The most practical garden design for a young family is one with an uncluttered, large expanse of grass at its hub. This will prevent toddlers getting hurt when they fall over and will provide space for energetic kids to run around, play football and enjoy the fun of wrestling without doing too much damage. Choose a hard-wearing lawn with a high rye grass content to improve its suitability for garden cricket, football or badminton, but if you want to make an all-weather play area consider using bark chippings or trendy fake grass.
Playing games with your dog is really good for your relationship and the lawn provides the perfect spot for you and the kids to get plenty of exercise and burn off some excess energy too
Chasing games can off course lead to problems as children excitedly run around and through your borders playing hide and seek. Apart from tidying bushes and cutting back straying branches in an attempt to keep plants safe, you might be wise to ‘strengthen’ the borders with tough indestructible plants such as Mexican Orange or Choisya ternata, Buddleja, Euonymus Emerald ‘n’ Gold, Weigela and Viburnum as well as ornamental grasses, which all recover well after being trampled on.
Fill flowerbeds with fast-growing hardy annuals that are replaced every year to provide plenty of summer flowers like daisies and primary coloured blooms, which children love. Check that all the plants you are growing are not toxic or have sharp thorns and prickles, which are equally hazardous.
To cater for older children and especially ones that are developing their sense of adventure, consider turning a quiet corner into wild zone, where they can explore and discover wildlife, climb trees and even build a den for ‘gang’ meetings.
Kids, young and old, love trampolines but they can be dangerous so consider sinking one into the ground. The GB Gold round trampoline (kiddicare.com) is suitable for fun-loving adults too Photograph: Rachel Warne
Make all paths, around the garden, smooth and wide so that they can double up as a racetrack for trikes and toys or become the perfect spot for a game of hopscotch. Gravel is never a good choice, as it often gets thrown about by toddlers and is not only useless for riding bikes, but also hurts when they fall on it.
Consider turning your patio into a large-scale chessboard for a challenging family game.
And if you plan to include a sandpit, make sure that it is fitted with a lid to keep out cats and foxes. A clever design will allow it to used for jumping on and off and as extra seating.
Especially for adults, create an entertaining area in the garden. Site it in a sunny spot close to the house with easy access to the kitchen for bringing out drinks and food, or turn it into a cosy sitting area surrounded by walls or screens to provide shelter and privacy and furnish your outdoor room with comfortable seating, a fireplace and barbecue
Outdoor playhouses (including tree houses, summerhouse and sheds) are good for all ages, giving every generation places to escape and for youngsters to extend their imagination through play. You can make them the centre piece of your garden design or tuck them away in a corner
Be racetrack ready
If Santa is bringing your young kids a bike, roller skates or a radio controlled car for Christmas, you will only keep them happy at home over the holidays, if your garden, just like your local park, has all-weather hard surfaces with well-planned paths for them to scoot around easily. This means for paths, no gravel, cobblestones or paving setts where wheels can get stuck in the grooves.
This family garden by Steve and Cathy Lambert (www.homeworkshop.com) features what they call a “Trike-Track” – a curvy, circular path that’s positioned within view of the kitchen window so they can keep a watchful eye on their kids while still getting things done
A smooth track of concrete makes the best surface for wheels and is relatively inexpensive to build.
Like any other paving material, a concrete path needs a hardcore base to prevent movement and cracks, so begin by marking out your path with canes and string and excavate the area 10-15cm deep. Fill this with hardcore or aggregate and tamp down well. For a long path it may pay to hire a vibrating plate machine for a day, which will cost around £26.
Begin by installing timber shuttering, which can be made from cheap timber boards, possibly from a reclamation yard, or brick edge to prevent the wet concrete spreading side ways.
The ideal concrete for the job is made from a 1 part concrete to 3 parts coarse aggregate and 2 part builders’ sand. When it’s mixed and water has been added you should be able to score a groove in a mound of concrete with a shovel that remains fairly smooth and holds its shape. If it’s rough, add a splash of water and if it won’t hold its shape, add more dry concrete.
You’ll save time and energy with a concrete mixer, which can be bought for as little as £110 on-line or you can hire for less than £15 a day.
When pouring wet concrete, it is vital to work in small sections for both for ease of working and for laying the cement mix smoothly
As concrete expands and contracts, which can cause cracking in long lengths, every 3 metres you will need to install an expansion joint or gap filled with a piece of 10mm thick softwood between each section to cope with natural shrinkage and expansion.
You need to leave the softwood in position but with a bit of creativity, these ‘thermal movement joints’ can be worked into your design and maybe used to indicate start and finishing posts on the racetrack.
Tamping down the wet concrete with a wooden plank will release air bubbles and surplus water. Using a metal hand tamp will give the smoothest finish.
Only lay bumpy cobbles to create ‘no go’ areas, such as in areas where you want to stop the kids from taking shorcuts through your borders or to alert them that they are close to danger zones such as steps
On a flat site, make one side of the path 10 mm lower than the other to allow rainwater to drain to the side.
Use hardboard as the former when making curves and to prevent them bulging or collapsing under the force of wet concrete keep them upright by mounding soil against them.
Length of path x width x depth is the amount of concrete needed in cubic metres. Don’t underestimate the size of the job and if necessary recruit some help!
Use a board to screed the wet concrete and consider leaving a rough surface by sweeping the area with a stiff broom to make it non-slip. Let the concrete harden for at least two days before removing the timber formers. And don’t forget to allow your ‘racing team’ to scratch their initials or personalise it by putting their hand or foot imprints in the concrete before it hardens!
In frosty weather, it’s best to cover the concrete with plastic sheeting for a week or so to allow it to set and cure slowly. It should be ok to walk on after a week but to be on the safe side get the kids to keep off it for two weeks.
The deadline for having your racetrack ready for fun over Christmas is mid-December!
When there are kids about always make sure that patio pots are stable, as large heavy ones have been known to topple over and not only injure but kill.
Support canes that are used in flowerbeds are a disaster waiting to happen, as they may not only give a nasty poke in the eye but are also likely be pulled out and used as swords!
Don’t add water. Even a puddle or pond in a pot could pose a danger and especially to inquisitive toddlers.
A bubble fountain is the safest way to enjoy water in the garden without worry and will also provide soothing sounds and lend a tranquil nature to a sitting area
Splish, splosh, splash…
Bubble fountains are easy to build and the basic design involves placing a watertight container into a hole up to its rim and then putting decorative stones or rocks above the container for the water to flow down. To do this, you must pick a suitable container such as a plastic bin around 45cm deep and wide enough for your design.
Add a submergible pond pump, which has the water output on the top. This will make adding the tubing easier. Take a length of rigid plastic tubing that is long enough to reach from the pump to where you want the water to pour from and attach it to the pump’s water output using sealant if necessary. Protect the pum with a mesh grill and fill the container with water to its rim.
Now comes the fun bit! Add a millstone or create a mound of rocks or cobbles for the water to bubble over and turn the pump on.