According to conventional wisdom, children and ornamental gardens are mutually incompatible. If you want the former, you should accept your lot and embrace a plot comprising a desultory patch of worn lawn adorned with plastic play kit. And if you want a pristine garden full of horticultural delight, you can forget spending time with your kids.
As someone who is the custodian of both an ornamental garden and eight-year-old twins, I am inclined to disagree with this dismal analysis. I had a childhood full of positive experiences of gardens and gardening, from the moment I discovered that the foliage of the weeping willow tree in our garden was rather like a one-way mirror (I could see out, but nobody could see in) to digging my first potatoes, and through memorable family visits to gardens such as Sissinghurst, Penshurst Place and Hever Castle.
If there is a recipe to achieving a balance between a garden that is easy on the eye and one that is child-friendly, it starts with simple rules. Use plants that can survive being hit at medium to full pelt by a football. There are plenty out there; they don’t need to be boring and many require minimal maintenance.
If you can, give children their own space to play but also to grow plants, and you’ll encourage a respect for and fascination in plants. If you have lots of open green space nearby in the form of playing fields or parks, then don’t feel you need to turn your entire garden over to a football pitch.
Instead, design in some interesting spaces, different areas to sit, hidden spots for the children to discover and hide in. Use plants with interesting textures and colours or unusually shaped leaves, and find space to grow a few simple edibles that don’t require huge amounts of expertise. Encourage wildlife into the garden by selecting pollen and nectar-rich flowers, or those that produce edible fruit and seed. I’ve yet to meet a child that isn’t fascinated by wild nature.
Children are increasingly isolated from the outdoors. Gardens allow them to reconnect; to get muddy, fall over and discover the difference between a stinging nettle and a dock leaf.
1. Nassella tenuissima (syn. Stipa tenuissima)
Ornamental grasses have many virtues, providing movement, structure and texture over a long time. They don’t get much more textural than “hair grass”. In full sun and with sharp drainage, it forms a billowing froth of bulletproof, fine green leaves. Produces masses of seed that is simple to sow.
2. Stipa gigantea
Tall, as the name implies, with golden oat-like flowers on slender stems that give a translucent effect. Stems broken off by wayward footballs are ideal for flower arranging. Our children love that it’s a plant they literally look up to.
3. Pennisetum villosum
Pennisetum flower late in the season, and look good all winter. Any and all are suitable for a family garden but P. villosum is a fun choice thanks to the fluffy white flowers, which, I was once informed by a five-year-old, look like “little mice on sticks”.
4. Anemanthele lessoniana
This amazing grass tolerates full sun, part shade and full shade. Evergreen with bronze-orange tinged foliage and, when given enough sun, metallic purple flowers. Cat-, dog-, football- and child-resistant, it thrives on neglect.
5. Miscanthus ‘Little Kitten’
A compact, late-flowering grass that forms a beautiful fountain of foliage and, from September onwards, produces graceful flowers. Children will love (and remember) the name. Sun or partial shade with good soil.
6. Festuca ‘Elijah Blue’
One of the most intensely coloured of the blue-leaved grasses, this neat little plant is similar in feel to standard lawn grasses. Closely planted groups have the appearance of a cloudy blue lawn, into which Lego figures can be dispatched on missions.
7. Gunnera manicata
If there’s a boggy area in your garden, and a bit of space, you could find room for this real beast of the world of horticulture. The largest-leaved hardy perennial that can be grown in the UK, with leaves 3ft (1m) across and stems 6ft (2m) high. It makes an irresistible den.
Planted in a wall, or en masse in a pot or alpine trough, the humble houseleek is wonderfully architectural. Diminutive and with fleshy, colourful leaves, houseleeks are easy to grow in full sun or partial shade.
9. Dicksonia Antarctica
Tree ferns are excellent structural plants for shady areas, and perfect if you want to create a jungle-like feel in part of your garden. The shaggy “‘trunk”’ and big fronds will soon have the kids believing T-rex lurks nearby.
10. Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’
The name echinacea derives from the small, spiny creature echidna. The central boss of the echinacea flower is substantially less sharp than echidna spines but is, none the less, unusually plump and prickly. E. ‘Magnus’ has about the biggest of the lot. It’s very popular with bees, too.
11. Verbena bonariensis
The tall, wiry stems of this sun lover are topped with lavender-purple flowers that are a magnet for butterflies and moths. Each flower cluster is made up of dozens of individual, tubular flowers, ideal for the long proboscis of lepidoptera.
12. Buddleja x weyeriana ‘Moonlight’
Everyone knows that the butterfly bush is good for butterflies. But the creamy white flowers of ‘Moonlight’ are especially appealing to for moths, such as the silver Y.
13. Knautia macedonica
Beautiful, scabious-like flowers that vary in colour from white to burgundy, much loved by bees and butterflies. Goldfinches love the unripe seed.
14. Dipsacus fullonum
The teasel is a fine structural plant for wilder gardens. The flowers attract and the seed is a favourite of finches. The bristly seed heads can be stuck together like Velcro.
15. Sedum spectabile ‘Herbstfreude’
This old favourite flowers in mid to late summer and when in bloom is smothered in bees. A tendency to collapse in the middle can be prevented with the ‘Chelsea Chop”.
16. Aster ‘Purple Dome’
Asters are great for late colour and a last blast of pollen and nectar. ‘Purple Dome’ is compact and easy to look after, and looks great with Miscanthus.
17. Malus sargentii
Crab apples are great ornamental trees , and M. sargentii is especially good for smaller gardens. Beautiful blossom in spring is followed by small dark-red crab apples that ripen are good food for birds and mammals through winter, or can be turned into crab apple jelly.
18. Chimonanthus praecox
Wintersweet is a remarkable plant, with waxy, highly fragrant frost-proof flowers that are produced before the leaves. On cold winter days it’s the ideal thing for foraging bumblebees.
19. Butomus umbellatus
The flowering rush is one of the most beautiful of our native aquatic plants, with a pinkish umbel of flowers and leaves that have a distinctive twist in the middle. It needs boggy soil, or, better still, a pond – the ultimate garden wildlife attractor.
20. Cardamine pratensis
Our native lady’s smock (or cuckoo pint), Cardamine pratensis is a pretty spring- flowering wildflower that is easy to grow. It’s an important food source for the orange-tip butterfly.
Cheap and cheerful
Bulbs are brilliant value for money, and children love planting them. Tulips don’t have to be dug up and discarded. Many, such as ‘Queen of Night’, will come back year after year.
Snowdrops are completely irresistible regardless of your age. Easy to plant for little fingers – ideally 'in the green' but also as can be planted as bulbs. The more you plant the merrier.
23. Direct-sown hardy annuals
Hardy annuals such as Nigella (love-in-a-mist) and Eschscholzia (California poppy) are easy for children to sow, directly on to the surface of the soil in autumn and spring to give colour through the summer.
24. Cornflower meadow seed mixes
Although not true meadow plants – cornfield annuals are essentially arable 'weeds' – these seed mixtures are a wonderful way to transform empty ground into a colourful wildlife haven.
25. Cut-and-come-again salad
Cut-and-come-again salad leaves are easy to grow in a tray of compost with no specialist equipment required, just regular watering, a warm windowsill with good light levels.
26. Step-over apples
Apple varieties grown as step-overs are ideal for growing where space is limited, and for creating an unusual edging to a flower bed or path. With blossom at low level, children can see pollination and fruit set close up.
I have very happy childhood memories of running around the garden at home with a rhubarb leaf on my head and a bamboo cane ‘spear’. The beauty of this crop is that, once established in suitably moist soil, it just needs an annual feed with well-rotted manure.
28. Pear ‘Beurre Hardy’
If you’re going to grow pears, and encourage your children to eat them, grow a good one. This very old variety tastes superb.
29. Catshead apple
Catshead is one of the oldest apple varieties, with a delicious flavour. An apple that looks like a cat’s head or a pig’s snout is unlikely to end up on supermarket shelves. But it’s a great, fun variety to grow at home that can be eaten off the tree or stewed.
30. Grape vine ‘Siegerrebe’
This is one of the earliest-cropping culinary grape varieties, and will fruit reliably in a sunny, sheltered spot. It is also one of the best-tasting.
31. Pink fir apple potato
Easy to grow in a big container or a large compost bag, pink fir apple potatoes are deliciously peculiar spuds. Growing in bags or pots reduces the risk of a glut of potatoes that then end up as compost.
32. Popcorn shoots
Believe it or not, popcorn "seed" can in fact be germinated and grown, and the stems are deliciously or, perhaps, unnervingly sweet either eaten raw or in a salad or stir-fry. The popcorn needs to be soaked for several days until it begins to sprout, then potted into compost and grown on.
33. Eucalyptus parviflora
Eucalyptus parviflora is a relatively compact eucalyptus. The big ones can be a menace in small gardens. Australian Aboriginal people call them ‘talking trees’, because on hot days the movement of water up the stem can be clearly heard if you put your ear to the bark: “Glug-glug-glug.”
34. Salix alba ‘Britzensis’
Stem colour willows make a wonderful addition to a winter garden and are great structural plants. The long stems can also be trained into fun shapes, something the gardening team at RHS Garden Hyde Hall in Chelmsford, Essex, have taken to new levels.
35. Briza maxima
An attractive, low-growing ornamental grass, the common name for Briza maxima is quaking grass. It produces seed heads that make a conspicuous rattle-like sound when given a shake.
36. Ornamental gourds
The space-conscious alternative to pumpkins can be grown up supports in a border or pot, over a pergola or on the ground. The shapes and sizes are as wonderful as they are varied, and open up a world of “decorating”.
37. Glaucium flavum
The yellow-horned poppy is a pretty flower for sunny, well-drained spots. Its seed pod looks like a long, curved knitting needle and pops open with an audible crack when ripe.
38. Lathraea clandestina
This pretty little plant requires absolutely no maintenance whatsoever, just a suitable tree – willow is a favourite – to live off. Lathraea clandestina is a toothwort, a parasitic plant that has no chlorophyll and so cannot photosynthesise. Instead, in wonderfully ghoulish fashion, it sucks the lifeblood from other plants!
39. Miscanthus ‘Ferner Osten’
Given reasonable soil – not dust-dry, and sun or dappled shade, Miscanthus will look good for nine months of the year, topped off with attractive flowers and autumn colour. ‘Ferner Osten’ is one of the best for both. Capable of withstanding a ball-game-based onslaught.
40. Choisya ternata
It’s easy to be sniffy about "common" evergreen shrubs,, but there is nothing naff about Choisya ternata. Glossy, scented foliage, fragrant white flowers, zero maintenance and the ability to cope with sun and shade. What’s not to like?
41. Salvia ‘Caradonna’
I’ve grown salvia in every garden I have ever had. Intense flower colour, great for invertebrates, they look gorgeous with grasses or colour-popping with orange-flowered Eschscholzia. Deadhead if you want to prolong flowering but otherwise just cut back in March.
42. Rosa glauca
A fabulous foliage shrub with leaves the colour of thunderclouds above and dusky pink below. Drought-proof and trouble-free.
43. Fagus sylvatica columns
While I’m not quite ready to have a topiary elephant in the garden, simple clipped pieces such as topiary columns can have a dual purpose. On the ornamental side, they form attractive structural components. On the play side, they make great goalposts.
44. Stachys byzantina
With leaves so luxuriously furry, the common name of “lamb’s ear” is entirely apt. But the softness belies the fact that this is a tough ground-cover plant capable of withstanding long periods of drought.
45. Lavendula ‘Hidcote’
Given enough sun, a minimum of six hours a day in summer, lavenders will flower freely, remain compact and look good year round with the correct, late-summer pruning.
46. Cyanara scolymus
The globe artichoke is proof that it is possible to have a low maintenance edible plant. As ornamental as it is delicious, it can be planted in a border, so no veg garden is required.
47. Viburnum x burkwoodii
One of the most beautifully fragrant of all spring-flowering shrubs, this is also pretty much maintenance-free. It makes a lovely alternative to a traditional hedge.
48. Erigeron karvinskianus
The diminutive Mexican daisy will seed around in cracks in paving and the corners of flower beds wherever the soil is dry and the sun hot. A cheerful opportunist that I wouldn’t be without.
49. Dryopteris erythrosora
Even the driest, shadiest spots can be filled with plants, and Dryopteris erythrosora is a real beauty with bronze-tinged fresh fronds.
50. Rosmarinus officinalis
We have a 10-year-old rosemary bush in a pot. During our custodianship it has survived three house moves and prolonged periods of neglect (including two years in a pot far too small). It has been used as a goalpost, an escape pod for kittens and has been abandoned in full sun and deep shade. Yet still it thrives.