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Thoughts from a Foreign Field

Games in the garden

As is the case the world over gardens mean different things to different people. Some people see gardens as a place to grow any number of different flowers, others to grow vegetables, some people like to sit and some like to run around.

It is this last category which concerns us today because there is nothing like a summer full of sporting events to make people perk up and channel their inner Federer or Neymar.. We have had the tennis at Wimbledon, the World Cup (at which you guys did brilliantly and we were shamefully bad), the Commonwealth Games are about to start and the cricket season is in full swing. This also ties in with school holidays and amusing children – for which purpose I recommend my friend Dawn Isaac’s book “101 Things for Kids To Do Outside” – away from screens or sofas.

Photo credit: Will Heap
Photo/Illustration: Will Heap

Of course, they could beetle off to a local park or sports centre to satisfy this craving but the back garden is the simplest and nearest solution. There is a long and noble tradition of games in gardens from archery ranges through to less hazardous pursuits like swingball or bowls. In period films the lawns of large English country houses are always dotted with elegant youths wearing immaculate flannels whacking tennis balls back and forth while ice tinkles in glasses of barley water. The American equivalent is of small boys wearing huge catchers’ mitts fielding high balls thrown by doting fathers.

All very idyllic and delightful. However, there is the very real danger of flying projectiles destroying your precious plants. Thankfully there are ways of both having your high energy sports energy bar and eating it: games and gardens can happily co-exist. The main hurdle to overcome is one of attitude: when designing a garden one of the most important considerations is how that garden is to be used. If the owners are keen gardeners who enjoy growing things then the place can brim with rare and wonderful plants. Conversely if the garden is home to a troupe of rambunctious children, their friends and assorted dogs then it is best to plant tough stuff and leave as much open lawn as you can possibly manage.

Photo credit: Will Heap
Photo/Illustration: Will Heap

I have a client who falls firmly into the second category: three boys who are never happier than when kicking things into flowerbeds. As a result the lawn is threadbare in places and littered with goalposts and bits of clothing that have been discarded and then forgotten. Unfortunately all this goes on in the one place which is visible from every window so we have had to adopt the premise of the “slightly secret” garden. If you leave the devastation of the main lawn you will find, huddled behind hedges, flourishing herbaceous borders, a vegetable garden and even a greenhouse (something that really should not be allowed with easy slog of any balls).

Photo credit: Will Heap

Of course not all garden games are destructive, many will co-exist quite happily with your garden. Badminton, for example, works well: if you are particularly keen then you can go the whole hog and mark out a proper court (it needs to be 13.4m by 6.1m but I doubt anybody will check) but you can have a pretty good match using a piece of string and a couple of tall bamboo canes. Importantly, no matter how hard you hit it, a shuttlecock will never do as much damage as a baseball. 

Or croquet, another classic garden game, quick to set up and easy to learn, although you should be under no illusions that it is a genteel sport. Do not be fooled by pictures of Edwardian ladies in long skirts, if played competitively it can be viciously vindictive. Nowadays the most popular is probably the trampoline: the spread of this craze is best observed from above. It is remarkable how many gardens have one: they are not very pretty objects so the best thing is to bury them. That way they do not need a whole load of safety netting and are much less obtrusive. Instructions here.

Gardens should always be multi-purpose and never dedicated purely to plants. There should always be places for children to turn cartwheels and chase each other, otherwise they become worthy and no fun. If you are really squeezed for space you can always try playing indoor games outside: there is always Jenga or, for the more flexible, Twister.

Even poker will do: it might not make you any fitter but at least you’re playing in the sunshine rather than a smoky basement.

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