As a member of the Royal Horticultural Society, I receive a monthly magazine called The Garden. It’s full of horticultural wisdom and a fantastic letters page. A couple of years ago, there was a strongly worded letter condemning the ‘free for all’ that botanical gardens have become. Instead of places for quiet contemplation and the seeking of horticultural knowledge, they have become some kind of shrub and flower theme parks where the unknowledgeable gain entry and children run around in the grassy areas.
I’ve been going to Wisley for years, but we started to go more when we had our son. As a baby, he was always happiest when being wheeled around outdoors, and it was something we could all enjoy. As he got older, Wisley has been a great place for him to toddle around, and now, yes, he does like to run on the paths and peer over the bridges to look at the gaping koi.
Like the curmudgeonly letter writer, I too cannot abide children running amok in the herbaceous borders or plucking leaves and flowers. But her tone suggested that their very presence was an anathema. I was so offended that I wrote back to The Garden, explaining that I didn’t think that children’s behaviour at Wisley was generally a problem and that I hoped to have many happy visits to Wisley with my son – helping him to learn about horticulture and the great cultivated outdoors. Not only that, but I suggested that it would be a great idea if Wisley could introduce a designated play area for children and demonstrate how tough, sympathetic planting could be introduced to playgrounds. Too often, municipal play areas are barren hardscapes with little injection of the natural world.
My letter was never published. But there is now a play area at Wisley. And it’s fabulous. No swings or slides, but there are climbing frames and brilliant use of logs and stumps – some carved fantastically with snakes and owls and the Green Man. There’s a tunnel covered with pine logs, like some kind of insect habitat, and there are frames which children can cover with dead branches and palm leaves from the glass house and other leavings of pruning maintenance. The planting, isn’t up to scratch yet – but it’s early days – and there are olives and eucalyptus and tough herbaceous perennials which are currently fenced off to protect them from being trod on by tiny feet.
Of course, that doesn’t address the issue of inappropriate behaviour by garden visitors. I take a very firm line on touching the plants or stepping in the borders. Sadly not something that every garden visitor is as scrupulous about. I saw a woman in her 50s walking around with an allium seed head yesterday. And garden visitors in England are notorious for filching seed or taking surreptitious cuttings. I have even heard that there is occasionally some scrumping in the orchards. And yes, I have seen children out of order in the gardens. More could be done to help parents (and others) enforce appropriate behaviour of garden visitors large and small. But surely play areas will help little visitors burn off the energy which might be otherwise be spent on smushing the hostas or picking the hydrangeas.