Secret Hideaways and Fun Structures

Secret hideaways, garden playrooms, and special structures are enticements for involving kids in the garden, and they can transform the garden into a fantasyland and refuge. All of these projects can involve and reward the whole family and make your garden the most kid-friendly place on the block.

  • Everyone knows about bean teepees: five or more poles bound at the top and underplanted with pole beans. For variety, consider a tunnel: insert 8-foot poles every 3 feet along both sides of a path; lash horizontal poles at 2-, 4-, and 6-foot heights; and then plant and train vines along this corridor.

  • You can make anything -- from wigwam to dome -- with willow branches or plastic tubing and then plant it with vines. Try bamboo, angling the poles like interlocking fingers. Instead of beans, grow gourds, cucumbers, miniature pumpkins, morning glories, or love-in-a-puff.

  • If you have space for the well-known sunflower houses -- planting sunflowers in a square to form a "room" (see directions below) -- next try corn houses. Map the rooms out on paper first. Create walls of corn (at least 5 rows thick per wall), leaving spaces for entries. For windows, break up the walls by planting peas instead of corn.

  • A simple platform placed on the ground could serve as a dance floor, stage, or house. If it's not too big, it can be stored in winter. Raise the platform about 4 feet onto in-ground posts, and you've got a lookout. Add a coated hardware cloth arch from one side to the other, and it's a hut.

  • Don't relegate the sandbox to a corner of the yard. It could be a heap of sand in a grove, a deep, wide path, or a small beach, complete with a beach umbrella for shade.

  • Kids can make their own bird bath by digging a shallow basin in the ground and lining it with heavy plastic and topping the plastic with smooth stones. Other critters may even call it home.

  • Landscapers are fond of "decorating" with boulders. Put them to use as a kids' mountain. Add a log and stump, and it's a wild place.

  • Skip traditional scarecrows. Mimic popular cartoon or book characters or match the scarecrow to a theme garden. Scarecrows need not be made out of straw. Is there a sculptor or metalworker in your midst?

  • In an afternoon your clan can make a chicken-wire animal and train ivy around it for a nearly instant topiary.

Planting a Sunflower House

You'll need:
  • a garden spot, with good soil, that receives at least 6 hours of sun daily
  • seeds for tall sunflowers, such as 'Mammoth' or 'Paul Bunyan'
  • seeds for medium-height (about 5-foot) sunflowers
  • seeds for a colorful, flowering annual, such as zinnias
  • seeds for morning glories
  • string

1. With your young gardeners, decide on an exterior shape and dimensions for your house. You'll need at least a 4- by 6-foot house, but an 8- by 8-foot space is more generous and looks more convincing when fully grown. Allow some extra space so you can walk around the building to tend to the plants. When you've decided on an outline, have your child mark it on the ground so the seeds don't get stepped on accidentally while you are waiting for them to grow.

2. Plant seeds for the tall sunflowers in a row to mark the outline, starting at the corners. Help your child plant the seeds about a foot apart. Then between the tall ones, plant the mid-height variety. Then plant a colorful flowering annual such as zinnias all around the outside. (Using these different heights will make the walls seem more solid.)

3. Another colorful way to fill in the walls is to plant morning glory vines to climb the sunflowers. (Soak the seeds in water overnight to hasten germination.) Help your child train the vines to climb the tallest sunflowers by directing the early growth toward the sunflower stems. Your child may be fascinated to see that they only twine in one direction! Once the vines have found the stem, they will twine their own way up.

4. To encourage the morning glory vines to form a "roof," help your child weave a network of string or yarn across the open top from sunflower to sunflower. Add the string when the sunflowers are about four feet tall. The sunflowers will raise the roof as they grow.

5. Finally, to keep down weeds and make a cleaner surface for your child to play on, use a thick layer of mulch to carpet the interior or cover it with flattened cardboard boxes. You could even add a beach towel for a rug or even some small-scaled furniture. Your sunflower structure could be the most popular hangout on the block!

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