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Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Northwest Living Now & Then Sunday Punch

Plant Life
Imperfect? That's Perfect
A garden good for kids leaves room for messes and mysteries
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A perfectly scaled-down playhouse in this Laurelhurst lakeside garden has flowery windowboxes and kid-size furniture designed to ensure frequent visits from grandchildren who live nearby.
I'M NOT AT ALL SURE kids need swing sets, jungle gyms or sand boxes. All of these may well keep kids busy, and even develop their skills and their muscles, but they miss the point of what the outdoors uniquely offers children. It's kind of like giving a kid a video game instead of a box of blocks or paper and scissors. A video game entertains, but within such a narrow framework. Like play structures, it directs the action. Blocks, crayons and paper provide the raw material for a kid to create, improvise, experiment. Paths, water, trees and private corners of the garden set the stage for imaginative play outdoors.

The best advice I've ever heard about tailoring a garden for children is to simply leave part of it wild. How often are ideas so easy and inexpensive, as well as true? In an untamed, weedy part of the garden, kids can pull out sword ferns to use as spears, flood an area to make a muddy stream, listen to birds, crouch in a thicket and savor the illusion that the world belongs to them. They can feel both hidden and safe at the same time. I'm afraid adults forget that kids are curious, tactile little creatures who don't need us to teach them how to explore, wonder and discover. All we need do is leave part of the garden unperfected, and make sure a child has some free time to play in it.
Illustration Now In Bloom
Winter heaths carpet the ground with sturdy, colorful bloom no matter the weather. Erica carnea 'King George' has bristly, dark-purple foliage and bright-magenta flowers; E. carnea 'Springwood' has slightly larger, long-lasting white flowers. Heaths need a full-sun location, good drainage and a close shearing after flowering.
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And how to coax that child outdoors, away from the television? For most kids, you can be sure it won't be to admire a weed-free plot, or to sit around in a chaise. Kids aren't the least interested in the kinds of things we adults pay attention to. They don't want to look, or sit, but rather to run, tumble, pull, sniff and generally mess around. They want to intimately experience nature, and our own backyards are a nice, safe place to do that, especially if they're chemical-free.

I never have been able to interest my kids in gardening. Now, as an adult, my daughter likes to photograph the garden, and my son and his friends carry a boom box and board games up to the far reaches of the garden to hang out in the summer. He used to like to scoop the duck weed from the pond, and to harvest anything edible. Kids who visit mostly like to navigate the different levels, run up and down the steps, and find out where the paths lead. Even a small garden, when thickly planted, can have mysterious corners and hidden destinations.

The most important elements in any garden design for children are the basic concepts of shelter and scale. As much as we adults are interested in views and vistas, kids pretty much like private, intimate areas, scaled down to their own size. Didn't we all long for a playhouse when we were young, and try to make our own by draping blankets over a card table or building forts and hideouts? Arbors, thickets, tepees of sticks planted with runner beans, or the most elaborate little playhouse — all work to give kids that comfortable feeling of a turtle settled into its own snug shell.

Children learn through their senses, so soft, plumy grasses to stroke, sun-warmed boulders to climb on, a grassy slope for rolling, and water in a pond, stream or waterfall are sure kid-attractants. Since most kids are always up for a snack, try trimming flower beds with strawberries, plant a bush bearing blueberries in the rose garden, or create a blooming, fruiting fence with espaliered dwarf fruit trees. And while most kids pay far more attention to the experience of the garden than to specific plants, it never hurts to try to get their attention by planting some towering sunflowers, carnivorous pitcher plants or petable plants like pussy willow or silver-furred Salvia argentea.

If you garden organically to attract insects and wildlife, you'll lure children outside to revel in a laboratory of basic soil, water, plant and creature interaction. While they play, they can't help but learn how life carries on, at the same time they are busy realizing they're an integral part of it all.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor to Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Jacqueline Koch is a writer and photographer living on Whidbey Island.

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