Bright color is nice, and a sweet fragrance. Drought resistance, of course. Bonus points for edibility: What kid wouldn’t want to munch a tasty blueberry after a ride on a merry-go-round?
Flowers and shrubs at the new KidsUp! will have many qualities, but all should withstand the particular rigors of the playground environment.
“They have to be hardy,” Park District horticulturist Chris Andre says, “and they have to endure a lot of trampling by kids.”
Time and the treading of small feet should pose no challenge for the KidsUp! landscaping. Andre and island gardening maven Ann Lovejoy drew from a rich palette of shrubs and herbs, to create a space of sensory delights and add some welcome shade.
Nine new trees dot the playground, including Venus dogwoods, Sugar Tyme crab apples, and vine maples. Four varieties of oregano will provide ground cover, while waves of fragrant mint will blanket the hillside next to a slide.
Wildflowers? Kids have seeded the flowerbeds like the wind, so no one’s really sure what’s going to come up where. Clusters of blueberries are planted throughout.
“They’re pretty hardy,” Andre said. “They can withstand a lot of kids going through them all the time, and kids can pick a blueberry and eat it. It’ll be a fragrant, edible space.”
Safety in plant selection, layout
While excitement has tended to build around KidsUp!’s array of inclusive new play features and the giant Ferry Boat, considerable thought and care went into plant selection and arrangement. An under-heralded concern: child safety.
Playground designer Chris Cain arrayed the planting beds to maintain clear sight lines, and most of the plants will be low-growers even into maturity. The notable exception are a pair of escallonia, which will grow tall enough to be wired together at the top and shaped into an arch over a playground path.
Parents will find benches at strategic points, and clear views from one side of the playground to the other. The elevated Lookout Pier commands the whole area.
“Pretty much from anywhere you sit, you can see nearly everything that’s going on in the playground,” said David Harry, Park District construction supervisor. “Keep an eye on your kids, see where they’re at, see them, hear them.”
Other plant selections are congruent with the surrounding park’s flora. Burning bush and low-growing rhododendrons echo familiar shrubs near the new pickleball courts and Battle Point’s driveways. The Parks staff took a hibiscus start from a favorite shrub outside their office.
“When they come from seeds, you never know what color the flowers are going to be,” Harry said. “What’s nice about those is, they flower really late, so they give you some late-summer color.”
Plants were sourced from wholesale landscape vendor Puget Sound Plants and other area nurseries.
Three of the most prized plantings aren’t new at all: a legacy oak and a pair of mature purple robe locusts that went in 20 years ago, with KidsUp!’s first iteration.
It wasn’t clear the locusts would still have room at the new playground, which is about one-third larger by area but chock-full of new features. But the Ferry Boat was built with the trees abeam, and the new trike track was routed to weave around the trunks.
“We did everything we could to save them,” Harry said, “especially the one on the south side. It creates a really shady slope for people to hang out. If kids and moms want to sit in the grass and have a picnic, that’s a great place to do it.”
After the Parks staff installed the larger trees, volunteers put in the rest of the shrubs and flowers during a recent work party-slash-sneak preview event.
Brenda Hodges-Howell of Fort Ward, her husband and kids helped plant dogwoods in a bed next to the “Rotary Beach” sandy play area.
Kids had to stay off the play structures – sigh – but with the Ferry Boat looming in the background and the inviting forms of the climbable Orca whales oh so close, interest was keen.
“Heck yes,” Hodges-Howell said. “We’ve been watching it transform over the last year and a half, and we notice each new change when we visit the park. So much anticipation!”
No promises, but the Park District is now aiming for a Labor Day weekend grand opening, Harry said. There are only a handful of construction tasks left to complete, and by then the wildflowers should be well in bloom.
KidsUp! Playground plant roster
Trees: “Venus” Dogwoods, “Sugar Tyme” crab apples, Vine Maples
Shrubs: Burning Bush, rhododendron compacta, hibiscus, Cotinus “royal purple” smoke bush, Mexican orange, blueberry, escallonia
Ground cover: Four varieties of oregano, multiple varieties of mint, annual wildflower mix