This is me, aged 3, in a friend’s garden in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1981. You’ll probably see a similar scene if you visit me in my garden now. I lived in Kenya until I was nearly 14. It was a pretty idyllic childhood in many ways, and I have lots of memories of playing outside. I remember squeezing snapdragons so their ‘mouths’ would open, driving my matchbox jeep through the long grass on safari, balancing flower fairy dolls in my mum’s border plants, making mud pies and feeling frustrated when they cracked as they dried in the sun, and hiding in a dusty den inside a hollow shrub.
When children play outside, the experience profoundly stimulates all their senses. They take in the colours and shapes in their surroundings, the scent of flowers, the feel of the leaves, the sounds of birds or wind in the trees, the sensation of something soft or prickly under bare feet, and sometimes (if they are nicely unsupervised) the taste of mud, a stick or a flower. These experiences can create truly vivid memories that are easily recalled later in life.
These are my strongest childhood garden memories:
The smell of jacaranda flowers
For a few years, we lived on a quiet street in a shady valley in the Westlands area of Nairobi, called Jacaranda Grove. The whole street was lined with jacaranda trees and, once a year, they would all flower together. The colour and fragrance of those jacaranda flowers was so wonderful, I struggle to describe it. I remember the colour as similar to an English bluebell, and the flower shape is also bell-like. But it was the perfume that filled the area that I remember so well. Years later, while working for a British development charity, I visited Harare, Zimbabwe, and stayed at a hotel that was surrounded by flowering jacarandas. The scent took me straight back to that house in Nairobi, and I felt quite at home.
Climbing the frangipani tree at Westlands Kindergarten
This frangipani tree was very special to us kids. It could be a spaceship one day and a pirate ship the next. The branches were strong and gnarly, and grew in way that created a lots of ‘seats’ at different heights and positions. You could be sitting in a gun turret or a crow’s nest, high above the other children, who we imagined were in outer space or shark-infested seas. I remember one particular seat being quite scary to reach but once you got there it felt glorious! Lots of us would be involved, and the games seemed to go on forever.
Stripping the leaves off fern fronds
My mum has always been a keen gardener, and our veranda used to be covered in pots containing all sorts of exotic plants. My favourites were the ferns. When no one was looking, I used to pinch my finger and thumb together and slide them along the spine of a fern frond. It made a wonderful sound, a bit like when you drag your thumb over the teeth of a comb. This resulted in a satisfying, neat little cluster of leaflets that collected between my fingers, which I would then sprinkle onto the floor. I imagine my mum thought she was the victim of some peculiar tropical pest, and I hope she didn’t spend too much time fretting about what was defoliating her ferns.
The thump of a ripe avocado falling on the lawn
This sound would inevitably be followed by the sound of quickly pattering paws, as our two dogs raced to eat it. We rarely got to eat an avocado ourselves because the dogs almost always got there first. My mum claimed it was the reason why our black labrador, Holly, always had such a healthy, glossy coat. We’d get the seeds though, big shiny spheres, covered with saliva and tooth marks, which my mum would spear with tooth picks and suspend over a jar of water in an attempt to make them root. There was always one sitting on our kitchen window sill.
The time my sister found a muddy puddle
We were playing in a friend’s Nairobi garden. Hannah and her friend (both aged about 3) had been quietly playing at the bottom of the garden, unseen through the trees for some time, when her friend suddenly appeared. We had a sense there was something going on, so we all went to see what. We found my sister, looking absolutely thrilled with herself, in her kindergarten uniform, up to her tummy in sloppy mud. They had evidently found this amazing, deep puddle and Hannah had decided the only thing to do was to get in. She was eventually removed from the puddle and hosed down.
My sister and Crunchy Meat Pie, our friends’ pet tortoise.
I’m always trying to encourage my children to play in the garden. Their play experiences outside are often so much richer than when they’re indoors. They learn to use all of their senses, to explore, to use their imaginations, take (sensible) risks and have so much fun. There are some great articles here and here if you want to read more about why children need to play outside;
Just five minutes’ “green exercise” can produce rapid improvements in mental wellbeing and self-esteem, with the greatest benefits experienced by the young…
When children become adults, gardens change from play spaces, to places of comfort and relaxation. They are an ideal place to indulge in a bit of therapeutic nostalgia.
I was planning some new planting for a client’s garden recently, and she mentioned that she would like to have fuschias because she loved popping the buds when she was little. She said she thought the flowers looked like fairies, and I immediately knew which varieties she meant, because they do look like fairies. My husband loves roses because they had lots when he was a kid, and he remembers pretending that lumps of dry moss were pet hedgehogs. I love that. What are your childhood garden memories? Do you have a favourite plant that you remember from your childhood? If you haven’t planted one in your garden yet, I recommend that you do. You’re bound to feel better for it.
Me, ready to be hosed down after an afternoon making mud pies.