat covers. And where possible, choose cushions with zips that can be easily removed and machine washed.

Safety First

Children have a natural affinity for water so it’s imperative your pool area is safe for young adventurers. If you have a pond, you may need to put wire over it. Use strong wire that you can almost stand on, but with gaps that are just wide enough to allow water plants to grow through and eventually hide the ugly wire.

Pool and spa safety is paramount but fencing around swimming pools need not be boring, functional-looking or even be placed in a straight line. How about incorporating a curve and planting small, scented plants along the fence line, such as lavender or scented peppermint geraniums? Or use frameless glass safety fencing which is tough yet doesn’t obscure your view.

When choosing and installing play equipment, safety also comes first. Make sure that slides, swings etc are strong and sturdy and that the legs don’t lift off the ground when they are being used. If you have a trampoline, it is better if it’s sunk into the ground as it won’t be far to fall if the kids come off. This can be expensive to do, but it is safer.