Inviting Joyful Participation
This weekend, planting started at Owen’s Playground here on Bainbridge Island and it was soul stirring to see people of all ages absorbed and engaged in bringing a flush of fresh green to the scene. OP is an accessible play place that quite literally offers something for everyone. Smooth, wide paths accommodate granny walkers and baby strollers as well as racing kids and meandering elders. Safe swings and a merry-go-round cradle those who need help to stay balanced. A boulder fountain can be triggered at wheelchair or standing height. The underlying principles of universal or inclusive design guide the kind and placement of play structures and seating, places to do and places to be. No matter what your age or stage or state of being, there are hands-on activities, things to listen to, look at, touch and sniff.
These days, inclusive design is getting attention in all kinds of places, from parks to offices and homes. Millions of aging boomers seek safe, attractive and serviceable places to live and work and play, and so do millions of people with various disabilities. The good news is that accessibility is increasingly driving designs for both public and private spaces. The not as good news is that universal design can require a lot of hardscape in order to accommodate multiple needs.
Bringing In The Green
Happily, thoughtful plantings can balance hard surfaces beautifully, as long as the life-long needs of the plants are taken into consideration. In urban settings, that can be challenging, but in a semi-rural one like our island, there’s still room to leave or create significant greenbelts and interlaced plantings. Sadly, even here we are seeing a proliferation of housing developments that strip away all existing life to facilitate speedy construction and uniform designs. The lost ecosystem is eventually “replaced” by young trees and shrubs, often inappropriately chosen and poorly placed, thus doomed from the start.
Besides a majestic array of shaped climbing rocks and beautiful boulders, Owen’s Playground necessarily includes a lot of hard surfacing, since loose gravel and wood chips can make walking or rolling very difficult. Fortunately, there’s room for plenty of greenery, tucked into drainage swales and rain gardens and decorating the spiraling slopes of a gentle mound that also holds a climbing net and a small rock scramble. We’re also including a sensory garden, full of plants that offer color, textures, and intriguing shapes, as well as sweet and spicy and nose-twisting fragrances. A plant petting zoo will house a strokable collection of Dr. Seuss-ish plants with eccentric form, foliage, and flowers.
Planting With All Ages
Over the past few days, families and school groups have come to help plant. Many brought plants they grew from seeds donated by Ed Hume’s seed company, including nasturtiums, sunflowers, marigolds, zinnias, and wildflowers as well as Pink Flamingo chard and rainbow carrots. We also planted many Log House Plants specialties, so our bean teepee will soon be decked with living drapery, a merry melange of Mexican Sour Gherkins and Black Eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia) and beds will burgeon with fragrant herbs and enticing edibles.
By asking family and school groups to grow plants and come plant them, I hoped to engage all participants into a new community of friends with a natural connection to this promising place. Hands-on activities always create more ownership, so when kids asked where to plant things, rather than directing plant placement, I told them a bit about the plant and asked where they thought it would look best. The result is wild and wonderful, with cherry tomatoes intermingled with calendulas and kale laced with strawberries. One astute boy carefully chose to partner frilly purple perilla with tall, vivid orange marigolds because he felt the contrast would be pleasing, which indeed it is. Several friends brought masses of ornamental onions of many kinds which were poked hither and thither with gay insouciance. Now the winding beds look like the tiers of a joyful wedding cake decorated with passion and pleasure.
A Little Gentle Guidance
Because the sloping beds run into paths made of tightly compacted grit, I did make a more pointed suggestion that the edges be bound with hardy herbs, which we had in plenty. Now, the interface of bed and path is a ruffled run of ornamental oreganos, thymes, and marjorams, with occasional insertions of alpine strawberries. The tops of the beds are decked with dangling nasturtiums that will soon hang lacy curtains over the bare soil. Also, we took care to plant the sunflowers where their south-facing blossoms could be appreciated from all over the play space.
Next will come an anchor bed that will be a gateway into the playground. Here we’ll plant a fig tree rescued from my mom’s old garden, as well as a purple smoke bush and some handsome maiden grasses. Larger shrubs will taper down to kid-scale plantings that lead into the sensory garden and the plant petting zoo. Eventually, I hope to see the plantings extend to a little picnic meadow and a tiny woodland with another spiral path that echoes the play space path. This extension of living green will further soften and balance the playground’s hardscape and offer places to relax and watch happy kids at play.
We’re already planting some lovely trees, which must be chosen with care to lastingly fit the allotted spaces (for example, between a swing and a slide). Tree placement is always something of an art, requiring the ability to dream into the future and imagine what size and shape each tree will develop over time. This holds true for any planting, any place, and trees that are planted without forethought are all too often cut down in their prime. Here, we are blessed with ample room for both large and small trees. A steep slope will soon get some shade from sugar maples, which also offer brilliant fall color, as will a sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) which is similarly spectacular in autumn. A graceful little Sugar Thyme crabapple will grace the top of the gentle mound bed, eventually offering shade, flowers, and fruit for critters as well as people.
My personal favorite addition is a splendid Camperdown elm, generously donated by the Bainbridge Island Garden Club. This wide-leaved, weeping tree makes a marvelous kid cave, dim and mysterious and dappled with welcome shade. This one will partly spread over a broad path and partly hang over a brook-like swale, an evocative setting that charmingly suggests wider and wilder places. When planning spaces for kids, it’s good to remember that their still-active imaginations can make much of little. Just as books for older children can feel simplistic and ‘under-written’ to adults, the most loved kid spaces suggest rather than insist on interpretation. Even just a hint of the wild can be a bridge to anywhere!