A family garden

Garden designer and author Dawn Isaac created this wonderful garden for her family. She tells F&F readers how it came together.

About eight years ago I looked out of my home office and asked, quite politely in the circumstances, if I could help the two complete strangers who were in my front garden, rifling around through the compost. “We’re just trying to find the drugs we threw over your hedge”, they replied.

That was when I decided it might be time to leave the gritty urban life to those more suited to its ‘edginess’.

We moved to Cambridgeshire a year later to an end of terrace house that appeared to have stolen everyone else’s garden.  However, despite the fact I’m a garden designer I didn’t seriously tackle the garden until the autumn of 2007.  This was mostly because I wanted to create an ideal “family” garden and I really needed to have the family before I began.

The plot itself is just under a third of an acre and was originally a grassed area with various random outbuildings, a surfeit of conifers, duck pond, geese pen and an interesting array of garden rubbish.

The revised layout has a large lawn at the centre, because the children will always need a decent space for certain games.  In a rare case of forward planning, I even ensured it would be able to accommodate a marquee for over 100 people, because, you never know when you need to have a really big party!

In the corner of the lawn we sunk a trampoline which is surrounded by a slightly raised turfed ‘donut’ shape making it almost impossible to spot as you come into the garden.  I used the natural slope of the land to create a play area that sits lower down so it doesn’t have to be in constant view if you are trying to pretend your life doesn’t revolve around school runs and tantrums for the evening.

There are two outside dining spaces.  One is positioned for lunchtime dining and kids drawing/crafting where it will eventually be shaded by a quartet of apple trees (at the moment these look more like sticks with ideas above their station, but give it time…) whilst the other is under a gazebo (a revitalised iron structure found at an architectural reclamation yard) designed to be close enough to supervise children at play but also to catch the last rays of sun.

Growing veg was always on the agenda, but like everything else in this garden, I wanted it to be attractive as well as practical.  I settled on a simple grid with nine raised wooden beds but with each surrounded by clipped
box hedging to give good year round structure. For practical reasons this sits next to the greenhouse and shed.

The garden is also filled with loads of areas for the kids to play and explore.  The two older children have their own gardens which they designed themselves and which they add to each year with new features and plants. There is also a well used hammock, playhouse, swing, large sandpit, log walkway and, the most recent addition, a mud pie kitchen area added behind the shed. We also try to add new features every year – some permanent, some temporary – such as a dinosaur tyre garden, climbing bean teepee, wildflower border, sunflower alley, rainbow cutting garden and scented hopscotch.

The hard landscaping is simple and designed to tie the garden into the house.  The Cambridgeshire handmade bricks used to rebuild the old piggery building in the garden as a home office were also used to edge paths, lawn and create a seating area.  York stone was used on the side passage towards the house as well as edging the driveway, whilst the drive and paths were mostly created with Breedon Gravel.

I didn’t have much of a budget for planting so I was limited to some leftovers from my Chelsea show garden, refugees from my London backyard and a few stock plants, key shrubs and trees.  To bulk up the borders, I rely heavily on self seeding and spreading plants such as lamiums, cornflowers, violas, verbenas, forget-me-nots which I think are perfect for the family garden – they fill a space quickly, have wildflower seeds which the children love to collect and also are prolific enough that you don’t have to wince every time one is squashed by a ball or a rampaging toddler who has very little concept of “a path”.  Some people raise an eyebrow at the number of plants I have which can be classed as “toxic” or “harmful” but I feel that teaching the children about these and how to be careful is an important part of an outdoor education.

The garden is still very young and I’m excited to see the yew hedges eventually reach the “tall and stately” phase and for the apple and plum trees to give more than a token piece of fruit, but there is also something rather fitting about a family garden that grows up alongside the children.

You can buy a copy of Dawn’s book, Garden Crafts for Children, here.

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13 Responses

  1. MarkD

    Wow. You really know what you’re doing dont you *surprised face*…v impressive and such a great story, not just a garden for its own sake but v definitely for yr family

  2. Marie at the Lazy W

    Gorgeous! Love that it evolved slowly and that you did it on the cheap. Congratulations on a really special creation! I’ve saved a few photos for inspiration.

  3. Dawn Isaac

    Mark – Thank you – what a lovely thing to write *equally surprised face*. X

    Malc – it’s actually one of the projects from the book but basically I used an old florist’s wreath holder and drilled holes in the base before planting up.

  4. Atlantic Trampolines

    We love your garden, how imaginative. Great too to see your sunken trampoline and the idea of having a raised edge, as you describe it a turfed “donut”, around it which means it is less visible. Not an idea I’d ever seen before but a very good one.

    One point is that where the edge of the trampoline meets the grass looks very tight. We have found you need a gap to allow the air out from under the trampoline as someone bounces on it. Otherwise it can be quite hard to bounce as you put the air under pressure. Have you allowed for this in another way or do you find it is not a problem?

    We have a post on our blog all about factors to consider when siting your garden trampoline which could be useful to those designing a garden http://bit.ly/ypbVWW

  5. Dawn Isaac

    Marie – I’m not sure I could quite claim it’s “on the cheap” but certainly the planting was very cost effective and using self-binding gravel with brick edging is significantly cheaper than a fully paved option.

    Atlantic Trampolines – yes, I ahve read about leaving the gap but I was worried about toes (and toys) slipping under the trampoine so we set it flush with the turf and it’s never been a problem.

  6. steve bennett

    Just come accross your blog. The pictures do the garden justice and I love the style and lush planting.

    The hopscotch paving slabs are a great idea and one i will steal for when my Little girl is older.

    As a new gardener with a new North London garden that is a fairly blank canvas, i have gained some inspiration

  7. Rob

    Your garden is absolutely beautiful, it reminds me of when I was a kid and loved spending time in their greenhouse and garden. The fresh smell of home grown vegetables, runner beans being pick.. so many people miss out on that these days.

    The way you have incorporated the outdoor toys into your garden blends in so well. Inspirational.


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