Nature play gardens

Children value unmanicured places and the adventure and mystery of
hiding places and wild, spacious, uneven areas.
Tessa Rose, Natural Play Spaces Blog

Playing in the garden is a great way for children to explore and interact with nature, and just to ‘run wild’ in a safe place. Plant selection and garden structure should provide the opportunity for discovery and fun.  Larger gardens can fit in a wide range of options such as a good sized climbing tree or a ‘hidden area’ behind screening hedges, but even a fairly small garden can be designed to give children their own space. Something as simple as fallen sticks, gumnuts or dead leaves are enough to inspire many kids.
Coast Tea Tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) is a classic climbing tree suitable for nature play gardens. Image by Emma Rooksby. 
Some key elements of nature play gardens include:
  • a sturdy, solid-branched tree for climbing
  • a shaded area, beneath trees or a climber-covered pergola
  • a hardy grassed area
  • swings or a playground area that may include rocks or tree stumps for climbing on or a sand pit to dig in
  • plants with interesting features that invite inventive play, such as interesting fruit or edible plants
  • a ‘hidden area’, screened by hedges or shrubs, with tree stumps to use as seats for secret meetings or picnics
  • super-tough border plants
  • plants that attract birds and butterflies
  • a safe water feature such as a boggy area, birdbath, shallow pond or an old bathtub full of water. Rigid metal mesh can be placed over the top of deeper water features to prevent children falling in.
Some plants to consider include:
Trees for climbing
Black Apple (Planchonella australis)
Small to medium tree with large, tasty fruit
Coastal Banksia (Banksia integrifolia)
Small or medium sized tree with flowers in the form of ‘candles’ containing nectar
Red Cedar (Toona ciliata)
Large spreading tree to 10 or 15m, deciduous, attractive bark
Sandpaper Fig (Ficus coronata)
Small low-branching tree with edible fruit that often grow directly from the trunk
Scentless Rosewood (Synoum glandulosum)
Small tree with white flowers and reddish fruit
Cheese Tree (Glochidion ferdinandi)
Small neat tree with glossy green leaves and interesting cheese-shaped fruit, crown can be shaped
Brush Mutton Wood (Myrsine howittiana)
Small tree with interesting blue fruits along the smaller branches
Vines to cover a pergola

Wonga Vine (Pandorea pandorana)
Tough, large climber with attractive pink flowers
Climbing Guinea-flower (Hibbertia scandens)
Very hardy climber with glossy green leaves and yellow flowers
Apple Berry (Billardiera scandens)
Medium-sized climber with soft hairy leaves and edible fruit
Purple Coral Pea (Hardenbergia violacea)
Tough sun-loving climber with prolific purple flowers
Coastal Jack Bean (Canavalia rosea)
Vigorous climber with attractive leaves, pink flowers and fruit; full sun
Tough lawn grasses

Weeping Grass (Microlaena stipoides)
Low, tough clumping grass, can be mown; full sun or part shade
Coastal Rat’s Tail Grass (Sporobolus virginicus)
Tough running grass, suited to dry sandy soils in full sun; not prickly despite its name
Tough hedging and screening plants

Native Rosemary (Westringia fruticosa)
Shrub to 3m with small leaves and a neat habit; best in full sun
Coast Tea Tree (Leptospermum laevigatum)
Very tough shrub to 4m, with neat grey-green foliage and white flowers; full sun
Lillypilly species such as Brush Cherry (Syzygium australe)
Relatively fast growing, with edible fruit, to 4m or more; full sun or part shade
White Correa (Correa alba)
Shrub to 2m with grey-green leaves and pretty white flowers; full or dappled sun
Plants with interesting features

Coastal Wattle (Acacia longifolia subsp. sophorae)
Large, spreading shrub to 3m with broad green leaves and edible seeds; full sun
Hillock Bush (Melaleuca hypericifolia)
Sprawling shrub to 2m with red ‘bottlebrush’ flowers; full sun
Hedgehog Grass (Echinopogon ovatus)
Slowly spreading grass with seed heads that look like little hedgehogs
Super tough border plants

Long-leaved Mat-Rush (Lomandra longifolia)
Super hardy, strap-leaved plant; full sun or part shade
Blue Flax-lily (Dianella caerulea)
Tough with bright green leaves and purple flowers and fruit; full sun or part shade
Swamp Lily (Crinum pedunculatum)
Hardy long-leaved plant to 1m with white flowers on long stalks; full sun or part shade
Tussock (Poa australis)
Clumping grass with fine green or grey-green foliage; full sun
Edible plants
See Bushtucker gardens
Plants for ponds or pools
See Water and wetland gardens

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