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The playful garden

The playful garden

Great gardens reflect the people that create them. This statement is something which I think of every time I visit a new garden. Particularly those gardens that make you stop for a moment and admire their uniqueness, gardens truly are an expression of the creators personality.
Much like people’s homes, gardens are spaces where people can continue to express their style and lifestyle in a unique and interesting way and when visiting gardens for work I am aways delighted to find a piece of the hosts personality embedded in the garden. In one garden the landscape was made up of moody purples and tiny dots of orange and racy red hinted at the owners love of velvet and moody rich colours within the home, and even gave an indication of his wicked sparks of naughty humour. Another garden, strong in evergreen structure and subtly planted in monochromatic white with scented roses, perfectly reflected the style of the lady of the home: elegant, flawlessly dressed and yes-scented with Rose too!

Gardens truly are a reflection of who we are and how we live our lives.

They can reflect a mood and evoke a strong atmosphere and this is something which everyone planning or developing a garden should consider. In creating gardens we are creating a powerful experience and lasting memory for any admirer or visitor, and most of all ourselves. 
This is also the case for public spaces. While working on a current design scheme for a very inspiring contemporary development in Manorhamilton, County Leitrim called W8, I realised this exact theme is particularly important. Being a space for the community and the public to enjoy, the atmosphere, the personality and the story of the space becomes even more integral to the design. Yes, my own design ideas and those of the great collaborative team of talented people working on all angles of the design will become a part of the space and the planting but if you look closely, the real personality of the space comes from the story of the space itself.

That genius loci which comes with the site, the landscape and the people of the locale.

In private gardens, picking up on the owners personality is a relatively simple task. You get a sense of who the client is from interacting with them and learning their personality. You can study their interior their home furnishings and ask them endless questions on their requirements. 
In a public project this becomes slightly more complicated. There is a larger fact finding mission behind finding out about the user and what they want from the space. First of all there is more than one user, or more than a family of users for example in the private scenario. The users of a public space are a mix of demographics who will all want to use the ‘garden’ and the space needs to be designed around every possible user. The design needs to reflect the location and the history of the landscape and townland around it and a successful contemporary design needs to study the history of the town and its people.  More so than just this, in an ever evolving modern Ireland, contemporary public spaces should become open to everyone, and provide and interesting opportunity for integration and inclusion for every gender, religion, race, age and culture. 
How? Well, there are many ways of designing a space to become one which brings people together. Spaces of ‘triangulation’ become important, where multiple activities happen close to each other- for example a space for parents to read a book, a playground for kids and a coffee cart. This approach sees spaces being used because they function together to address multiple needs.
Beyond layout and function in my opinion one of the strongest factors to consider when designing inclusive gardens is a sense of playfulness. In a recent meeting someone said- ‘When the children want to be in the space you know you’re doing something right’. How true, this thought how children are drawn to a space. Naturally, drawn by a sense of beauty, excitement, fun and playfulness. Wanting to be in a space because it feels good and is a journey of discovery and mystery.
There are many ways to include a sense of playfulness in a design. Planting is a huge opportunity to include plants of interest and are fantastic talking points for users. Plants with interesting features, those which give a sense of scale and colours are all great ways of creating a sense of fun and playfulness. 
Another idea is to add elements of surprise which make people smile. Sculptures, murals or art are great ways of underlining concepts and can become the heart of a playful garden, making them inviting to people of all demographics.  For children, interactive usable elements such as a wildlife trail or simple stepping stones can all become elements which draw the user in and allow people to interact with the site and the locale.
This is the biggest achievement for any designer, to see people interact with the space and use it in numerous ways. The space after all is inspired by them making the ultimate goal for them to take ownership of the space and to simply enjoy it every day.
Top tips for introducing playfulness in your own garden
  • Make people smile- Funny sculptures, water games or dare I say it….a garden gnome? I am least likely person to include gnomes in garden designs but I recently placed a solid green one under my tomatoes in the glasshouse and every time someone sees it they laugh. What better reaction?
  • Have fun with colour- Colour is a wonderful opportunity to introduce a sense of playfulness to spaces. Interesting colour combinations and colour coding of different areas can be incredibly beautiful and very useful in creating a journey.
  • Create a wildlife trail This is a great, fun tool for getting children interested in the space while at the same time learning about animals and their natural habitats.
  • Grow your dinner –there’s nothing like seeing the flower you sowed yourself rear its head and in particular for children, following the life of seed becoming plant and then being picked for eating is a fascinating study. The process brings them a bigger appreciation of food and also allows them to take ownership of some of the areas in the garden, even if it is just a few containers, teaching responsibility, reward and how much fun it is to grow your own.
Playful Planting
Here are a few plants which never fail to bring a smile to peoples faces:
Tasty specimens
There is nothing like tasting fruits or flowers straight of the plant. Including edible plants in any garden is a fantastic and fun way of getting children to explore and learn but also a great talking point for adults. Not to mention the benefits to the breakfast table!
Plants to immerse yourself in
Large scale plants or those which can be grown as tunnels such as willow are so exciting for children and adults alike. They mess with our sense of scale, giving us a totally different viewpoint on a garden experience. 
Smelly plants
For children, picking flowers and learning about them by their fascinating scents is a wonderful experience. I used to make potions out of flower petals when I was younger and it’s amazing to see what happens when you put water into say cornflowers- you may accidentally even make your own dye!

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