How do you lure your children away from their screens and into the garden? Simple. Make it fun. Add swings, blackboards, basketball hoops and hopscotch.
Give them a patch to grow their own and resist the temptation to tidy it all up. Then let them at it. Fran Power seeks out garden designers who know how to transform a garden from a dead space into a kids' wonderland
Stir the imagination with a treehouse
Designer: Peter O'Brien of Plan Eden (01) 281 9470; planedengardendesign.ie
Dr Zeuss treehouse, Designer: Peter O'Brien of Plan Eden (01) 281 9470; planedengardendesign.ie
What: The clients have 15-20 acres of land, with mature woodland, and commissioned a treehouse to provide a den for children. Peter O'Brien designed a magical Dr Zeuss treehouse hung between two mature oaks, and built over three levels. It has all the elements of a playground with rope bridge, decks, ladders, one of which leads through a trapdoor to the crow's nest. "You want to retain as much of the tree as you can and have as little impact as possible," says Peter. "In Ireland, we tend to get oak and beech that are not straight and you have to work with that, but it adds more interest and is more challenging for a designer. It means that a treehouse design evolves - the gantry bridge evolved as we built it." Whether you build your treehouse out of a packing case and rope ladder or go the whole works, kids love them. "It allows their imagination to run riot," says Peter, "especially when the treehouse is in the branches rather than on legs on the ground. It's so close to nature and there's a special light coming through the canopy. There's a lovely peace when you're up in it."
Cost: The sky is the limit with treehouses, but expect start prices from €25,000. Plan Eden's treehouses are insulated and double-glazed.
Alan Coffey of Green Shoots Garden Design, (01) 486 5383 /087 768 8560; greenshootsgardendesign.ie
Who: Alan Coffey of Green Shoots Garden Design, (01) 486 5383 /087 768 8560; greenshootsgardendesign.ie
What: With clever design even small spaces can have a big impact and satisfy both kids and adults. This tiny 6m x 6m garden in Dublin 4 was transformed into a low-maintenance, multi-functional family garden by zoning spaces for kids and adults that created storage, a dining area, shelter from overlooking houses and a hidden play area screened off from parents' view with planters and screens. The boundary wall and garden shed provide spaces for the climbing wall and monkey bars, a small treehouse is also included. Alan Coffey, designer at Green Shoots, says: "Plan your play space at the outset of the design process to successfully incorporate it into the garden as a whole. Make the space a secret or hidden area where kids can explore and play without adult oversight." He points out that in a small space, finish and details are crucial because everything is on show. Here, he carried kitchen porcelain floor tiles and paint colours through to the garden to create the illusion of a larger space and link the two. Fast-growing bamboos created living walls to screen off the kids' play area.
Cost: Expect to pay between €10,000-20,000, depending on size and specifications.
Make a playground
Designer: Eoin Ryan of Inspire Landscape, (01) 297 3344, 086 172 7669; inspirelandscape.ie
Eoin Ryan of Inspire Landscape, (01) 297 3344, 086 172 7669; inspirelandscape.ie
What: Client Lynda Browne wanted a child-friendly garden that would be fun, both for her own three boys and for Lily Montessori school, which she runs from her home.
She also wanted a place for grown-ups to entertain. Eoin Ryan of Inspire Landscape designed a modern family garden with several sitting areas to suit morning and evening sun. Instead of hedging off a children's play area, he mixed the garden with play stations.
"It's nice to engage with children when they're playing, particularly when they are young. Lynda runs a Montessori school so it was important for her to be able to keep an eye on the children and she also didn't want the garden split up."
He used artificial grasss, a garden trend he has noticed is increasingly in demand in family gardens. "About 60pc of the grass I put in now is artificial," he says. While some garden-lovers might throw their hands up in horror, Eoin points out that artificial lawns drain well, stop kids getting mucky and tramping mud through the house, and are usable year-round. In this garden, he added sheltered areas in the kitchen play station and playhouse for rainy days. "Outdoor kitchens and sand pits allow kids to get messy and use their imaginations," he says, "An outdoor kitchen can be a bench and plastic basin. They love pretending to be grown ups and making a mess.
"Plastic swings and slides aren't that attractive," he says, "so when it comes to play sets, try to screen them or have timber ones made that can be painted, avoid bright plastics." The sandpit is cleverly concealed beneath a sliding deck.
Cost: Total cost, €12,000; chalkboard, €120; play kitchen with roof €600 (excludes accessories); deck with sand pit, €650.
Fuel a sports obsession
Who: Eoin Ryan of Inspire Landscape, contacts as before
What: The owners of this Blackrock garden have three sports mad children who like soccer, hockey, basketball and tennis. The parents wanted a modern garden that would be stylish but also sports friendly. It also needed to look good from the open plan ground-floor of the house and tie in with the interior style of the renovation. The solution was to split the garden in two - the grown-up part, says Eoin, "is a traditional garden with a large travertine terrace that looks out on to a large lawn flanked by standard olive trees and clipped Buxus and Laurel hedges. Lavenders and hydrangeas give seasonal banks of colour". The sports section is behind this and has been dropped in level and is screened so as to be invisible from the house and has an all-weather pitch which the children use for soccer, tennis, hockey and basketball. For those who want to introduce their children to nature and growing, Eoin advises: "Plant your fruit and vegetable plants amongst your regular garden plants. Dedicated areas can look a bit sad during winter or when neglected. Add bird feeders, bird boxes and plants that attract butterflies and insects and allow kids to observe wildlife as well as areas where they can turn over stones or logs and see what creepy crawlies they can find."
Cost: Artificial lawn is priced at approx €60-80 per sqm; expect to pay from €40,000-50,000 for a similar garden.
Hide a playhouse in a sensory garden
Who: Tim Austen Garden Designs, (0404) 66827; timaustengardendesigns.com
What: This Greystones garden belonging to Gordon Elliott and his family is a long, relatively narrow space of roughly 60m x 12m. It was divided into two, with overgrown plants and trees hiding the view down the garden and two pergolas also tucked away in the lower end, while in the upper end, there was a pint-sized patio that didn't work for family activities and entertaining. The Elliotts wanted a garden that would work for entertaining friends, and provide a play area for their children and that would relocate a pre-existing Wendy House from the end to the centre of the garden in a way that would be secluded but also allow them to keep an eye on the children. Tim Austen re-sited the Wendy House in the centre of a perennial planting scheme. He opened up the garden and linked the upper and lower parts with a pathway that curves temptingly through the length of the garden. "I'm very much about trying to make a garden interesting and adventurous for children and giving them elements that send them exploring. I loved to explore secret gardens and get lost in the plants when I was a child," says Tim. So he planted lavenders, herbs and grasses, and here and there wild strawberries that the children could discover in among the flowers. "For an adult the planting is waist high, but for a child, it is head high. They can run their hands along the grasses and lavender as they pass through and the herbs will release their scents, they can taste them, and the strawberries are edible too. They can collect sticks and interact with nature and develop their own creative play." He also extended the patio into a larger wood and stone deck that gave the family room for entertaining and eating outdoors.