How can I make my backyard really great?
May 28, 2018 4:09 PM   Subscribe

Usually the Corpse family spends a lot of summer hiking and camping. That probably won't happen this year as one of us recovers from an injury, and we're sad about it. How can I make my backyard so great that we're happy to be home?

The Corpses are two adults and two kids (middle- and high-school aged). We're not very social people but do have friends over occasionally. In the past I've bought inflatable or small above-ground pools, but raccoons tear them to shreds so quickly that it isn't worth it.

Things we already have: all the plants and trees we want. Two hammocks on stands. An old-school charcoal grill on which we make burgers. A not-very-good fire pit. An old and mossy (but fine) wooden table and benches. A lot of those cheap folding chairs. A pop-up canopy. All the usual campfire-cooking stuff (Dutch oven, pie irons, etc).

Things we're not interested in: nice lighting, because we live near Seattle and go to bed before the sun does. Large things that need to be stored in the garage over the winter. Gardening.

We play a lot of board games. We read. We're all on the active / athletic side (and are all archers but there isn't a safe way to set that up in our yard). None of us are into cooking and we don't appreciate fine food, but maybe I could get really good at grilling pineapples or something. I know lashing but don't have a project in mind. We don't have any trees that are appropriate for treehouses or the like. I'm happy to have the yard turn into a neighborhood hangout for kids in the summer -- that kinda happens anyway.

There's one electrical outlet; there are two water spigots but they're located inconveniently and would need to have hoses run to them. The yard is shady in the morning and gets direct sun for a while in the afternoon.
posted by The corpse in the library to Home & Garden (25 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: The yard is about the size of a large two-car garage, plus some other bits sticking out.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:10 PM on May 28, 2018

A crapton of bubble-blowing stuff?
A guidebook to the birds in your area, and a bunch of notebooks so you can keep track of the birds that visit your yard?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:36 PM on May 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

posted by bunderful at 4:41 PM on May 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Lawn games. Cornhole, testicle toss, and kubb all involve casually lobbing objects at other objects while conversing, and can be acquired cheaply or DIYed.
posted by juliapangolin at 4:48 PM on May 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

My inclination would be to paint the table (or get a nice tablecloth) or replace with a patio table if it's the "bench-attached" kind of table and get better chairs for sitting around it (like these maybe), so it's comfortable to sit there for a long stretch for dinner and games or reading/writing/internet surfing. Benches, even padded, are not terribly good for sitting very long, and the crawling in and out is not fun.

Get a bluetooth speaker for music, podcasts, and audiobooks. (Get a water-resistant one just in case, we just got this one for our hot tub-side speaker - it holds a good charge, and has a USB port to use as a power bank.)

Get a couple of lawn games.

Hummingbird feeders - this one is my favorite of about 6 I've tried, based on durability, cleanability, ease of filling, and it's the one the birds prefer. After you've attracted them, then try hand-feeding them. (I'd suggest bird feeders but if your raccoons are that bad, don't.)

Build a Mason Bee house to hang.

I dislike windchimes but I do like suncatchers and stained-glass-type lawn ornaments.

We live outside most of the year and it's the table and chairs that make it work. In our case we have a patio with a cover so we actually have office chairs around our table. Power is run to it via outdoor extension cord. In cool weather we cover the table with a sheet that hangs nearly to the ground and run a little space heater underneath. (We also have a television; probably not what you're looking for.)

Do your family actually use your hammocks? Depending on the person with the injury to recover from, it might be worth taking one of them down and replace with a pair of folding gravity loungers, which are much easier to get in and out of and also help if they need to elevate their legs.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:50 PM on May 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Are there skeeters? A strong fan or 2 discourages them. I have those big umbrellas that mount in a patio table, and I have a mosquito net for 1, and it is very pleasant to sit outside and read. often has patio tables and chairs for an easy upgrade. Mossy benches are damp. I have wood director chairs - I buy them if they are super cheap at yard sales, and get new covers as needed. They are very comfortable but fall apart after not very long, even when I have bought them new, because I don't bring them in when it rains.

Fairy lights. Under the umbrella, draped over trees, especially the tiny 'rice' lights. I can't get enough of them.

Pick a wall. Iron a white sheet - use lots of starch, which they actually still sell at grocery stores - to make a screen. Find a projector & watch movies. If you have friends who have slides, bring them over. I love travel slide shows, the trick is to go at a fair clip and not tell every single detail of that cobbled street in Greece. Also, music, and appropriate wine, beer, ouzo.

Camp out. Put up tents, cook outside, roast marshmallows. This is really kind of hokey, but your kids will actually probably love it, especially when the moon is full or nearly so. Tell campfire stories, sing. Hokey is good. Have theme nights with preferred music.

The Perseid meteor shower peaks around Aug. 12, with lots (maybe 1/ minute) of shooting stars. great for sleeping out under a mosquito net.
posted by theora55 at 5:19 PM on May 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

Zip line.
Not necessarily in that order.
posted by Poldo at 5:40 PM on May 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

Lounge chairs. We got ours at Costco a few years ago and love them.
posted by bananacabana at 6:14 PM on May 28, 2018

We have been very happy with our new projector and folding big screen, which allow for outdoor movies in the backyard.
posted by slateyness at 6:18 PM on May 28, 2018

If you're outdorr/active a Slackline could be fun (for the non-injured part of the family).
Also, Giant Jenga.
posted by cholly at 6:24 PM on May 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

You could set it up for car-style camping, only without the car. Looks like you can buy the same sort of fire ring they have at Shenandoah National Park here; put down some appropriate gravel and replace your cheap fire pit with that. (Note: that was just the first google hit; there seem to be other places that sell the same sort of thing). Set up the tent(s). Roll out the camp chairs instead of your usual folding chairs. Put up a post with a tag saying the site is reserved for your family. Live out of a cooler for a couple nights. Turn off the wifi, if you dare.

Are there any accessible trails near you that would work for your recovering family member? You could set up camp, go hike an accessible trail for some outdoor moving time, and then return to your campsite for s'mores and card games.
posted by fedward at 6:26 PM on May 28, 2018

Dart board and giant jenga for the competition, outdoor yoga for the peace.
posted by five_cents at 6:37 PM on May 28, 2018

We almost bought an inflatable hot tub and I often wish we had.
posted by raspberrE at 6:37 PM on May 28, 2018

One of the finest pleasures in life is to have a comfy tent (good air mattress with comfy sheets)...and to have a nap in that tent on a hot summer afternoon. Preferably while reading a Calvin & Hobbes treasury. So I suggest that set up.
posted by Ftsqg at 6:42 PM on May 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

We got this potting table but used it as a bar/buffet. Fill the tub with ice, line glasses up on the top bar, hang serving utensils from the hooks -- it's perfect! For small backyard parties we put the food and drinks there and let people go help themselves; for big backyard parties we turn it into a complete bar with the table surface covered in bottles, and a big cooler full of non-alcohol drinks next to it, and set up folding tables elsewhere to hold the food.

As big readers, if you set out some bird feeders, and go out in the morning with a book, the birds very rapidly become used to you sitting calmly nearish the feeder with your book, and will come insanely close to you to get to the birdseed. A birdbath also helps this; we just got a plain one that you fill by hand (no fountain/pump), that has a hinge so you can tip it empty if it gets gross inside.

We took a gigantic elderberry bush (like 12 feet high) and trimmed out a 6-foot-high tunnel from the low/dead branches, and it was a spectacular reading nook, shady and pleasant and easily 15 degrees cooler than the rest of the yard b/c you were in a bush tunnel. We'd take beach towels out under it to lounge around and read.

Tetherball or Swingball is fun, easy, and works well in a confined space.

You can buy or make a variety of giant outdoor board games -- I have a giant square beach towel that has a scrabble board and foam letters that came with it. You can make a chess/checkers board by alternating pavers and grass and making some big pieces. You can buy giant connect 4.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:42 PM on May 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

My favorite Costco impulse purchase EVER is our propane fire bowl. We use it nearly every night in nice weather and whenever possible the rest of the year. It has strengthened my marriage, no joke- a steal at $100.

Also, we lucked into a really nice set of patio chairs- the kind that’s called a “deep seating” set. Makes lounging on the deck infinitely more pleasant.
posted by carterk at 6:55 PM on May 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

What about a fountain, or small pond?
posted by The otter lady at 7:01 PM on May 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

When I hike, I love to see wildlife, so I recommend binoculars to bird with. In Seattle, you probably get awesome theropods like Steller's Jays and Northern Flickers in your yard already. You can further encourage wildlife in your space with feeders or native plants. Get a suet feeder and lol at the bushtits.
posted by Drosera at 7:15 PM on May 28, 2018

Definitely a water feature. If you don't have room for an artificial stream or pond, a fountain will do.
posted by metasarah at 7:31 PM on May 28, 2018

Late-night outdoor chess set played by the light of the full moon and not artificial lighting.

Try out a nearby labyrinth and see if you’d like one for your yard. Markers can be at a mowable height.
posted by childofTethys at 8:56 PM on May 28, 2018

Really really comfy chairs. Not necessarily squishy and giant, but just chairs that you can sit in for a long time.

Also, reduce any barrier to going outside. Is the door easy to open? Do you need to squeeze past anything? Can the injured person get out there alone? Is there somewhere near the backdoor to put down cups of tea or plate whilst you open the door? I'm pretty lazy, and sometimes opening the whilst carrying something is just too hard to be bothered with.
posted by kjs4 at 9:35 PM on May 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm actually NOT an outdoors person. My husband made it a personal goal to make me want to hang out in our backyard. A couple of weeks ago, not only did I spend the entire morning in the backyard, but when it was time for lunch instead of going inside and eating, I actually made my lunch and came back outside to eat it! What a milestone. So, what has he done:

- We invested in SUPER comfy seating. The furniture is weather proof, but the cushions must be stored. We just put them back in their plastic sleeves and throw them into a storage bin.
- A gigantic, heavy, parasol that can be adjusted easily. Even if you are a sun worshipper, it's nice to have a bit of flexible shade to take a break.
- Painted our fence a bright fun PINK! And he's done a really good job with keeping the garden tidy. I know you said you're not that interested in a garden, but I guess my main point is to make the place visually pleasing, whatever that means to you.
- He pulls an extension cord out to the garden and plugs in a wi-fi extender and a Sonos speaker: Inernet and Music!

If we could install some plugs out there (we heard some stupid expensive quotes for the work) I would want to put in some fairy lights. I thought about solar ones but I don't think they're as good.

I also want to get a little chimnea to have a wee fire in the evenings. We don't need a massive one (we have a great bbq already) and it's just big enough for atmosphere and roasting marshmallows.
posted by like_neon at 2:00 AM on May 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

360° swing.
posted by flabdablet at 8:11 AM on May 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, hooks for hammocks instead of the stands, to free up that precious area. You can buy cheap "parachute" nylon hammocks everywhere for twenty bucks. Use a 4"x6" if you can, or a tree of 8"+ diameter; be wary of the side load it puts on any support, and do NOT use a masonry (brick) wall or pillar. I put up a pole for my own hammock, had to put up two more, and still don't get to hang out there because my kids use all the spots!

Does your wifi get out there? That way you can stream music, and kids will be willing to visit.

One time when my out-of-town parents visited, we assembled a picnic table from a metal-tubing kit plus 2"x4"s from Home Depot. We drilled, screwed, and sealed the parts, and everyone signed the underside. It was fun, and it's lasted years.

We have bird feeders in our yard -- for big seeds, thistle, and hummingbird juice -- and I love seeing the visitors.

How about a sunshade of some kind? A canopy over some chairs, or even a nylon one to stretch over a hammock's ridgeline? (Search Google for "hammock tarp".)

A basket by the back door with some natural (non-DEET) bug spray, flashlights, and shop towels for wiping off damp chairs?
posted by wenestvedt at 10:07 AM on May 29, 2018

A friend and his brother built their parents a bocce court(?) in the parents' backyard. It was a good bonding experience and they all enjoyed playing bocce together when it was done.
posted by bendy at 8:26 PM on May 29, 2018

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