If you have a young family, your garden has to work hard. It needs to give year-round interest, providing a space where your children can play safely, you can entertain, and also be resistant to damage, whilst needing a minimum of maintenance to stay looking great. Choosing the right plants can make things easier from the start, and you can have an oasis of green that all the family can enjoy, without too much hard work.
Who can resist running their fingers through the flowers of lavender to release their delightfully relaxing scent? Given a sunny spot in your family garden, these Mediterranean natives will thrive with a minimum of watering. All they need is hard cutting back in late summer, after the flowers start to fade, to keep them dense and compact.
This easy-to-grow shrub will suit most locations, although the yellow leaved varieties can get scorched if they are grown in full sun. Choisya have scented foliage, and their flowers, which appear in late spring, have a scent similar to orange blossom. Give them a trim in June to keep them looking neat, and don’t worry if a stray football breaks a branch – they will respond well to even the clumsiest of pruning.
The quick growing Ceanothus is surprisingly tough and resilient and will fill almost any sunny spot in the garden. It has small, dark-green waxy leaves, and in early summer will be covered with blue powder puff flowers which are loved by bees and butterflies.
This shrub is so easy to grow you will often spot its wild cousins finding a foothold on scrub land around most towns and cities. Buddleja thrive in urban areas and have to be one of the mot popular shrubs for wildlife attracting an incredible number of butterflies when they are in bloom. Just cut them back in autumn to a few centimetres from where this year’s growth has started. You will get lovely long stems with huge flowers throughout the summer.
Apart from going great with lamb, rosemary is also meant to help with memory, and is a great shrub to use in the garden. It has slightly tougher stems than lavender, so will stand up to more damage from balls, but has a similar grey foliage, and bright blue flowers in early spring that seem popular with bumblebees.
If you have a sore throat, a gargle with an infusion of sage leaves is mean to help to soothe your throat, but failing that, you can always just use it in the stuffing for Sunday dinner. The silvery-purple leaves of purple sage make it a brilliantly colourful foliage shrub to use in the garden, contrasting well with lots of other plants.
My nieces and nephews all love pizza, and no pizza would be complete without a healthy dose of oregano. This herb is incredibly easy to grown and will tolerate most soil types and locations, positively thriving in hot dry and stony spots. The plant forms a low growing mat for most of the year, but in summer will flower with tall stems topped with purple flowers, just trim a few off to dry and you will have plenty to flavour your pizzas and pastas for years to come.
No garden can really be complete without an apple tree. Apple Trees have all year round interest, covered with flowers in spring, cast cool shade in the summer, fruit in the autumn, colourful leaves as they fall in winter, and once they are mature, they make one of the best trees for climbing in.
Growing veg can be a great way to get kids involved in the garden. One of the first things I remember growing was sweetcorn. The moment sweetcorn is picked the sugars will start to turn to starch. Therefore, you need to get it back to the kitchen and cook it the same day. Once you have tried home grown sweetcorn, you will realise the difference, and never want to turn back.
Peas are another great veg plant to get kids interested in growing their own. The large seeds are easy to handle. Once they have grown they are easy to pick, and eat straight away. Mine barely make it home from the allotment, as I often eat them straight from the plant, taking the chance to savour what is often one of the first crops of the summer.
Pumpkins are another easy veg which is great to get kids started on. The big seeds are easy to handle and they grow so rapidly. They seem to have changed every time you see them. It is cheap to buy a pumpkin for carving from the supermarket, but there are so many different pumpkins and squash available. From knobbly and warty to giants, you can be sure to find one that suits you. It will almost definitely make a much tastier soup than the watery offerings from the supermarket.
If you are finding it tricky to get your kids to eat their veg, why not get them to grow their own? Cut-and-come-again salad is an easy way to grow salad leaves in a family garden. You can start picking just a few weeks after sowing. Just scatter the seed mix on top of the soil in a pot, box or tray, water. In about four weeks there will be loads of baby leaves you can trim with scissors. You will get a few cuts off each sowing. So as one is sprouting, start the next one and you will have a regular supply of baby leaves all summer.
Surely we have all grown sunflowers? They have to be one of the most common ways to introduce children to gardening. It’s easy to see why. The large seeds are easy to handle, sow, and are edible, just in case your children like to put things in their mouths. They germinate and grow quickly, changing every day to keep their interest. Then, at the peak of summer, their tall stems are topped with the huge cheerful, nodding head. If your competing with your neighbours for the tallest, then try ‘giraffe’ which reliably produces 3-4m tall plants.
Nasturtiums are a great flower to get kids growing. The large seeds are easy to handle, can be grown almost anywhere. They even have tasty edible flowers with a peppery flavour that add a colourful and tasty kick to salads. I prefer the deep red flowers and blue-green foliage of ‘Indian princess’. But for some real pizazz you could get the multicoloured and variegated foliage varieties like ‘Alaska’.
If you want to give your kids a bigger project , then why not try sowing a whole meadow of flowers ? Companies like Seedball provide a balanced mix of annual flowering species that are pelleted in a tiny clay ball to make sowing them evenly as easy as possible. They can enjoy learning all the different varieties of flower as they start to bloom. AND they could even become nature detectives, discovering what type insects like to visit each type of flower.
Sedums are great plants for any family garden. Firstly, they thrive in a sunny spot, but will also take a bit of shade. They are also great for giving late-summer colour in the border, producing large flat heads of pink flowers that are loved by bees and butterflies. They are succulents, so store water in their thick fleshy leaves, that are irresistible to touch and feel. Whilst their soft stems can be easily snapped by a stray ball, or a misplaced foot, they are surprisingly tough and will quickly bounce back.
This plant has become very widespread in recent years as it combines nicely with the modern trend for tall perennials and wispy grasses in ‘prairie’ style planting. Verbena weaves its thin wiry stems through the other plants to present its purple flower heads like tiny floating clouds over the border. It is surprisingly easy to grow, and once established it will self seed every year. It’s also one of the best plants to attract butterflies into your family garden.
Fennel will be just as happy in a herb garden as a herbaceous border. The feathery foliage contrasts beautifully with other plants. The tall slender stems will wind their way up through other plants to produce zesty yellow, flat headed flowers in midsummer, which are loved by many different insects. Every part of the plant is edible. The foliage is great with fish, the seeds are often eaten at the end of meals to freshen breath, and the young flowers have a delightful liquorice taste.
The soft hairy leaves of Stachys are a sure fire hit with children. The common name of lamb’s ears is certainly appropriate. Even as a grown adult I find it nearly impossible to walk past it without picking a leaf to stroke and feel its soft fuzziness. Add to that a tolerance of full sun, and poor stony soils and you have a great plant to add a touch of softness to some of the harshest parts of your family garden.
I have fond memories of spending many sunny days picking daisies from my grandmother’s lawn to make daisy chains with my sisters. If you aren’t blessed with a lawn full of daisies you could grow this charming South American daisy instead. It will grow just about anywhere. I enjoy collecting the seeds, mixing them with mud and smearing them into cracks in walls and block paving, so they naturalise and soften the edges of any hard landscaping.
See all the sections in my Plant Guide here.