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.



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.


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.


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.


The willow den just after completion



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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.


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?




And after… weaving and a haircut






The Bee’s Knees

Earlier this year I decided to focus on pollinators at the school summer fete plant stall and since then I’ve been a little obsessed with growing and learning about plants which give our pollinators a helping hand. I’ve been raising a small army of dwarf sunflowers from seed (Helianthus annus ‘Little Leo’ and ‘Waooh!’), dividing garden plants like Echinacea purpurea and Monarda didyma, and still have Nasturtium and Marigolds (both Calendula officinalis and Tagetes patula) to sow.

DSC_0020 (2)

Some of the sunflower army ready for pricking out and potting on

I’m planning on creating a pollinator quiz at the fete to encourage the children to think about the role of insects in our lives. Entries with correct answers will be entered into a draw to win a ‘make your own bug hotel’, which will hopefully give one of the children the chance to get up close with pollinating insects in their own garden. We’re also taking a class of students to a local community pollinator garden so they can learn a little more about these important insects and then help the volunteers plant sunflowers in the meadow. The plan is to use these nutrient and moisture hungry plants to reduce the fertility of the soil ready to sow a wildflower meadow for pollinators later in the year.


Pollinator fun for the kids

My daughter and I had fun a couple of days ago creating a butterfly bath next to the bird bath so our welcome visitors could drink without danger of submersion. The back garden currently houses two bee and insect hotels, one made by the kids and one given to us, to try and encourage as many pollinators as possible. I have also tried providing sugar solution on a sponge, but without much take up, so perhaps that’s an aspect of our hostelry skills which needs honing this summer.


The pollinator and bird baths – apologies to the birds as theirs needs a bit of a clean!



Last year’s homemade bug hotel



And the deluxe version

Then today, the bee’s knees – quite literally, as we noticed that solitary bees were building nests in our new green roof binstore. I’d put holes of different sizes in the side of the wooden supports when we built it in the hope that the bees would find it accommodating. We’d previously found one hole blocked up with mud which told us that bees were using the holes to lay eggs. When we were in the front garden today laying the gravel, there were several bees investigating and filling the holes. In fact, in between leaving this afternoon for the allotment and returning, another hole had been filled.


This one’s taken, mate…


The completed bee nest

During the day we laid gravel on the side garden which now only needs a few extra plants adding when the weather gets a bit cooler, and started the dinosaur garden in the allotment (more on both of these projects in another post.) Sunshine, three generations of helpers and lots of laughter ensured a good time all round, and the bees were a lovely addition to a fun and satisfying day.


This bee spent ages trying to decide which hole it preferred

We can sow a rainbow…

A couple of months ago I followed a twitter link to The Wellcome Trust’s new initiative called ‘The Crunch’ which aims to get people thinking and talking about our food, our health and our planet. The idea was interesting and within an hour I found I had volunteered to be an ambassador for ‘The Crunch’ during 2016. (I’m currently undergoing therapy for compulsive volunteering!)

The role of an ambassador is to get discussions going, so alongside working with local children to look at how we grow, cook and eat our food, I thought I’d blog about ways we can entice our kids into gardens. Growing their own crops has proved fascinating to my children, especially when they get to cook and experiment with their produce.


Happy memories

In my childhood I had a complex relationship with fruit and vegetables. I loved being out in the garden with my dad and treasure the photographs of my two-year old self in red wellies in the vegetable patch. I loved harvesting raspberries and strawberries, peas and potatoes – tangible evidence of magic in the soil. However, I have less nostalgic memories of kale infested with ‘extra protein’ and stringy runner beans. Last year I grew ‘White Lady’ runner beans for the first time, finally coming to terms with the trauma of my childhood, 30 years on!


Hey, over here!

My godson’s favourite foods were apples and peas, so when my son was born I thought introducing food from the garden would be child’s play. I was unprepared for a child who screamed every time he had peas on his plate – even if he didn’t have to eat them. Consuming fruit in anything other than miniscule pieces was unacceptable (he still struggles to eat a piece of fruit whole) and I found the whole process of preparing and sharing food with the family disheartening. It has taken several years of perseverance, but at 7 he is now a moderately enthusiastic fruit and vegetable eater, and much of this change has been achieved through engaging him in the process of growing his own food.


Digging the raised beds

The first time we really explored the food in the garden, when he was about 2, it led to a discussion about the colour of raspberries. At that age kids are wonderfully free of preconceived ideas, so the fact that our raspberries were red at one end of the row and yellow at the other was merely an interesting observation (a range of red summer and autumn fruiting varieties, and our favourite – ‘All Gold’ at the end). Although I did wonder what his nursery teachers would think in his next lesson on food when he insisted that raspberries are yellow or carrots purple!

Both children love exploring colour in the garden – it’s exciting to grow rainbow carrots – ‘Yellowstone’ and ‘Purple Haze’ are particular favourites. (I love yellow carrots for the extra sweet taste and purple carrots – well, just for being purple and for the way they have concentric rings of orange within the purple exterior.) We enjoy growing dwarf beans, like ‘Purple Teepee’ and then watching the colour magically leach into the water as we cook them – leaving purple water and green beans.


Colourful beetroot and kohl rabi (growing purple kohl rabi – I grow ‘Azur Star’ – is fun too)


In fact, I think I enjoy growing different coloured varieties as much as the children. I’ve been particularly interested in trying different coloured tomatoes over the past few years. I love ‘Black Russian’ for its deep, meaty taste, even though it doesn’t crop as heavily as other varieties. I wasn’t going to sow it this year, but then my daughter requested black tomatoes again and it didn’t take much persuasion to get the seeds out and sow them together.  I’ve decided to try the one truss method with it this year (more on this later).

I also grew ‘Indigo Rose’ last year. The kids loved the way the tomatoes were almost entirely black, but then when we lifted the calyx, underneath, the skin of the tomato was bright red. ‘Golden Sunrise’ are a must sow each year for their sweet burst of flavour and this year I’m trying ‘Green Zebra’ – my first go at a green tomato (supposedly a sweet one too). I’m also trying a yellow variety called ‘Millefleur’, a centiflor type, which are indeterminate bushes with up to a hundred small fruit on each truss.


Colourful varieties for sowing this year…

The kids love picking fruit and blueberries are a particular favourite – sweet easy mouthfuls and at just the right height for little hands. Last year I bought a Pinkberry ‘Pink Lemonade’ – a variety of Blueberry which they were keen to try. Gardening teaches patience (not a trait many 3 and 7 year olds have in spades), so we’re all excited that this year’s buds indicate our first crop this summer.

I could go on – purple chillies, cornflower, calendula and nasturtium petals which the kids picked last year from their plot to decorate salads, red and yellow oca (the most marvellous sight in November when the garden offers few other coloured treasures). There is something particularly uplifting about bright colours in nature, from the first zingy orange ‘Ballerina’ tulip which emerged earlier this week in my garden, to the basketful of oca which I’ll hopefully be uncovering in the raised beds at the end of the year.  Colour makes us happy and happy childhood memories in the garden have enriched my life in so many ways.


I love growing and roasting oca



Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally.