AFTER A NAP, THE YOUNGEST SISTER LEADS THE OTHERS UP THE PATH TO THEIR SECRET GARDEN. IF THEY STEP ON THE PROPER STONE, THE FISH WILL SURPRISE THEM WITH A SMALL SHOWER.
ON A SUNNY AFTERNOON THE FOUR SISTERS PRESIDE OVER A TEA PARTY ON THE PATIO OF THE PLAYHOUSE.
A TOPIARY ELEPHANT DELIVERS ONE OF ITS IMPROMPTU SHOWERS.
In an age that promotes virtually every personal pleasure except privacy and in which television images crowd the imaginations of the very young, it is a joy to discover a children’s garden that provides its young visitors with a sanctuary and an aura of magic.
Although the house opens out on spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean, its garden is secluded and mysterious, devoted to the pleasure of four young daughters, ages three, four, six, and eight. It has often been suspected that there is a garden in each of us that makes its first appearance when we are very young and stays with us until we are very old. Most of us can remember these places and the flights of fancy they inspired. A successful children’s garden should make this kind of impression on its small visitors, sparking their sense of wonder and adventure.
The sisters slip into their garden through a miniature version of the door used by Mary Lennox, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s young heroine in her much loved classic The Secret Garden. Once inside this space, the sisters walk along a serpentine path of stepping-stones that takes them past low-lying mists of blue forget-me-nots and clumps thing gold sunflowers. White clouds of agapanthus and larkspur rise under the huge, saucer like leaves of elephant’s ear (Alocasia). The children scamper by a tiny rustic bench clothed in jasmine and potato vine, and then climb over a log placed across the path. Here, the older ones can test their alancing skills while the younger stop to rest. Then it’s on to a gauntlet of water spouts cleverly hidden in the topiary and tatuary and triggered by stepin on certain stones known only to the sisters. Astonished friends squeal with surprise, and the girls howl with laughter as the trunk of a topiary elephant springs alive to spray the visitors.
“MY FAVORITE PART IS SITTING ON THE BENCH LOOKING AT THE DINOSAUR FOOTPRINTS,” EXCLAIMS THE EIGHT-YEAR-OLD SISTER. AND WHAT CHILD WOULDN’T BE ENCHANTED BY A SETTING WHOSE DAPPLED LIGHT MAKES ALL MAGIC SEEM PLAUSIBLE?
A diminutive playhouse comes into view, surrounded by huge blue globes of hydrangeas and festooned with baskets of begonias and lobelias. Raspberry vines tumble down from hanging baskets above the playhouse’s patio. The window boxes are planted with mint, and the windows are thrown open to welcome guests to a playhouse and patio that can accommodate a tea party — with or without the Mad Hatter.
On the far side of the playhouse, an arbor dripping with grapes leads to a little vegetable garden. Here, the girls can pick tomatoes, corn, zucchini, and lettuce. Before the youngsters leave their magical enclosure, they stroll through an orchard of dwarf citrus trees laden with succulent fruit. Another door in the stone wall behind these trees marks the transition from this grove of edible delights to the tiresome reality of schoolwork and bedtime.
Naturally, the size of things is an important factor when designing a garden for children. This one derives much of its whimsical impact from the decision of landscape architect W. Garett Carlson to place it next to some of the oldest and tallest trees on the property. The small scale of the garden is thus emphasized, and the trees also provide deep, cool shade punctuated by shafts of sunlight along the garden’s paths.
Grown-ups always wonder how to awaken a child imagination without being overbearing. A look behind the door of this sylvan world reminds us that there are precious few experiences that stimulate a child imagination as much as an unescorted visit to a secret garden.
THE ELDEST CHILD LOVES THE GARDEN BECAUSE, SHE SAYS, “WE FEEL REALLY FAR FROM HOME AND I CAN DO MY HOMEWORK; IT IS SO SILENT.” THE FOUR-YEAR-OLD HAS OTHER DELIGHTS, “I LIKE TO PLAY WITH THE SAND AND PRETEND I’M A DINOSAUR,” WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT SHE IS DOING HERE.