Black will share his design techniques and ideas in a three-part class on "Designing the Family Garden," beginning Saturday, Oct. 20, at the Gamble Garden Center. Each two-hour class can be attended in sequence or individually.
The first focuses on "Developing the Landscape Design Program," and covers sun exposure, drainage and soil conditions, and how the yard will be used by the whole family.
The second, "Hardscape, Structures and Water," deals with everything from sandboxes to tire swings and slides, and includes information on types of surfacing and safety.
The third, "Plants and Plans," covers toxicity, sensory pleasures and site-specific needs of certain plant families and species in family gardens.
Viewing yards as more than well-groomed lawns, Black said they can create an environment to increase children's awareness. He believes children should have as much access to the full yard as possible. He is against confining "play areas" to a corner.
"The yard should be a place for everyone, with at least 90 percent of the yard child-friendly," he said.
Black cites the power of the scents, visual appearance and tactile qualities found in a garden to increase children's awareness of the world around them.
"Lamb's ears, for instance, are fun for children to touch. Other times plants have an interesting shape — they might look kind of spirally. An asparagus fern has a feathery texture that is also interesting to look (at) as well as fun to touch."
Plants provide sensory experiences that can stimulate the brain, making a garden an ideal place for exploration, innovation and child development.
Water is also powerful, he said.
"Adults sometimes don't have a tolerance for the mess it can create, but water is really important. It is an inexpensive way to engage a child's mind. It offers movement, sound, variability, and it can really encourage exploration," he said.
A yard can also foster a child's capacity for compassion as they interact with insects, animals and plants, and learn to experience the awe of nature. A butterfly garden, for example, gives children the chance to be a part of the mystery of a caterpillar's metamorphosis, teaching them to accept and expect change as a natural and amazing part of life.
The colorful buddleja bush (known as "the butterfly bush") and other native California plants are great for attracting butterflies and nourishing their larvae, Black said.
Planting edible vegetables and fruits can create a sense of mystery and wonder at the ecosystem's life cycles, and provide an opportunity for a child to interact directly with growing things, from planting to harvesting.
"You get to eat the result. What could be better than that?" Black said.
Black believes that growing and harvesting fruits and vegetables can become a family tradition, sowing pleasant memories that children can look back upon as adults.
Strong scents such as lime, jasmine and gardenia can be powerful lifelong associations, as the sense of smell is physiologically linked to memory in the brain.
Vegetables that germinate quickly, such as lettuce and beans, are excellent for kids to plant.
Any annual flower is rewarding to plant — nasturtiums in particular have big seeds that are easy for children to handle.
Black's courses also detail safety hazards. Certain plants, wood or garden installations can be serious risks to children.
"Standing water can pose a drowning hazard for young children, and even bird baths, which generally don't present a drowning risk because they're elevated off the ground, can be dangerous if a curious child pulls one over," he said.
Other dangers range from falling from play structures to structures made from toxic materials (such as some types of wood preservatives).
Black also covers dangerous plants, from the best-known toxic villains (oleander, angel's trumpet and foxglove) to common perennials such as larkspur (Delphinium) and annuals such as morning glory (Ipomoea).
"A plant doesn't need to be toxic to be a danger in the yard: Roses, for example, can really rip the skin if they're too close to a play area or walkway. Some plants have sap that's irritating to the skin. And some are simply hyperallergenic: They produce prodigious amounts of pollen, or have multiple bloom cycles in a year, or produce fluff or chaff that is an irritant," Black said.
And keeping a yard simple is a virtue, he said.
"It doesn't take a lot of expensive equipment to engage a child. Play structures don't necessarily encourage creativity and exploration in the way that digging up a portion of the yard to look for dinosaur bones in a child's fantasy world does. Children make sense of the world through imagination and our job as parents is to engage and encourage it," he said.
Black didn't start out as a landscape designer. With a B.A. in communication and an M.A. in sociology from Stanford University, he spent the first part of his career in advertising. In 2002 he switched to landscape design, after completing coursework at Foothill College and University of California, Berkeley. Today he's a principal of Verdance Fine Garden Design in Palo Alto. He is a member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, California Landscape Contractors Association and the American Society of Landscape Architects.
"I loved the creativity of advertising, but I wanted to channel that creativity into directly enriching people's lives," Black said.
"The natural world is an infinite palette for working with others, and I love seeing the light bulb that turns on when I have translated what influences them into the landscape.
"My hope is that parents will recognize the importance of play in being connected to the natural world. I hope these courses will enable parents in providing a safely chaotic space to encourage creativity and self-awareness in their children."
What: Designing the Family Garden with John Black
When: Saturdays, Oct. 20, 27 and Nov. 3, 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
Where: Gamble Garden Carriage House, 1431 Waverley St., Palo Alto
Cost: $60/class, $160/series for non-members; $50/class, $130/series for members
Info: Call 650-329-1356 or visit www.gamblegarden.org.
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