My wife and I recently bought a new house to fit our growing family. While the new house sported a low-maintenance front yard, the backyard was an overgrown disaster. It was more in need of a jungle guide than a gardener. Neglected for years before we moved in, the yard was a bushy, overgrown lot filled with dark, damp recesses, sharp rocks, poisonous berries, and thorny branches.
We didn’t dare let our kids out to play in fear of cuts, scrapes – or worse. I went out each weekend and hacked away, but the foliage seemed to grow back faster than I could cut. Something had to be done – summer was coming. With the weather getting warmer, we wanted to create a backyard that the whole family could enjoy.
So how do you go from an Amazonian danger-zone to a family-friendly paradise? “I almost always recommend that a homeowner spend at least six months to a year in their home before making any major landscaping renovations,” says Debby Evans, owner and proprietor of Debby Evans Garden Design. By taking time to live in a backyard, homeowners become acquainted with the sun, the landscape, and they’re able to visualize how they want to use the backyard in the future.
Looking at our own backyard, we were happy overall with the bones. We had a covered porch and a small concrete area for the kids to play. A large, oval lawn occupied the center of our yard, providing the kids plenty of area to run. There was the matter of the concrete path that seemingly led to nowhere, but our problems lay mostly with the plants gone wild and a large area covered with small rocks. (A little parental math: rocks plus small boys equals broken window).
So what makes a yard kid-friendly? Play structures on top of grass is a traditional choice, says Don Donovan, landscape designer with Capital Nursery, but not everyone has the space or budget for a structure. Deciduous climbing trees are an option for parents with a sense of adventure. Pools make sense in the Sacramento climate, but they require regular maintenance, not to mention the expense of installation.
Quick Tips for Getting Started
Get to know your backyard before you start
Learning about the light patterns, soil type, and your own needs can – and should – influence how you end up designing your yard.
Plan with a budget in mind
Hardscape, such as concrete walkways, patios, and pools, can eat up a budget. If you don’t have the budget to match your dreams, work in stages.
Don’t be afraid to consult a professional
Designers and architects can provide insights and ideas that you might not have considered. Pros can design a comprehensive plan or just provide consultation on smaller projects.
Ask your child for input on the backyard
It sounds like a no-brainer, but adults often make decisions for children without asking them. This can lead to wasting money and time on an unused backyard feature.
Use free resources
Sites like The-Landscape-Design-Site.com have tons of ideas and plans to help do-it-yourselfers get started.
Developing the entire yard may be a temptation, but having a lawn area available for soccer, croquet, Frisbee, and other games is a must as kids get older, says Sacramento landscape architect Ed Haag. A fort or a playhouse can provide kids with a space of their own, and neither has to break the bank. They can range in price from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, depending on size, material, and details.
"Victory gardens, where the kids become responsible for raising crops," are another fun option, adds Haag. Bonus: a garden also mean fewer trips to the grocery store.
“Tending to baby plants and bulbs and watching them develop can teach kids that caring and work can produce beneficial outcomes,” states Evans. “Plants that are child-friendly and easy to grow range from simple vegetables and fruits, such as tomatoes and strawberries, to brightly colored sunflowers or herbs.” [Editor's note: For a tutorial on how to plant a kid-sized sunflower fort, click here!]
Areas for outdoor dining and entertainment are another popular choice, as many local families consider funneling vacation funds into ‘stay-cation’ amenities they can enjoy year-round, says Haag.
A cozy seating area and an outdoor fireplace can make for a great place to enjoy the warm Sacramento evenings (s’mores, anyone?). “It’s like being in a living room,” says Donovan, who has designed backyards with everything from a model train set to a Zen garden.
To make your garden “an extension of your interior living space,” Evans suggests adding “crafts at a garden table, games under a shady tree on the grass, an easel for painting with water colors, and music.” She suggests adding touches of whimsy by painting pots and stones in the garden to make it truly personal.
When considering the whole family, it’s also important to think about what’s underfoot. Donovan cautions against fake grass, which can burn bare feet during hot Sacramento summers. Rubber mulch, made from recycled tires, comes in several colors and beats the standard bark mulch because it cushions falls well and doesn’t splinter. Pea gravel is another good ground cover because it won’t cut tender toes, he adds.
For our purposes, a play structure would have monopolized too much of the yard. The yard already came with plenty of trees, and although they were not of the climbing variety, there was little space to add more. A pool would have blown our budget. But we definitely had the means for plants and mulch, and elbow grease to match. And thecovered porch would make for a nice, shady spot to escape the midday heat.
When to call a pro
Finally, we needed to decide whether to go it alone or consult with a professional. Homeowners should consider consulting a designer or architect “if they want a complete redo or if they want a section of the garden redone,” says Donovan. Smaller jobs, such as choosing plants, can be done on a consultation basis. “A good design,” he adds, “has an estimate of costs, shows the plants and size, and the layout of the design.”
You can hire a design firm to plan and do the work yourself, or you can hire a landscaping firm to do the work as well. If you decide to go with a designer or landscape architect, Evans states, “both designer and homeowner need to feel comfortable with each other. Reputable, experienced designers and contractors have been at their craft for some time.”
Due to time and budget, in the end we decided to focus our attention on the softscape, namely the plants and trees in the backyard. We cut back the branches to open up the yard and removed the thorny plants and bushes with poisonous berries. Taking out the bed of rocks and replacing it with pea gravel made a play area for the boys. We left the lawn open for play and have a spot in mind to install a playhouse.
I guess I can cancel my machete shopping trip.
Leon lives, works, writes and parents (often from his new backyard) in Sacramento.