Many families have small gardens these days and they’re getting smaller. Kids engage with wild places and love anywhere where they can be alone with nature, but this isn’t easy in modern outdoor spaces. Running around the countryside without adult supervision isn’t an option for most young children these days and so the garden, if they have access to one, becomes the only space where they are free to roam.
When I was a kid I was fortunate enough to live in a house and garden on a 1/3 acre plot. In our back garden we had fruit trees, a vegetable patch and a greenhouse. At the back of the garden there was a wild area and tall Scots pine tree which was my favourite haunt with an apple and a book. I spent hours in this arboreal retreat, experiencing nature on my own terms. Having my own private space in the garden gave me a sense of exploration, ownership and independence not as easily achieved for today’s children.
Maximise your space
Now I have a relatively small suburban garden with no mature trees or any likelihood of having any whilst the kids are young. Three years ago I started thinking about how to involve the kids (now aged 4 and 7) in the garden. I decided to include somewhere where they would be able to hide and be alone with nature. I wanted an area which was multi-functional to maximise the use of space and I’d been inspired by willow structures like this one in Capel Manor gardens, so I decided to build a willow den into the flower border.
Our willow den sits at the side of the border, adding structure in the winter and looking to all intents and purposes like a shrub in the summer – but with a hollow, secret interior accessed from the back.
Where to begin
It’s really easy to make a structure out of willow. The first thing you need to get hold is the willow itself, easily bought online from a range of suppliers as willow whips (long unrooted willow cuttings which can be inserted into the ground and will then self-root.) You can buy a kit with instructions on how to plant the willow and weave/tie it to create the den, wigwam, dome or tunnel, or just buy the whips and create the design yourself.
I bought a den kit from Willows Nursery and have been very pleased with the quality of the willow, the instructions and the aftercare the nursery has offered when I’ve had questions. Their willow kits range from £23 for a fedge kit (combination of fence and hedge – a living fence) to £83 for the largest children’s playhouse den kit. Our small playhouse den kit was £39, plus £19 P+P, but if you can source the willow locally or even from a friend or neighbour’s garden, then the cost would be reduced. (I’m only recommending this supplier because I was pleased with our experience – I’m not receiving anything for mentioning them in this post.) Individual willow whips can also be purchased to customise a design. It’s worth remembering that this is a living structure and therefore it should continue to get better year on year. It can also provide you with more willow each year if you want to build other structures.
When and where to build your den
This time of year is ideal to start planning where to site a willow structure and to decide what size/shape to build. The 2015/16 willow season is now finished as the whips are delivered in a dormant state between November and February, so the next few months is a great time to order the willow (to be delivered from November 2016) and start preparing the area. Willow does best in loamy soil, but will tolerate most soils (ours is clay and provided the den is kept well watered during hot periods, it seems to thrive).
We dug over the area in advance, added organic matter to the soil to improve moisture retention and laid membrane to help control weeds. Then we planted the whips through the membrane, following the instructions that came with the kit on how to lay out and weave in the willow. It’s worth noting that willow should be planted at least one and a half times the height of the structure away from pipes and buildings. It also needs relatively moist soil, so should not be planted too close to established trees with which it might have to compete for water.
How much maintenance will my den need?
In early spring the shoots will begin to grow and by early summer should be long enough to weave into the structure. This is an easy task which can be completed in one go or just done piecemeal as you pass the den during the day. This is also a job which my kids love doing and they are good at standing inside the den (a bit of a tricky proposition for an adult) and passing the stems back to me as I weave them in.
In the first two years we wove all the stems back into the structure, but now we only need to weave in areas which are rather bare and all the other willow is cut off. In the winter any remaining stems can be woven in whilst the whole structure can be clearly seen. Alternatively, I’ve sometimes let long stems grow at the top and then cut them to use for other projects.
Kids in the den
The willow den has always been popular with the kids. We have extremely cute video footage of my daughter aged about 1 playing peepo by tottering out of the den and saying ‘Ooo’ (Boo). They both head straight for it when we play hide and seek in a garden with otherwise sparse hidey holes, and they enjoy exploring in it – looking for mini-beasts to examine in their magnifying pot. There is something engaging about a den that is alive, that changes with the seasons and swallows them up in the summer, hiding them from the rest of the world.
Last year I started growing a couple of clematis through the den. This has been very successful and in the summer the green willow is decorated with purple flowers to add to the effect.
What to do with willow prunings
I’ve tried a number of different experiments with the offcuts from the den. They make good pea sticks and garden supports – providing you don’t mind them rooting in the soil! They can even root upside down, so be warned! I’ve tried using the cuttings to create a tunnel into the den, but they didn’t take, probably because they got too dry as I planted them in the spring and they didn’t have long enough to grow roots before the warmer weather arrived. It might be better to grow long stems in the autumn and try rooting them in November if you want to extend your structure or add new stems around the base of the den.
I’ve also tried creating a smaller living willow structure in a container which has been much more successful. Last autumn I cut several long whips and twisted them together, tying them at the top to create a living sculpture. This spring they are looking healthy and I’ve just rubbed off the buds up to the top section to leave clear stems. Over time the structure will develop a leafy ball on top and have clear bare stems below. This is just a bit of ornamental fun, but can be done on a grander scale as shown at RHS Hyde Hall with their living willow sculptures which shine out in the borders on a cold winter’s day.
More family-friendly ideas…
Further posts in the ‘How to Engage Kids in a Small Family Garden’ series will include ‘Magical Lands’, ‘Wildlife Wows’ and ‘Sowing and Growing’.
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Leave me a comment and let me know if you grow willow in the garden or if you’re planning on growing a den. How is it going? What structures do you grow and how are they getting on?