DSC_0135

How to Engage Kids in a Small Family Garden Part 1: Building a Willow Den

scots pine

My Scots Pine tree

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.

 

DSC_0175

Me (looking unimpressed) in our garden around 1989

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.

IMG_4213

An impressively sized den at Capel Manor gardens

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.

IMG_1843

The bare patch in front of the shed was a great spot for the willow den

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.

IMAG0610

The willow den just after completion

 

IMG_3180

The border and willow den begin to take shape

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.

IMG_3182

Some of the willow joints are tied with twine – in this picture the den is just beginning to produce leaves

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).

IMG_3181

Newly planted willow den – year 1

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.

IMG_4152

Starting to shoot

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.

IMG_4145

Getting into its stride – year 2

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.

DSC_0461

Willow explosion this spring – year 3

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.

DSC_0138

Peepo…

DSC_0137

Small waving hands

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.

DSC_0186

Clematis ‘Westerplatte’ climbing through the den

 

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.

DSC_0180

First attempt at a living sculpture

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.

IMG_3699

Stunning living willow sculptures at RHS Hyde Hall (Salix alba subsp. vitellina)

 

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’.

If you’d like to see more of these ideas for inspiring kids in the garden, subscribe here or use the sidebar follow buttons… 

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

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?

DSC_0179

Before…

DSC_0183

And after… weaving and a haircut

 

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “How to Engage Kids in a Small Family Garden Part 1: Building a Willow Den

  1. Girlontor says:

    That’s a great idea… Like you, I was lucky to be able to go and explore, both in large gardens and beyond their boundaries. That sense of independence away from adults is indeed very important… a lot of children suffer with anxiety today, it’s becoming a huge problem… I wonder if the lack of independence, the sense of controlling your own destiny and ‘owning’ your space and place in the world (that we got from climbing trees and riding bikes to the other side of town or across fields) is a big contributor to that?

    Liked by 1 person

    • dogwooddays says:

      Thanks. I agree that today kids see the world as a more complicated and possibly frightening place because adults portray it as such, and I’m probably as guilty as anyone of this with mine. I just hope that if mine get outside lots and interact with the natural world, they’ll be able to counteract the rather controlled conditions modern kids experience with a sense of the awe and freedom which can be found in nature.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s