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Want a child-friendly garden? Tips from local landscaping experts

As the local fleet of strollers and baby carriages grows ever larger, mid-Peninsula landscape architects and designers receive an increasing number of requests for child-friendly garden plans.

"There's so much going on in Los Altos neighborhoods right now. A lot of young families are moving in," said Kate Lomax, a partner in Lomax Landscaping, Inc. of Los Altos.

She advises parents to create an overall garden plan that will accommodate the changing needs of growing children. "If you know what you are going to do ahead of time, you can adapt garden features to children's needs. For instance, building rounded edges on benches and seat walls makes sense, because children can sit and climb on them with safety; 2-to-5-year-olds love to just walk around on low seat walls."

Robert Waterman, a Palo Alto residential and garden designer agrees.

"Blend gazebos, arbors and trellises with a children's playhouse, using the same materials and design. A play structure from which you hang swings, a glider and a slide can eventually be used for a porch swing and rose arbor; a sandbox can eventually become a raised planter bed. This approach may cost more initially than store-purchased play equipment, but long term, it creates a more satisfying landscape."

Of special importance, Waterman believes, is the central part of the back garden where the children play- usually the main view from the kitchen or family room.

"This is where you will be much happier, in the long run, to build a handsome play area that can eventually convert to a garden destination with benches and planting beds," Waterman said. "Why not make it beautiful from the beginning?"

Similarly, Christopher Anderson, an associate of Waterman's recommends building playhouses with dual functions.

"After the children outgrow them, they can be used as a garden structure for potting and storage. At first, we can add decks, stairways and play equipment, and then adapt them over time."

Waterman and Anderson, both of Gardenwood Designs, have participated for years in the biennial "Dreams Happen" playhouse auction at the Stanford Shopping Center, to benefit the Christmas in April home rehabilitation project for needy families.

Los Altos landscape architect Thomas Klope gives children's own requests serious consideration.

"We talk to our clients' children about creating the kinds of things they want, like tree houses - children love getting up above adults - secret hiding places and play equipment," Klope said. "They like play houses with ladders inside or poles to slide down from a second floor. Or they describe magical landscapes from their favorite books."

Klope has many other good ideas for keeping children happy in their own back yards.

"Kids enjoy mossy artifacts and statues like frogs; they like Victorian gazing globes; and they love water of any kind," he said. "We have found that children especially enjoy circular paths, where they can set out on a journey around the garden and come back to the same spot where they started. All of these things really appeal to people of any age. We all have what I call a 'landscape of memory,' good and bad, which forms when we are children."

The ideal children's garden is also planned for safety. Lomax notes that her clients still build swimming pools in the back yard, but the pools are almost all rectilinear, so that they can be fitted with automatic safety pool covers.

"And of course parents should avoid thorny or poisonous plants," she said.

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