What are some nice ways to improve a gross concrete backyard?
July 9, 2013 4:57 PM   Subscribe

I recently bought a new house. One of the things I liked about the house was that the backyard was a blank slate -- fairly large, but nothing "done." It's just an expanse of concrete, with some edge areas covered with either tan bark or stones to keep weeds out. I thought I'd hire a landscape architect to help me envision nice landscaping and plan something great out there. But I ran out of money! Whoops. So, I turn to the hive. Hive, how would you improve a backyard that is mostly just (quite ugly) concrete, on a budget? I don't love entertaining in a prison yard.

Here are some parameters:

1. I have small kids. I want them to be able to run around freely, play ball, tag, etc. So I'm not looking for, like, ways to plant a bunch of landscaping in the middle of the yard. I'm looking more for a nice way to create a big surface for them to run around on; with some edges around the side for planting stuff.

2. I hate lawns (too much maintenance, too much water, dandelions, etc.) I did see some artificial grass at a friend's house that looked really nice though. Anyone here have an artificial lawn and want to tell me how it's been to live with? Is that stuff ok to put, like, tables and chairs on? Or does it get ripped up? What happens when it rains? What if I want to put a gazebo shade thingy up on it, will it ruin it?

3. The amount of concrete out there is daunting. I am afraid that hiring someone to jackhammer it all up and remove it might damage the foundation of my house from the vibration. I'd rather just leave it and cover it somehow. Is that possible? The concrete is currently well below the level of the house, so I think I could build up a few inches if I had to.

4. I would like to keep it cheap, since as I said, I ran out of money. Also, once I get some money, I might like to put in something nicer.

5. What kind of tradesperson would I hire to do something like this on the cheap? And what is "cheap"? Anyone here done something like this who recalls what they paid?

6. What if I wanted a surface like a playground, you know, where it's kind of soft and rubbery? Are there tradespeople who could do some of that and some of artificial lawn and make it not look disastrous?

7. What other surfaces should I be thinking about other than artificial grass?

8. What should I be using to try to find ideabooks for stuff like this that isn't way expensive? Pinterest? I like Houzz, but they are a little aspirational for where I'm at with this right now.

Thanks so much for your thoughts!
posted by fingersandtoes to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You can use a concrete stain. It's really pretty, easy to do and you'll be amazed at what a change it will be.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:00 PM on July 9, 2013

I'd deck straight over it (a floating deck) and build or place planters on top of the edges of the deck.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:19 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

You could throw a bunch of mulch on top. I like the rubber playground stuff idea, but plenty of playgrounds just have regular mulch or the rubber mulch.
posted by steinwald at 5:20 PM on July 9, 2013

I would do the stain effect in a pattern that would, over time, look good with planters maybe rolling on casters. The heat build up with concrete is high so pick plants that are heat tolerant. There are soft interlocking style tiles you could add to at least reduce injury while allowing the concrete to remain. A rented large drill and concrete cutting drill bit would permit erecting a sun shade, get the shade and position it, test the use at different sun locations and mark the locations that work best.
posted by Freedomboy at 5:23 PM on July 9, 2013

Response by poster: This is just to clarify not to argue -- the concrete is really, really unsightly. Imagine if someone really drunk got a giant pizza cutter and cut up an irregular shape into smaller irregular shapes, and put crappy wood dowels between the pieces. It's, like, laughably ugly. It's pretty much got to get covered up.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:26 PM on July 9, 2013

Best answer: Costco sells rubber mulch by the half or whole pallet, $500/$800 delivered. Cordon off a section with two courses of 2x4 pressure treated lumber (screwed together, alternating joints) and fill it in with rubber mulch for a pretty good play surface.

For hanging out / party / space, look for "Deck Tiles" at your local home center or on Google. Available in lots of colours and materials. These interlock and can just sit right on the top of the crappy concrete surface. It should cost less than even shitty outdoor rated carpet and will drain much better.

Make raised planting beds with 2x8 or wider PT lumber (non PT if you're going to grow food) fastened at the corners with brackets. Be sure to break up the concrete under these for good drainage, though you don't have to remove it. Fill with mulch, peat and soil according to what you want to plant.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:35 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What should I be using to try to find ideabooks for stuff like this that isn't way expensive?
I'd hit the public library and look in the area where the sunset garden books are.

The amount of concrete out there is daunting. I am afraid that hiring someone to jackhammer it all up and remove it might damage the foundation of my house from the vibration.

Expansive grout just requires drilling holes.

I hate lawns (too much maintenance, too much water, dandelions, etc.)

There's a lot of ground cover alternatives to lawns. Moss, oregano, etc. I like the checkerboard green-stuff and flagstones/concrete square look that comes up with image searches.

You're in the bay area, btw? There'll be lots of resources for such.
posted by sebastienbailard at 5:37 PM on July 9, 2013

I think the issue with laying artificial turf or that cool rubber material on top of all that concrete is drainage. When it rains, the water will collect underneath. So you'd maybe want a pro to help figure that out.

If it is a really huge area, you could put a [floating] deck on one side or corner, and designate the other areas as the playing space for the kids - a trike riding area, place to use chalk, a playhouse, etc. You could put planting beds or a collection of really large planters to add greenery. Dwarf trees will grow in pots, too - so if you are not ready or able to remove it all, there is a lot you can do with it as-is.
posted by Ink-stained wretch at 5:41 PM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

The previous owners of my house had a similar predicament. I'm in an old rowhouse with a 13' wide back yard. Apparently, the back yard was at one point paved. Someone, at some point, trucked in enough dirt to cover the pavement (not concrete, but bricks and asphalt) about 8" deep. That's enough to have grass, and the raised beds I've put in work pretty well as a garden, but, yeah, drainage isn't great. It's usually fine, but heavy rains lead to a day or two of standing water. But my neighbors on both sides have concrete yards. Depending on how much square footage you have, and the neighbors' situation, you might be just fine having a bunch of dirt dumped on top. Maybe break up the concrete a bit first.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:19 PM on July 9, 2013

Best answer: For the kids safety you want "cattle mats" or "stall mats" $40 each for a 4'*6' indestructible mat that is heavy and won't slide around. I picked up enough to cover our whole patio and placed the climbing thing and playhouse on top. Bought ours at the Tractor Supply Store.
posted by saradarlin at 4:03 AM on July 10, 2013

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