All it takes is a little imagination to turn an everyday garden into a fairy grotto
Story: Wendy Clarke
As plastic play centres, elaborate play gyms and timber cubby prices escalate, it’s time to question whether an extension to the mortgage is really necessary to lure the kids outside.
Imagination is a powerful tool to possess through life and the benefits extend beyond its ability to enable children to direct their own play, thereby providing parents with some peace and quiet. To imagine we’re on a tropical island instead of enduring pain, to conjure a feeling of calm in the midst of a crisis, to visualise reaching the top of the mountain when we’ve only just begun — these are crucial life skills that begin in the playground when we stimulate our own imaginations by making up stories.
A garden play area only needs the beginnings of a story — a fairy ledge in a wall or a roughly hewn bark teepee — to spark the imagination of a child. Immerse yourself in a child’s storybook and notice the magic that seems to emanate from what are very simple illustrations of rocky outcrops, fairy caves, mystical tree hollows and the mighty drawbridge over a moat.
These are all things you can create (or hint at) quite simply in your own garden using readily available materials lurking in your neighbourhood. The trick is to locate these magical creations at the end of, or along, secret paths that wind through the “forest” of your backyard garden beds rather than plonk them in the middle of the lawn.
When I design a garden it’s always with play in mind for adults, children, dogs, cats and wildlife. Experience tells me adults and dogs use the lawn most, and children only when they are enticed there to play ball with an adult, which is perhaps our own fantasy. Children love the intrigue of a skinny path winding through the garden, looping on itself to provide plenty of spots for playful sabotage and hidden surprises.
How wonderful to hear the squeals of delight at the Ian Potter Foundation Children’s Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne as little ones discover that the secret tunnel — right where the melaleucas on either side are growing into each other — is only child height. Children emerge at the spying platform to check on Mum then disappear again into the tunnels. No electronic gadgets in sight! (For more on the Children’s Garden, turn to page 47.)
There are many things you can create in your own garden to give the kids hours of endless delight. If you are in need some ideas, you could try these well-tested tips:
• Build a raised deck 2m x 2m x 1m high with tall posts on three of the corners. A rope ladder or simple rough timber steps and a safety rail around the deck will allow for uninterrupted spying. Sling a tarp between the posts for shade or camping out. Plant trees around it with 1.5m-high shrubs under them so that, in time, the platform will be well hidden. A little dry creek bed on one side will give (pretend) fishing opportunities along with nooks and crannies for wildlife.
• Teepees are easy to construct with four or five long eucalypt branches and some rope. Position the branches firmly into the ground, placing in a rough circle, and tie the tops together. Cut off any unsafe twigs at eye height. Cover the teepee walls with bark you’ve found on the ground (checking for spiders, first). Paperbark is great for this! Make sure you hang out an old tin can with a rock inside for a door knocker.
• Fairy grottos can be tucked away in ledges nestled into a simple dry stone wall. Fairies like to hide in quiet, secluded places, so the wall must go in the garden bed. A semi-circle of wall will do the trick and pretty is the theme for this part of the garden. Towering red-hot pokers, the butterfly-like gaura, the stunning Grevillea magnifica, purple fountain grass (Pennisetum advena ‘Rubrum’) and a smattering of giant feather grass (Stipa gigantean) will entice even the most hardened fairy into this magical grotto. Of course, a lovely colourful rug on the ground and some pea straw for fairy nests are musts!
• Fun vegie gardens will convince their owners to eat what they’ve lovingly tended. Give them their own little wine barrel garden and help them make a beautiful, outrageous bean teepee. Beads, wire, buttons, shells and plastic have all featured in my teepees. Purple king beans, sunflowers and snowpeas are a good starting point and are snail free.
• Tiny tots like being close to Mum, so place the sandpit where Mum can rest on a daybed in the garden. Let’s face it, helping Mum to recharge can only benefit the tot. Creating a 40cm-high decking platform will give you a daybed and the sandpit can be a box with wheels that then slides under the daybed to keep the cats out. Storage for toys can also be provided under the daybed.
• Bike paths are much more intriguing if they wind through the garden, part and then loop back together. A 1m-wide path will accommodate three-wheelers easily.
• Trampolines are really just spying platforms with bounce, so locate them off the lawn and in some shade. If the trampoline is deep in the garden bed area it can be planted out without changing the entire design of the garden when the kids fall out of love with bouncing. Make sure you surround the trampoline with a good area of soft fall mulch, or buy one with a safety net.
• Treasure totem poles absorb the spoils of holidays at the beach or in the bush. Find some 1.5m-long tea-tree branches and stand them up in a deep backfilled hole (leaving 1m above ground). Pretty scraps of yarn, shells, nail polish and stones give little girls the tools to make gorgeous ropes to string all over the poles.
Armed with these ideas — and, no doubt, some more of your own — you can now head out to the backyard and carve up the lawn to make a beautiful deep new play forest. Plan the paths first and nestle them with garden beds deep enough to plant some tall shrubs — essential for intrigue!
Don’t forget to place some lovely shade trees in the mix and then get to work on creating the secret play areas. Get the kids involved in collecting materials and then sit back and watch as their imaginations take over.
About the author: Wendy Clarke is a Melbourne-based garden designer and founder of Dirtscape Dreaming.