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GARDENING : Pint-Size Paradise : Outdoor spaces for children are designed with secret areas and paths leading past things to catch a young person's interest.

June 12, 1992|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Heeger writes regularly about gardening for The Times

The gardens of our childhood can live in our hearts forever, their green walls shutting the noisy world out, their paths winding away toward endless adventures, their smallest, buggy details frozen in time for our discovery. Because the garden--an excellent school for a child's imagination--is also, often, the cherished province of adults, it makes sense to give small ones their own portion of the turf.

How elaborate or simple this is depends, of course, on the child, the space and the grown-ups' budget. But Sherman Oaks garden designer Michele Logan believes that the key to pleasing little people outdoors is to create intimate places with soft edges, and to include paths that lead past interesting things to look at, touch and smell.

In a pint-size paradise Logan designed for Frances McCune of Woodland Hills, stepping stones mark the meandering route from a sprightly playhouse, through a tidy picnic ground and into the wilds of explosive perennials edging a carpet of pea gravel. Herbs and honeysuckle perfume the air, and the music of water leads the wanderer on to discover a fountain splashing into a tiny pool filled with koi.

Logan, a native of Hertfordshire in southern England, draws on memories of her own childhood when designing such wonderlands. She grew up playing in landscapes created by her mother, a gifted amateur gardener, and she remembers "how magical they were. I felt I could see fairies everywhere."

Accordingly, while dreaming up a play yard for McCune's 3-year-old granddaughter, Chloe Dykstra, she says: "I tried to imagine myself about 3 feet tall. When I walked the little paths, the ornamental grasses would be huge, and the rocks would appear boulder-size."

She focused on plants that would engage the senses: delicate purple-blooming statice, blue-flowering ground morning glory, scented geraniums and herbs such as sage, oregano and thyme that release their fragrance when touched. She also incorporated surprises: Her concrete stepping stones, for example, are embedded with lights, creating a glittering night-time route to and from the playhouse. The fountain, too, while audible everywhere throughout the garden, lies half-hidden by grasses and flanked by a pair of lively concrete rabbits.

Like Logan's judiciously orchestrated eruptions of penstemon, artemisia and miscanthus grass, the fountain's simple concrete pool exerts an influence far beyond its size and gives the garden a feeling of lushness that belies its drought-tolerant character.

Unlike many gardens designed with children in mind, this one has no lawn but instead, the irregularly shaped stream of gravel, which, as Logan points out, "children love to scoop up and throw." They love lawn, too, she adds, "but they don't need it. They'll play very happily if you give them paths and secret places to go."

McCune confirms Chloe's pleasure--and that of numerous neighborhood visitors--in the garden as it is. And while the $8,000 price tag may seem daunting for a children's yard, McCune sees the place as a permanent fixture in her life, not just of Chloe's youth. Eventually, she plans to turn the playhouse--designed and built by Lebec-based Jack Larsen of California Mini-Cabins--into a crafts studio for herself. In the meantime, she spends a lot of peaceful time in her garden, both with little people and alone--"listening to Mozart, enjoying the fountain and the flowers."

Logan, who has designed three children's gardens in the past year and sees the demand for them increasing, says that they don't have to be expensive--or hard to lay out and install. "Consult the kids," she advises. "Plants can be small, materials cheap. Just make the place wonderful."

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