An exotic, eco- and child-friendly garden
And the designer who made it



by Susan
Well, it’s winter, a fine time to enjoy the lushness of a fabulous new garden in my neighborhood.  It was
recently visited by a group of DC-area landscape designers, and their tour guide was the garden’s designer, my friend and fellow gardening columnist, Pat Howell.  Pat’s assignment was to transform the all-turfgrass front yard.  Into what, she wasn’t told.  Oh, and how about some soft surfaces for the kids to play on?  And here’s the result.

Now if you’re going to all the trouble to yank the lawn, why not make it a space where the homeowners’ young kids could have some fun?  That notion led Pat to research gardening with children, and she soon discovered that having kids simply work alongside adults in vegetable gardens is going out of style, in favor of a focus on play.  So this garden has boulders to climb on and hide behind, sand boxes, and even a Faerie Garden.  Pat learned to use that Celtic spelling, and had fun shopping for figurines and other essential fairy items at local shops and the National Cathedral greenhouse.

To direct water from three downsprouts, Pat consulted with Lauren Wheeler of Natural Resources Design, and a rain garden with drainage for excess water was the solution.  Packed with colorful but water-loving plants, they definitely needed the occasional flooding Pat gave them to survive the Great Drought of 2007.

And not a one too many. Shredded hardwood was used in the rain garden because it filters pollutants. Pine fines, Pat’s favorite mulch, were used in the flat "meadow". Pea gravel and pine fines were used in the boulder garden.  And for a soft landing in play areas, Pat spread a layer of Tread Spread, a recycled tire product used on playgrounds.  It turned out to be soft enough but too hot under the summer sun for barefoot play.  Too bad!

Because plant choices were left up to Pat and she’s a real plantsperson, this small front garden is now home to 53 different perennials (250 in all), nine shrubs or small trees, two vines and seven annuals, including enough red and orange flowers to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.  Talk about your biodiversity!  For sheer tropical lushness Pat iPalm120ncluded large purple elephant ears and the only banana plant that’s hardy here (Musa basjoo, which gets cut to the ground in fall and covered with four inches of mulch for the winter).  And nothing too tall was planted because the homeowners like to sit on the front porch and see their neighbors passing by.

Pat and I met for lunch recently to talk about the garden and she filled me in on her other life — patrolling
the streets of D.C. in a police cruiser on the midnight shift for 40 or 50 hours every month.  She’s a member of the Police Reserve, having completed nine months of training many years ago when she first got involved with the force.  This grandmother of two also contributes her vast plant and growing knowledge to the 200+ members of our local gardening Yahoo group, free of charge.  And her clients tell me she leaves them little notes suggesting the care their plants need, so she doesn’t just design and install, but also teach.  I’m hereby designating her a gardening coach.

[The sign in the bottom photo says "Peace, love, marriage – rights we should all enjoy," as best I can make out.  I should know the words by heart, though – they’re all over town.]


  1. Boulders are a must for a children’s garden. I would also include a path that wound back onto itself. Make it a soft surface, as such a design encourages chasing. A place to leap from one flagstone to another is also nice for little ones.

    And create a hidden bower. Growing up, I loved the space under an overgrown forsythia. Too small for grownups, but perfect for a couple of kids to hide.

  2. From a Google search: Pine fines are the very small pieces of pine bark that are removed during the screening process of aged pine bark nuggets, also used as a mulch. Because pine fines have such a fine texture they make excellent mulch for flowerbeds. As a soil amendment pine fines improve drainage, add organic matter, and help to maintain an acidic soil as they have a low pH, great for acid-loving plants.

  3. At the big box stores are bags of “soil conditioner”, which is full of pine fines. It is very cheap and works great as a mulch. Ground covers like thyme and creeping jenny can grow right through a light, about 1-2 inch covering. It breaks down fast into wonderful soil.

  4. Susan, that sounds like a great garden. I have always thought that designers would be able to come up with plans to draw people out into the gardens. Many smart creative people working towards a goal, not hindered by a closed mindset, are capable of most anything.

    If you want your children outside the best way to get them there is to get out there with them when they are young. You can even just sit and watch them play. The best way to get you out there is to have it be an enjoyable sensory experience.

    I have been reading much about soil erosion and water quality as well as wildlife habitat gardening. It seems this designer is part of the growing shift in what is expected from our outdoor spaces. More and more are recognizing how beauty and design can be functional and are not limited by old ideas.

    I want to thank you for the great information in your Sustainable Gardening newsletter.

  5. Susan, I love the plant list for a shady rain garden in one of the articles written by Pat Howell.I have a spot out back that needs this. I really have things to do today and must stop reading all this information you are providing…LOL

    The Forest Park raingarden Takoma

    The plant materials are almost all
    natives that grow well in shady spots
    that are periodically very wet,
    and periodically very dry.
    The plants include:
    Inkberry Holly (Ilex glabra)
    – Evergreen shrub;
    Sparkleberry Holly (Ilex verticillata)
    – Deciduous shrub;
    Virginia Sweetspire (Itea ‘Lil Henry’)
    – Deciduous shrub
    Chokeberry (Aronia) –
    Deciduous shrub;
    River Birch (Betula nigra) –
    Christmas Ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides)
    – Perennial;
    Autumn Ferns (Dryopteris erythrosora)
    Whitewood Aster (Aster divaricata)
    – Perennial;
    Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata)
    – Perennial Solidago ‘Fireworks’
    – Perennial; Columbine (Aquilegia)
    – Perennial;
    Japanese sedge grass (Carex ‘Little Midge’)
    – Evergreen;
    Rudbeckia hirta –
    Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)
    – Deciduous shrub.

  6. I still would rather play on grass than mulch, gravel, or ground-up tires. And if the grass is for kids playing, you are not going to use all the nasty chemicals. (And it is a lot easier to rake leaves off grass than it is to get them out of groundcover or mulch.)

  7. Tib – I had th fortune to visit this graden as well – there is a large park not a half block from this house with a acre++ expanse of city-maintained turf grass to play on – I don’t think the kids ill miss the 20 ft. steep grass slope – in exchange thy get that lovel Faerie Grden to explore in – and I’m sure the parents are overjoyed they no longer have to mow ther as well.

  8. Urgent News-Greenhouse at the National Cathedral is being closed down by June 29th 2008!

    Many of us treasure the National Cathedral Greenhouse-but it
    is being closed down by June 29th and all the staff have been sacked
    despite an enormous outpouring of community support to keep it open!

    Please help get this shortsighted decision reversed!

    For some it is a peaceful sanctuary, for others a spiritual haven,
    for others the best quality herbs and plants anywhere around the city..
    The mission of the national church is to cater to all peoples of all religions and none..and what is more universal than plants/nature?

    It is front page news in the current issue of the NorthWest Current newspaper and the Washington Post is set to break this story this weekend-keep an eye out for it.

    We hope to generate will be a lot of activity and media attention in the coming short weeks before it is lost forever. (It has been part of the city for sixty years and has been designated as ‘from another era and no longer needed’..(sadly and outrageously the Associate Dean for Development actually said we no longer have a need for the greenhouse as we can now shop at Home Depot!) We have to stop this backward thinking, truly ‘corporate’-ie, top down decision making from becoming reality..we need to create a ‘greener’ future for our city! Can you help? Please publicize this news to all your friends who love gardens/plants/nature and who may perhaps believe there is an implicit spiritual aspect to nurturing gardens amongst many other great reasons to help save the greenhouse.

    Thank you very sincerely on behalf of many other gardeners and greenhouse supporters,

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