Gardening: How to create a secret place for children


My sister, Ruth Anne, and I spent a lot of time on my grandfather's farm in Spencer, Mass., when we were young. Grampy grew the most fabulous cukes, carrots and tomatoes — and flowers that would almost make the "faint of heart" swoon. I loved my time there.

One of the best features, on a hot afternoon, was a huge oval of forsythia bushes that enclosed a space where we could hide from adults and stay cool. I recently re-created such a space for my grandkids.

Kids like to have places that are secret and private. These days "helicopter parents" are said to be the norm. Even if you are not one, you might want to grow plants that will allow you to be nearby in case of emergency, but allow children the semblance of privacy.

So here is what I did: I planted three fast-growing willows about 10 feet apart. The one I planted is called Hakuru-Nashiki. At this time of year the leaves have pinkish tips, with white and green on them. Each of my shrubs had three stems when I bought it, and grew taller and wider each year. Now, 10 or more years later, they form a single mass of foliage about 15 feet tall. But the center of the planting is rather empty — a perfect place to make a "kid's cave."

To start, I entered the thicket, pruners and loppers in hand. I removed anything dead, or anything that was a potential "eye-gouger" — for me, or for a child. It didn't take long to create a little cathedral with a domed ceiling full of brightly colored leaves.

Next I weeded out the floor of the space: there were ferns, brambles, some grasses and weeds. The soil was moist and most plants pulled easily. I didn't bother pulling the grasses, but came in with my push mower and mowed them down.

I wanted to leave some vegetation around the edges of the space so that one could look out, but still feel secluded. There were some big iris plants growing along the stream edge that provided a screen. Years ago a friend offered to let me dig up some "nice yellow pond iris." Little did I know, but that was an invasive iris, Iris pseudacorus. I tried digging it out, but like many invasives, that's not possible. Even a scrap of root will grow back. It has spread, both by root and by seed. I have given up trying to get rid of it. It did make a nice screen for the edge of this new cave.

I like the willow as the structure for this hidey-hole. The branches arch up, touching at their apex. But other plants would work, too, but leave an open sky above. Lilacs, would work, for example, but take longer than the willows. And forsythia, I know works fine.

Common ninebark is a very fast growing shrub with a very dense habit that easily gets to be eight to 10 feet tall. It blooms now, in June. I have a cultivar called Diablo which has reddish foliage, but there are others including some with standard green leaves and a bright yellow-green leafed one called Dart's Gold.

Ninebark will grow in sun or partial shade, wet or dry, good soil or bad. A cluster of these would create a nice enclosure. Each spreads three to six feet. My mature Diablo is only 18 inches wide at the base, but is over six feet wide at the top — which is eight feet off the ground. I will prune it back, as I do each year, after it finishes blooming.

Don't want to wait for shrubs to get big? Make a teepee of eight-foot poles tied at the top, and plant vines. Scarlet runner bean is a nice one and your kids can eat the beans! Morning glories are nice vines with colorful flowers. Purple hyacinth beans have lovely purplish leaves, and brilliant flowers, but take a long time to germinate. I would buy plants already started at my local garden center for those.

Many years ago my friend, Emily Cromwell, and her husband, Mark Woodcock, built a sunflower fort for her boys, Moe and Carlos when they were 4 and 6 years old (they've both graduated from college now, I believe). They marked out a rectangle in the lawn about eight by 10 feet. Then they removed a two-foot-wide strip of sod all along the rectangle. They loosened the soil, and then planted two rows of sunflowers — with the help of the boys. They planted big sunflowers near the inside of the fort, shorter ones on the outside.

The nice thing about a sunflower fort is, for you helicopter parents, that you can see right in. But for young children, it will still seem like their own private space.

Kids spend too much time indoors. Create a special place to play, to read, to dream — and they will be outdoors of their own volition.

Read Henry Homeyer's twice-a-week blog at You can sign up for an email alert every time he posts a new article.


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