Across the Fence

with Ann Brooke

Natural playgrounds: what the lucky child has in her backyard

water play

Natural water play in New York’s Riverside Park

  • A tree-house
  • A “cave”
  • Mud
  • Sticks and stones to build things with
  • Logs and trees to climb
  • A rope swing
  • A pond, or at least a puddle under a faucet
  • Things to catch (insects, tadpoles, lizards)
  • A stream to dam (or a hose to make a stream)
  • A fence to climb
  • A camp-fire

Any backyard is big enough to include at least some of these, and in a form that adults can enjoy, too. A frog-pond can be as small as 18” across, or it can be in a container. An arbor can double as a tree-house, if it has a roof and a ladder – adults underneath, kids on top. A cave can be the space under a low-hanging shrub.

There are dozens of good ideas on Pinterest, many of them easy and inexpensive.

Fooling around outside: landscaping for play

grading play spaces

Sculpting the landscape creates multi-use play spaces

That’s what kids used to do before screens started taking up all their time – and they still do, given the opportunity.  Landscapes designed for play are for all ages – a climbing structure can include lower, easier attachments as well as more difficult ones;  paths and trails can accommodate joggers and mountain bikes as well as tricycles and scooters.

Landscaping for play can be a matter of sculpting the terrain so that it serves multiple active play purposes (hills can be for climbing, for running up and down, or for rolling and sledding).  Or it can involve sophisticated play elements made of modern materials (a manufactured “tree swing”, a fancy zip-line, a luge-like slide).

Whatever the methods and materials, active play is an important part of family life, and including elements that will encourage active play for children and exercise for adults is an important part of landscape design.

Nature is the best medicine: garden therapy

Running water and soft plantings make a restful combination

Running water and soft plantings make a restful combination

I grew up in a family where no-one ever fought, and even a loud argument was unusual. What we did when we were upset was to leave the house and go for a walk until we felt better. Denial? Repression? Maybe, but the way I remember it was as a chance to put my probably trivial woes into a more universal perspective. It’s hard to stay cranky when the sun’s shining and the birds are singing. That’s the healing power of nature.

In a literal way, the natural world proves a potent ingredient in stimulating recovery for hospital patients. Research shows that patients who can see a tree or a garden outside the window of their hospital room recover faster, need fewer medications, and have stronger vital signs than those who cannot.

Some years ago I went to visit my father when he was hospitalized. Every room in this modern Australian hospital looked out onto a courtyard with a bush garden including a small pond, trees, benches and paths – and people, both patients and visitors, enjoying it. The atmosphere in that place of illness and anxiety was calm, friendly and relaxed. Everyone I spoke to commented on how much the garden meant to them and how much it helped humanize an otherwise frightening experience.

Such a simple and generous idea, the nurturing power of the natural world, and so rarely given institutional expression.

Gardens for people with Alzheimers


Plants have healing properties

Some brilliant horticultural therapist once put a bus shelter in a garden designed for an urban residential facility for patients with Alzheimers. The idea was that it was a familiar sight for the residents, and therefore comforting, and that if they wandered outside it would encourage them to stay put until one of the staff came to find them.

Since then, bus shelters, mailboxes, and other artifacts of city life have become standard furnishing for such gardens. Simple circular paths (can’t get lost), without too many twists and turns (too confusing) ;  nothing sharp-edged or harsh; nothing toxic (patients often put things in their mouths); familiar plants; no threatening shadows or dark areas – these are some of the considerations in such a garden.

Research identifies behavioral modification, medication, and a therapeutic environment as the three necessary factors in treating Alzheimers. Interior design and landscape design, carefully planned and executed, can greatly reduce the anxiety and confusion associated with Alzheimers.

Clip: The Quotable Garden

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Gardens and wildlife: everything loves to destroy a garden

Years ago, I kept a list of plants that deer really liked to eat. It was not a long list, and I only consulted it when working in the outer suburbs, where 2-acre homestead lots were starting to encroach into the woods.

Now, I have a list of plants that deer don’t eat. It is an even shorter list, and I refer to it everywhere except in Brooklyn, where I have yet to see wild deer. Here’s the list:

  • boxwood
  • lilac
  • lavender
  • butterfly bush
  • decorative grasses
  • herbs

That’s it. These are the only major plants that I’ve never had nibbled. Deer are everywhere, including in the middle of sizeable towns and old, heavily built-up residential areas. The only real way to keep them out is to fence them out with an 8’ fence, and there are many arguments against doing that.

In the spirit of valuing what you have, it’s more friendly, less frustrating, and definitely less expensive, to use the really quite wonderful plants on this list, plus some others that you’ll discover work in your area, and have a garden that you like to look at and the deer ignore.

(Other things love your garden, too – rabbits and groundhogs and cats and dogs, either to eat, to use as a litter box, or to dig up in the hunt for even better dietary items such as worms and insects. There are some things you can do about these critters, but I’ll address that in another blog.)

Secret gardens

Unless you live in a public park or a hotel, your garden is a private place to be enjoyed by you, your family and your friends. We all lead such public and accessible lives these days that privacy and solitude are increasingly rare. Those who live in towns and cities are always a subject of interest, to neighbors, to casual contacts, and to fellow workers (and to surveillance cameras). Those of us who spend time online – that’s to say, all of us – have no privacy at all. Our habits are an open book to anyone wanting to sell us something.

Among the few places where we can be alone and be ourselves are inside our homes, and in our gardens, and we should defend the privacy of these places against all would-be observers. To sit outside in our own garden, with a book, with dappled sunlight shining through the leaves, with the rustle of a breeze and the fragrance of lavender, is to be content. We should have more of it.

Better still, if passers-by can get a tantalizing glimpse of a tree in flower, a bit of wall, a hint of water, so they are left wondering what else is there, and wishing they could see it, we can also enjoy a little mystery. Let them eat their hearts out – this one’s for you!

Steal this stuff (or, what the neighbors know)

Well, maybe just steal the ideas. One of the best ways to think about how to design your outdoor space is to walk the neighborhood and see what other people have done that works. There are two aspects to this.

1. Layout and materials: How do you fit a lot into a small space without it feeling cramped? What sort of furniture works best in a small space? What kinds of materials look best (stone or pavers? solid wood fences or lattice?)

2. Plants: If you aren’t a  gardener, choosing plants can be pretty daunting. Something that looks good in the Garden Center may be very unhappy when it gets to your house and doesn’t have enough sun. This is where your neighbors can really help. Look around and see what looks healthy and is growing strongly – and what looks sad, yellowish, weedy and miserable.

It’s easy to see front yards, but backyards are a bit trickier. Use any opportunity to get a look behind houses that look as though they have been landscaped. Friends are an obvious start. Real estate open houses are another. Compliments are a possibility (“I love your front garden – any ideas about how I might think about my backyard?”).

And, of course, there’s always Houzz and Pinterest.

The three best things you can do in the garden with $500

blank slateNeed to do something about your outdoor space but can’t really afford it just yet? Choose one of these projects that are small and easy but have a great impact.

1. Clean up. Like closets, outdoor spaces accumulate clutter like a magnet. Throw away anything broken or seldom used. Have someone haul the uncomfortable furniture you inherited with the house to the dump. Sweep up dirt and fallen leaves. Then buy an outdoor storage unit and stash the stuff you want to keep. Here’s an example » 

2. Plant a tree. Trees are terrific value for money. For less than $500 you can buy a tree that is already as much as 8’ high, and that will provide a focal point for the garden. I favor flowering trees, like crabapples. There’s a suitable kind for any space, and they are spectacularly beautiful when they flower in Spring. Here’s one of many possibilities » 

3. Splurge on one or two really gorgeous planters and fill them with color. Planters are a great way to get instant gratification without wasting money on something you’ll never use again. The choice is endless, so don’t settle for the standard clay or plastic pots available everywhere. Go online to see your options. Choose large planters. The smaller the space, the more you need to make a bold statement. Fill them with whatever plants you find in the garden shop that take your fancy. Be daring – and cram them in to give a spectacular display. Here’s a good place to start »