When you have children, the temptation to leave the garden as a playground or football pitch is understandable. But one couple with two girls aged 11 and 13, a boy, nine, and the family dog, in a newly renovated house in Barnes, were determined to achieve the seemingly impossible: a great-looking garden that could be used and enjoyed by the whole family, without sacrificing plants or lawn.
"There was just a fence, a back wall and a very tatty lawn in the usual London rectangular space," says Claire Mee, the London garden designer called in last spring to make the transition.
"The challenge with a child-friendly garden is to create something that works for everyone, but with features that can be removed later when the children are grown, without having to renovate the whole space.
The owners' wish list included a swing, a cinema screen, a netball hoop, lots of bright, strong colour — and they also wanted to encourage the children to appreciate nature, so seeing the seasons change was important. And they wanted a perfect lawn."
The lawn was the easy part. "I'm not a big fan of artifical grass, but the owners wanted it not just as a tougher option, but to stop muddy footprints and pawprints coming into the house. The other plusses are that it doesn't need mowing, and it stays green, however dry the summer. Even a fake lawn does need maintenance, though, which most people don't appreciate.
The pile flattens when there is heavy footfall, just like a carpet, so it needs to be brushed every month."
Although there is a terrace that leads down to the garden, Mee introduced a hardwood deck right at the far end. "We always build something at the back of the garden, so people make full use of the space — the last segment is often wasted. The white wall delineates the space, and also doubles as a film screen. It was the ideal spot, too, for the firepit the owners wanted, for children and adults alike."
Mee unified the boundaries - fences and brick wall - with battened trellis to take them up to the maximum permitted height of two metres, and to lessen the chances of balls straying.
On the left of the deck, she installed a bespoke hardwood arbour to support a swing, with bark chippings beneath to make a soft landing. "We also attached a steel bar to the end beam for the owner, who is a fitness fanatic, and wanted a chin-up exercise bar."
The arbour, of course, doubles as a climbing frame for plants, primarily honeysuckle, chosen for its fragrance, wisteria and roses. "I decided on Rosa banksiae Lutea, as it is evergreen and thornless, so scratch-proof. It also gets smothered in lemon flowers that appear early, at the same time as the wisteria blooms, and they look particularly lovely together."
The owners wanted the children to see all the stages of fruit growing, so Mee planted a double row of stepover apples - a low-growing, fun option that takes little space - on either side of the path leading to the swing, which she underplanted with Pittosporum Tom Thumb and box.
"In a child-friendly garden it's handy to have some tough, dense foliage plants that act as a buffer for straying footballs, like Hebe rakiensis, which I also like to use on corners, as a punctuation point. It also has pretty white flowers."
Down the right-hand side of the garden, which gets most sun, she planted a row of five olive trees. "Beneath the olives, I planted long-flowering, colourful perennials that attract bees and butterflies, another draw for kids: hot pink Geranium psilostemon, purple-flowered sage and perennial wallflower Erysimum Bowles' Mauve, contrasting them with lime-green Alchemilla mollis. The children asked for lambs' ears — Stachys byzantina — because they love stroking the leaves. I included other tactile, textural plants such as lavender as well as fennel and chives, because children also love to cook."
* To commission Claire Mee, call 020 7385 8614 (clairemee.co.uk)
* Artificial lawn from easigrass.com
* Fermob chairs and firepit from Barbed (020 8878 1994; barbed.co.uk)
* Swing from Marnie Moyle (01635 281 786; greenoakfurniture.co.uk)
* Portable netball from Netballuk (0161 626 3936; netballuk.co.uk)