Kids allowed: Alan Titchmarsh’s tips on creating a children-friendly garden | Garden | Life & Style

Kids allowed: Alan Titchmarsh’s tips on creating a children-friendly garden | Garden | Life & Style


As if parents of small children didn’t have enough to worry about, there’s always the garden to add to the litany of disasters-in-waiting. Besides all the usual scraped knees, cut fingers and bruised shins, there are swings to fall off, trees to fall out of and ponds to fall into. 

Then there’s hazardous hardware to beware of – sharp tools, pointed canes, slug pellets, weedkillers and broken glass. Even innocent-looking borders are full of stinging bees, sharp leaves and poisonous plants. 

It’s enough to give you sleepless nights, if you’re the overanxious sort. But do put things in perspective. Yes, all the above are a worry, but you’ve probably got far worse indoors, in your medicine cabinet, all round your kitchen and in the cleaning cupboard. In any case you can always do things to reduce risks and make the garden a lot more child-friendly.

Apart from the safety angle, you probably want a garden that’s a fun place for children to play – and that means having a good-sized area of uncluttered lawn, soft bouncy everyday shrubs such as ribes, weigela, philadelphus, santolina and rosemary with no prickles or sharp edges, play areas surfaced with soft bark, and a seating area with pots of flowers, herbs and salads handily placed for meals outdoors.

It’s not the time of life to be making a fussy plantsman’s garden full of delicate treasures all with labels or fragile cold frames and greenhouses.

What I’d suggest is doing a risk assessment. Start with the shed. This is the place to keep all your garden products, tools, canes and equipment safely locked up when they’re not actually in use. If you don’t have a shed and there isn’t room for one, go for one of those lockable garden chests or the upright version, which looks like an outdoor broom cupboard.

Then look over the garden for any accidents waiting to happen. Strip your beds and borders of any split canes or spiky plant supports (let them flop) and fill in ponds – even shallow ones – (if you want a water feature, try a fountain or pebble pool instead). If you have a greenhouse, dismantle it or fence it off out of harm’s way. 

Then turn your attention to the plants. In all honesty there aren’t that many that are truly worryingly poisonous, but it’s worth learning to recognise those since they’re the ones you may want to do without while the children are small.

Likeliest to crop up in a normal garden is laburnum, which is a small tree with long, dangling racemes of yellow flowers in June. Ask yourself if you can live without it, or else keep it fenced off until the children are older.

All parts of laburnum are poisonous – you can’t even let laburnum leaves fall into a pond as they’ll kill the fish – but the big attraction for small kids is the pods, which look a bit like peas and tempt them to taste the seeds inside.

Then there’s aconite (aconitum) also known as monkshood, a family of herbaceous plants with hooded flowers that are usually blue but can also be white.

Again all parts are extremely poisonous, so I’d give this a miss – it’s even been known to harm family pets if they have a chew at it. Then there’s the castor oil plant, a large architectural annual with big lobed leaves and spiky red seed pods – it’s the large attractive seeds that look good to eat when they definitely aren’t. But neither this nor aconite are widely grown. 

Quite a few plants are technically toxic – if not every bit of them, then some parts – but they are unlikely to tempt anyone to have a bite (they usually taste terrible anyway). Since even a child would need to eat a fair bit to do much harm they can be considered low risk.

Some plants, however, have irritant sap. The ones to steer clear of while kids are young are members of the euphorbia family. It’s all too easy for a child to fall into a plant or break a stem so the sap squirts out, and you don’t want anyone to get that into their eyes.

Even if it just gets on your skin, wash it off as it can cause a rash or blistering. Also avoid rue (Ruta graveolens), as the sap causes very nasty reactions on skin when exposed to sunlight.

You might like to invest in a book on poisonous plants, which you’ll find in garden centres or the RHS bookshop at Wisley Gardens in Surrey. You can also Google poisonous plants and turn up comprehensive lists with photos. 

But any time you are in a nursery or garden centre choosing plants, look at the labels. Potentially hazardous plants carry warnings so it’s easy to avoid buying those. It’s worth reading the small print anyway to see if plants will have spikes or thorns as they mature – not always noticeable on young ones. 

Take sensible precautions, but don’t panic. Gardens are, generally speaking, safe places for children these days. 

And I must own up – I never took my own advice. I had a very complex gardener’s garden when our girls were small and we never had any problems. But then, they were told, “Hands off dad’s plants.”

Plants to beware of… 

All or parts toxic

Daffodils

Yew

Helleborus

Larkspur

Spindle (berries)

Symphoricarpos (berries)

Scilla (including bluebells)

Wisteria (pea-like pods and seeds)

Hyacinths 

Laurel

Foxgloves

Iris

Toxic or irritant houseplants

Brugmansia

Dieffenbachia

Solanum species

Primula obconica (irritant hairs)

Oleander

Poinsettia

Irritant

Alstroemeria

Narcissus and tulips (sap)

Fremontodendron

Echium

Prickly, sharp

Pyracantha

Bamboo

Berberis

Roses



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