What are backyards for?
August 15, 2019 12:23 PM   Subscribe

Now that my kids are teenagers, no one uses the backyard for anything. Is there anything useful to do with the space, or should I accept that it's just something I need to mow and weed for the sake of my neighbors and otherwise ignore? I live in upstate New York.

I have a screened in porch with a couch that I live on in good weather, and a back deck that is occasionally used to feel more outside. (The deck is higher up and has fewer bugs than the rest of the yard.) The yard is more than 50% shade (enormous oak trees that I will not remove) so while I have some perennials and plant a few tomatoes each year, it's not useful for significant vegetable gardening. Decorative gardening isn't interesting to me. None of us swim. I don't eat meat. I considered a fake stream at one point, but am pretty sure that the dog would take too much joy in ripping it out.

It has a treehouse, shed, and fire circle that are essentially unused.

I have parties 2-3 times a year that are partially outside if weather permits, but otherwise it's only used to dry laundry and entertain the dog. Given that all my friends and neighbors seem to use their yards equally poorly, I'm guessing that this is just how it's gonna be, but thought y'all might have some interesting suggestions...
posted by metasarah to Home & Garden (49 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You could always add appropriate features in order to create a (certified, if you like) native wildlife habitat.
posted by mosst at 12:28 PM on August 15, 2019 [40 favorites]

Bird feeders that will make it even nicer to look at the backyard while allowing you stay on the couch.
posted by metahawk at 12:29 PM on August 15, 2019 [16 favorites]

Backyards are dumb. They way you described is pretty much how we use ours (you probably use yours more), and have since I was young. You can do some gardening, some flowers. You can do lots of useful hardscape to make it look all cool if you have a ton of money. But other than that, they are functionally oversized and mostly useless.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:29 PM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Do you not like to just look at it when you’re on the porch? Maybe work on some kind of project (like the wildlife idea above) that would give you joy and appreciation for looking at the space. The fact your dog likes it is nice. Maybe put in a fountain that the dog wouldn’t destroy and would give you the sound of running water? Twinkle lights?
posted by catspajammies at 12:33 PM on August 15, 2019 [9 favorites]

In addition to birdhouses, maybe a bee hotel? More info here.
posted by mosst at 12:34 PM on August 15, 2019 [6 favorites]

Ps- it sounds to me like you use it quite a lot really...
posted by catspajammies at 12:35 PM on August 15, 2019 [13 favorites]

Depending on your dog's proclivities, you could add in some agility course items and possibly even do agility training with them? Failing that, how about a kiddy pool for your pup?

You could install a bat house!

Get outdoor chairs to sit directly in the grass if you don't already have them - an Adirondack chair is especially nice - and sit outside in the evening with a beverage and/or book of your choice.

I would totally dig a hammock, or one of those hammock chairs that you could hang from a tree. Heck, a housemate and I strung up a tree swing once and even with no kids around, it got a whole lot of use from both of us.

Any interest in chickens?
posted by DingoMutt at 12:37 PM on August 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

entertain the dog

Have you considered getting into agility training with your dog? A nice unused backyard is the perfect place to set up some obstacles and teach the dog to run them. Exercise for you, exercise for them, in most (North American) places, a fairly supportive and welcoming community of people who are also into the hobby.

In general, it seems like if you want to use your backyard more, it might mean taking up some kind of hobby that needs space. Agility for your dog, for example. Agility for yourself if you want to build some American Ninja Warrior obstacles. A croquet court. A putting green.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:39 PM on August 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Hammock! Help you switch things up from the porch couch. Maybe, some kind of water feature that is not just dog proof but dog intended, would be fun. A friend just built a woodfired oven in hers. The pizza out of that is amazing.

Also maybe look into some no-mow landscaping. Then at least even if you aren't using it, you aren't also resenting it.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 12:39 PM on August 15, 2019 [8 favorites]

I would highly encourage you to remove any lawn and replace it with native flora. This will naturally create a wonderful environment for lots of local creatures and they will certainly find a lot of use in your backyard. Bugs will bother you less because they'll be busy with their own stuff in the yard. It will also not have to be mowed or weeded or watered after things have taken root. Talk to local plant nurseries for leads on local folks who will help you do this. You can absolute mark out part of the yard for vegetables and dog things too, of course.
posted by Mizu at 12:41 PM on August 15, 2019 [28 favorites]

I had two thoughts upon reading your question

Make a space/surface for social lawn games like bocce, kubb, or various pitching games (horseshoes, cornhole, washers, etc.). The kinds of games people can play while holding a drink in their unused hand. It sounds like a great space to hang out, especially if you string some lights from the branches of the oak trees.


Plant local native wildlife perennials that require no care whatsoever and attract hummingbirds, bumblebees, butterflies and the like. My wife and I would sit for a half hour each day watching the hummingbirds flit round our Mexican Firebush as we talked. This cost us the time and money it took to plant four Mexican Firebush and cut them to the ground every winter. We didn't even have to water them.

I don't know where you live, but there has to be some analogous version of lantana, milkweed, firebush, senna, and salvia for your locale. Plants that thrive on neglect and that the critters love.
posted by cross_impact at 12:45 PM on August 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Maybe a compost bin? Although you don't want to garden, you can reduce green waste that goes into the trash, which helps the environment by saving fuel for garbage trucks and space in landfills. Once it's full composted, you could offer it up to a neighbor, a farmer, or a community garden.
posted by bluecore at 12:54 PM on August 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Hosting Bees or Bats is a neat idea. Composting and/or gardening, but shade will make that hard. Beer brewing station perhaps? Adding a(nother) building/shed of sorts? Workout station/climbing wall? Clothesline for drying all the things, or perhaps you already have one it seems. Woodworking area or a foot powered treadle lathe a la the Woodwright's Shop? Pool/Hot Tub but you don't swim eh? BBQ?
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:06 PM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

If I had a back yard I'd use it for dancing naked around a fire.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 1:10 PM on August 15, 2019 [13 favorites]

If you like cooking, having an outdoor kitchen is pretty great in the summer. They're especially wonderful if you like to do any home canning.

Likewise, if you're into baking or pizza, it sounds like you'd have the space to build a cob or brick oven.
posted by burntflowers at 1:12 PM on August 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

could you turn part of it into a japanese zen garden?
posted by Calloused_Foot at 1:12 PM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've been thinking about making my back yard into a friendly place for pollinators. Maybe you could the same with yours.

Another possibility, depending on your zoning, is to build a small house and rent it out.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:13 PM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Our backyard mostly serves as insulation from the busy road and street light that our house backs up onto. Which is why we let the trees and bushes that aren't actually touching the house grow reasonably tall.
posted by telophase at 1:15 PM on August 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

nth'ing letting part of it become natural habitat. At my house, we started by letting the back 20-25% become natural, and have slowly crept that percentage up as our needs/habits changed. It's now about 20% lawn, 80% natural and the dogs love it and we love it. Less to worry about, better views, etc., but we can still play fetch and work on projects.

(We also have a bat house and they eat so many bugs in the summer)
posted by matrixclown at 1:23 PM on August 15, 2019 [6 favorites]

Build a writing shed in the proud tradition of so many famous writers and finally get started on that novel...
posted by mochapickle at 1:30 PM on August 15, 2019 [5 favorites]

Now that my kids are teenagers, no one uses the backyard for anything.
It has a treehouse, shed, and fire circle that are essentially unused.

When I was a teenager a decade or so ago, at least 2 of those 3 things would have been an appealing place at any given age. Get a wood pile and teach them how to safely keep a small fire going with friends over? Clear out the shed of all that junk you don't need anyway and turn it into a place for board games and hanging out?

Treehouses are probably more appealing to the young side of being a teen but depending on the size I could see that getting fixed up to be a place to sit around as well.

Maybe I'm more outdoorsy than your kids but even if everyone's just sitting around looking at Tik Tok on their phones fires can be a nice place to hang out, and it's getting to be the perfect time of year for that.

I'd also be remiss to not mention Capture the Flag, or outdoor sardines, or Man hunt, all of which kept friends and me entertained in our twenties as well.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 1:31 PM on August 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Bird feeders and a hammock. Build a little rock garden. Build little fairy houses in the trees. Put googly eyes on mushrooms. Frolic in the pine needles on a nice fall day. Mark off a 10 foot square and make journal entries throughout the year about how it changes and what is living there.

Buy yourself a Cobble Mountain Hammock Chair and hang it from a tree branch. Make sure you get the footrest. Most people who sit in ours never want to get out of it.

Set up a tent under one of those trees and camp out. Do this at least once in all four seasons.

Backyards rule. They are an oasis from the busy, paved world and also a way to escape the sometimes claustrophobic inside-ness of a house.
posted by bondcliff at 1:34 PM on August 15, 2019 [6 favorites]

Why don’t you want to remove the trees? Do they shade your house? Do you appreciate seeing them out the windows? When you arrive at the house? Would you remove the trees if it cost no money?

Your answers to those questions are part of the answer to the question of what you’re using your backyard for.
posted by ewok_academy at 1:42 PM on August 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm in Ontario so our climates are fairly similar and I like to be in the backyard as much as possible from May-September. Even if I'm just on the computer or reading a comic book it is nicer to do it outside.

For a more active use you could turn your backyard into an outdoor gym that you would want to use. My kids are small and this year we got a ninjaline for them to play with. I think something like that would be fun for people of any age including yourself. Maybe make a climbing wall that goes up to the treehouse.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:48 PM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

You're telling me you have grass to sit on and a big oak tree to read under, and you aren't doing it? This is a waste of a dream setup!

Backyards are a great place to just be. To do your lounging. Lawn furniture helps with this.
posted by windykites at 1:52 PM on August 15, 2019 [8 favorites]

Get a wood pile and teach them how to safely keep a small fire going with friends over?

Strongly seconded! When I was a teen, a friend with a fire pit was a very cool friend indeed. I remember having one of my favorite summer nights at a friend's house with a big group of people cooking shrimp over his parents' fire pit. Another friend held a post-graduation party where we ceremonially burned our schoolwork and tests in her parents' outdoor wood stove, though whether you like this idea depends on your tolerance for mischief.

Another good party idea I'll crib from a friend I know in adulthood is dragging the TV outside to the backyard so you can sit around the fire pit and watch--well, in our case, sports, but could easily also be video games or whatever your kids enjoy.
posted by capricorn at 1:54 PM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Backyards are dumb.
Counterpoint: Backyards are for sitting around in, watching stuff grow.
posted by aspersioncast at 2:07 PM on August 15, 2019 [23 favorites]

Put in some raised beds and grow veggies and herbs!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 2:13 PM on August 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Likewise, if you're into baking or pizza, it sounds like you'd have the space to build a cob or brick oven.

I would like to point out that Gwyneth Paltrow's pizza recipe starts with building a stone oven in your garden. If Coldplay could build it, it can't be that difficult.
posted by betweenthebars at 2:30 PM on August 15, 2019 [6 favorites]

Seconding bluedaisy's suggestion of a pollinator garden. Pollinators need all the help they can get. Plenty of shade-loving, pollinator-attractive plants grow under oaks. (That link goes to a California-natives nursery, but it's good for suggesting possibilities.)
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 3:38 PM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Plant lots of bushes. Put up nesting boxes and maybe some feeders. Throw a climbing vine or 2 over the fence. Throw down some wildflower seed in the sunny bits & make it a tiny wildlife refuge My slightly overgrown garden in the middle of miles of perfectly manicured lawns. .is a hive of activity I get to sit and watch from the comfort of my living room the antics of squirrels playing with leftout dog toys in the back yard. The cardinals raising another generation in my maple tree. Hummingbirds nesting in the tangle of Rose of Sharon bushes I really should prune one year but probably won't. My lone apple tree get's raided by the squirrels & the chipmunks breeding in the raspberry bush tangle. All I need is David Attenbourgh to narrate & I've got a wildlife special going on. Side note the more bushes & shrubs & perennials you plant the less area you have to mow.
posted by wwax at 3:57 PM on August 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Chickens? Depending on your dog's prey drive. (My backyard is mostly chicken coop and vegetables.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:09 PM on August 15, 2019

If you're not that interested in gardening, or landscape design, I'd suggest mono-culture beds instead of going nuts on native plantings.

I don't know where you are, but you'd do like a kidney-shaped or oval bed of an ornamental grass (Northwind switchgrass is pretty; blue in the summer, ethereal in the fall.) and maybe another of a fall performer like New York Ironweed, maybe a bed of milkweed (there are tons of kinds). Just like, one thing per bed, because when it gets complicated it becomes a pain and if you don't love doing it, you won't enjoy it.

I would suggest paying attention to light--the light of the sun rising or setting, imagine it passing through gently moving ornamental grasses as the angle changes (again, there are tons) can put you into a delightful coma with morning coffee or an evening glass of wine.

Chosen strategically, single-species beds can have winter interest and feed the birds as well. You do not have to figure out what is a weed and what isn't. Many of them grow densely enough that weeding isn't an issue. You do not have to become a landscape designer to plant 20 square feet of Joe Pye weed. And natives have the advantage, in many cases, of being shade tolerant -- they live with big trees, wet spots, dry spots, etc....you just need to find out what might work.

God, though--I love the morning or evening light passing through ornamental grasses.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:11 PM on August 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Bring your coffee out there in the morning and your dinner out at night.
Sit out in your bathing suit and read a book.
Scamper around with the dog.

(All weather permitting)
posted by sallybrown at 4:17 PM on August 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

How could I forget - take up something like yoga or tai chi. It can be very nice at sunrise or sunset.
posted by sallybrown at 4:21 PM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

You could lease it to a small time ag operator.

Micro-farming on rented land.
posted by notyou at 4:48 PM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Build a somewhat larger and more insulated shed on a reinforced slab, bring in proper electrical power and then install a nice Bridgeport, a used Hardinge/Clausing/Colchester, horizontal bandsaw, and maybe splash out on either a Crossfire plasma table with the water table and an upgraded plasma system, or one of the various gantry mills.

...then go to town! Upgrade in later years with a backyard smelter, some sand casting gear, and so on, and spend the rest of your days knowing that I'm murderously jealous.
posted by aramaic at 4:57 PM on August 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Backyards are NOT dumb! I wish I had a backyard. There are some great suggestions here. I’d probably be out there on a chaise longue, sunbathing, drinking a cold Radler. I hope you’re able to find a fun use for yours!
posted by sucre at 5:24 PM on August 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

I can't tell you how much I enjoy my wildlife. Even if I never stepped food in the yard (other than feeding the animals) it would be worth it.

Not only do I enjoy watching them, providing food and water and wild plants that they need is becoming more and more important.
posted by beccaj at 5:55 PM on August 15, 2019

If you think of your backyard as an attractive buffer zone between you and the neighbors, you’ll realize that you’re using it every single day. I’m serious. We used to have a nice backyard. Grass, trees, a little garden. It was nice. I didn’t do much in the yard itself, but it was sure nice, when I would be working in the kitchen, to look out the windows and see...grass, trees, a little garden, birds, the occasional bunny, and not my neighbor’s house. Or, y’know’ my neighbor.

Now, we have no backyard, and I’m surrounded by homes. It’s not peaceful at all. I miss trees.

Done right, a nice backyard can be a peaceful little oasis. Just sit on the deck, sip a cold one, and enjoy the peace.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:40 PM on August 15, 2019 [10 favorites]

We started enjoying our back deck a lot more when we lucked into a really comfy deep seating set.
posted by carterk at 6:46 PM on August 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

I would go ahead and plant some more shade-tolerant undergrowth stuff (ferns and whatnot), plant more trees on the unshaded half and just go full forest. Add bat houses and bird houses, increase bee habitat, and basically just enjoy a backyard that you never have to mow again while feeling smug about improving biodiversity.

Building and installing bird and bat houses in the neighborhood would be an excellent Eagle Scout project to suggest to your local Boy Scout troop, FYI.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 6:58 PM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I swear, I can literally feel my anxiety decrease when I'm relaxing in our backyard. I love watching birds flock to the feeders, listen to the maple and birch leaves gently move in the breeze, feel the sun and fresh air on my face. Do you have comfortable seating and adequate shade? I like to read in the backyard, play on my phone, and watch Mr. Wasp grill before we eat on the deck (sometimes we do cocktails and Scrabble if it's part of a date night).

My sister just gifted us little solar powered fairy lanterns that we've hung in the trees ... I feel like my backyard is becoming the cover of a Nicholas Sparks novel, but I still love it. My goal going into the fall is to spend more time practicing mediation and focused breathing while outside - perhaps that's something you might enjoy as well?
posted by WaspEnterprises at 7:50 PM on August 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

Hatch out some turkeys, pheasants; something alive. Toss handfuls of fertilizer and watch the greenery go nuts. I've read that the vibrant NE leaf colors are from the iron in the soil; toss some rust and see what happens. Farm garter snakes, walking sticks, preying mantis, so much wildlife would love to be happening in your yard.
posted by buzzman at 11:03 PM on August 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Walking meditation labryinth. Maybe with some pretty mosaic stones, so it's nice to look at from the porch (or the hammock), too.
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:11 PM on August 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Put up a little open sided tent if needed, and get comfy quick drying chairs and a big table, then eat outside!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 4:31 AM on August 16, 2019

Thanks all!

About a third of my yard is either overgrown whatever-grows-there, ferns, or perennials. These areas are 1000 times higher maintenance than the areas I mow because of the constant fight against Japanese knotweed as well as other less awful but still invasive weeds. I would love to turn my entire yard into a wildlife sanctuary, but unless I devoted all my free time to it, it would actually be a stand of knotweed, jewelweed, horsetails, and whatever those nasty vines are. Mulch does not keep them down. Ideas for increasing plantings without astronomically increasing my yardwork are welcome!

(My porch is on the FRONT of the house so I don't even reap the benefits of a good view!)
posted by metasarah at 5:34 AM on August 16, 2019

A hammock stand and a hammock (no recommendations since I don't have one).
Books on astronomy, clouds, birds, etc.
A tray for snacks and beverages.

I would also need sunscreen and bug spray, but it is totally worth it. Consider the back yard as a vast living area and furnish accordingly.
Ask yourself, "What can I do to make this a better alternative for doing the things I do in the living room, kitchen, or bedroom? Would taking a soak in a folding pool or inflatable pool or a soaking tub be a game-changer?"
posted by TrishaU at 2:04 AM on August 17, 2019

Not all vegetable gardening requires sun - many root vegetables, greens, and peas can grow in the shade during hot summer weather.

If you don't want to do the gardening yourself, one of your neighbors might. We currently garden 1/3 of a neighbor's back yard. It's great for us since we're already pretty much at capacity in our own yard, where we mostly have perennial forest-garden-type stuff going on.
posted by sibilatorix at 2:52 PM on August 17, 2019

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