The 8 Best Games for Your Backyard

The Fourth of July is just around the corner (for my US readers. Well actually, it’s still July 4th for everyone using the Gregorian calendar, but… go with it). For many of us this means large gatherings of friends and family, often outdoors. While one of the more memorable Independence Days took place at my friend Scooter’s farm in Riley, Ohio and involved a home fireworks display and the phrase “which end you reckon points up?” – with predictable results – you can’t spend the whole day shooting fireworks at bystanders. In that spirit, here’s a list of some of my favorite lawn/yard games (in no particular order):

8. Croquet. Croquet is awesome, but it does require a fairly level, open stretch of yard. Growing up, we played in our front yard. It was level, but three mature maple trees and their roots made play a little challenging. There was a definite home court advantage. One of MJ’s colleagues hosts an annual croquet tournament, for which participants are required to show up in their croquet whites. I am not this fancy.


7. Kickball. I’ve always loved kickball. It’s like a sport designed for those of us lacking the necessary coordination for tee-ball. There are actually adult kickball leagues, which I feel like I should mock but I secretly wish we had one in Culpeper.

6. Cornhole. It’s actually not a favorite of mine, it’s just on the list because I’m hoping someone from Virginia will help me understand WHY cornhole is this big exciting deal here. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s like poor man’s skeeball. I don’t get it.


(Why yes, those are wedding themed cornhole boards. If that’s your thing, these are made by etsy seller Style My Corntoss. And they’re right here in VA, because cornhole’s a thing here? Sure)

5. Bocce. I grew up in Rhode Island, where the old Italian and Portugese men played some pretty hardcore bocce. If you doubt my home state was serious about the sport, allow me to point out that my brother’s wedding reception was at the restaurant called The Bocce Club. For real. Anyhow, bocce is one of those backyard games that can be as informal or as intense as you want. If your grass is nice and short you can play on the lawn, but if you’re a hardcore afficionado you can install a regulation bocce court in your backyard complete with the compacted oyster shell surface. Play is simple; think curling for those of us who hate winter.

4. Wiffleball. The other day I came across this article on the history of wiffleball. Did you know that it originated in Fairfield, Connecticut? David Mullany sought to create a lightweight ball that curved and broke easily when thrown, to keep his kids from hurting themselves trying to throw big league pitches with little league bodies. In a bit of trivia that speaks to the stereotype of New Englanders as cheapskates, they left out the “H” in “whiff” because if they ever needed to buy a sign, it was one less letter. Apparently folks are super competitive about their wiffleball, which seems a little excessive at first but look at this video!

3. Volleyball/badminton. Are they the same game? Of course not. But if you own the net you probably bought the set that includes a volleyball, four badminton racquets, and a couple of shuttlecocks. Both of these games are an absolute blast, although Top Gun really set an impossible standard for the rest of us guys. I do not look like that when I play volleyball.

2. Lawn darts. I’m not talking about the ones you can buy today with the safe, soft foam tips with a weight buried discreetly in the projectile. I grew up with the ones that got banned and they were the best. Satisfyingly heavy, the “thok” of that steel rod impaling itself in the hard, baked earth of a summer day was incredibly gratifying.

lawn darts vintage

1. Horseshoes. As a charcoal snob, every time I grill I’m faced with 20-30 minutes of wait time while the charcoal briquettes get going. If I’m feeling inspired I’ll weed or prune or address random tasks around the yard. More often than not, though, I toss horseshoes. Horseshoes is one of those games where it doesn’t matter how horrible you are. It’s still kind of fun.

These are among my favorite games that I played growing up, and still dabble in occasionally. Have I missed anything? What’s your favorite backyard game?



Two Simple Possible Reasons Why Your Lawn Never Does Well

We’ve established how I feel about the lawn, and most folks I work with also want a nice patch o’ green for playing and showing off. I don’t do lawncare, and I’m not licensed to apply fertilizers or pesticides, but a question many clients ask at the initial consultation is “why does my lawn look so bad?” There are usually two possible reasons at play. One is easy to fix, the other not so much.

You have little to no topsoil

This is far and away the most common reason for a poorly performing lawn, especially for folks with newer homes. Why? Because topsoil is valuable. When a builder comes in to do a neighborhood, they scrape off and haul away the topsoil before they start grading the lots. When the house is finished, they come back and spread a scant bit of topsoil before putting down the sod. It looks pretty decent the first year, but it can go downhill quickly. You may have really rocky, dense soil (Bristow), nasty marine clay (Alexandria), or sandy, depleted soil (Spotsylvania). Turfgrass is like a dog: it spends its life hungry and thirsty. A rich bed of topsoil provides nutrients and an opportunity to hold the right amount of water.


How do we fix a lawn faced with no/little topsoil? The easiest way is to strip off the sod, bring in several inches of topsoil, and resod. If that’s not an option, you need to slowly build up the organic matter in the soil. This can be accomplished by periodically (once or twice a year) topdressing your yard with a fine compost and then overseeding. The first way is instant gratification; the second is an investment of time. Either way will get you there.


Especially in older neighborhoods, I’ll meet with a client who says “why can’t I grow grass back here? All that wants to do well is moss!” And I look around…

 Heavy Shade Backyard

This is when I tell them that they have a choice to make. They can have all these big, mature, beautiful trees, or they can have a lush lawn. If they want an ok lawn, we can get an arborist in to remove branches, thin the canopy a bit, and let light in; but at best they’ll have a year or two of awesome lawn before things start to revert back. It’s not just about the shade, though that’s a big part of it. If you have big trees, you have a big root system or even network of root systems. Those trees are sucking water from everywhere they can get a root, like a little kid with a long straw.

Source: Micah Sittig (used under Creative Commons license)
Source: Micah Sittig (used under Creative Commons license)

Depending on the overall design, maybe we do away with the lawn and do groundcover. Or perhaps we pick one or two less-than-awesome trees to remove and get a small patch of gorgeous lawn. It all depends on the client, the design, and the goals for the space.

Not sure about the best way to approach your challenging lawn, or other landscape dilemmas? Contact us for a consultation – I’d love to hear about what’s working, what’s not, and where you’re trying to go!


10 Tips for Landscaping with Kids

With the end of another winter upon us, I’m reminded of my mom’s summertime refrain: “David, go outside and play!” Here’s a list of ten things to think about when creating a play space for your kids (or grandkids, or nieces and nephews, or whomever):

1-    Love The Lawn.

With a little imagination a lawn is a soccer pitch, waterfight battlefield, or a perfect spot from which to lay back and analyze puffy clouds. Do not underestimate the lawn!

2-    Sometimes, the simplest play spaces are the most fun.

A sandbox is easy to put together and provides an inexpensive space that can be repurposed when the kids are older. Just make sure you incorporate a lid; neighborhood cats don’t differentiate between Tidy Cat and play sand.

3-    If you’re adding a playset or other equipment, keep it safe!

Most manufacturers recommend a minimum six foot buffer zone around equipment, and you want a soft surface to cushion falls. Grass doesn’t hold up too well under swings and it can be a hassle trimming around slides and posts. Recycled rubber mulches and specially-engineered wood mulches are popular with community playgrounds but can also be purchased in reasonable quantities for home playsets.

4-    Outdoor toys need a home.

Even something as simple as a bench with storage inside can keep toys out of the rain, and off the grass when it’s time to mow. If you have the space and the budget for a larger solution, why not combine a playhouse with some storage?

Now that's a path!
Now that’s a path!

5-    Plan for paths!

Remember that the shortest distance between two points is often over or through Grandma’s heirloom roses, unless there are several clearly identifiable ways around them.  It may be urban legend, but I was once told that when a new building is built at a college, the designers wait to see where the students create paths before they install the sidewalks. If you’re starting from scratch, why not see where the kids go?

6-    Learn what plants are especially poisonous, and make sure that they’re not planted where they’ll be a temptation.

You can find a number of great lists online (websites that end in .edu are often the best), or contact your local County Extension Office.

7-    A garden full of edible plants can help kids learn where food comes from and why plants are so important.

Even something as simple as a “Pizza Garden”- tomatoes, basil, oregano, peppers, and onions- can encourage healthy eating and a little help pulling weeds.

8-    Edibles are great, but don’t forget to plant for the other four senses!

Those, of course, are smell (lavender, roses, mint, lilac); sight (sunflowers, hosta, Echinacea, hydrangea); touch (globe amaranth, lambs’ ears, silver artemesia, sedum, river birch); and even sound (ornamental grasses, Chinese Lantern Plant)


9-    The magic of gardens is that they’re not just about the people.

Encourage pollinators, birds, frogs, and other critters to give kids a chance to see Nature in action. The National Wildlife Federation even has a program through which your backyard can be recognized as a Certified Wildlife Habitat. You can learn more at

10-    Think about the future when planning your child’s play space.

After all, he or she won’t be this age forever. When I was little, I clamored for a treehouse. My dad and I built one, but it was not your “normal” backyard tree fort. The treehouse was beautifully framed, and built to adult proportions so that when we were grown, the structure could be lowered with house jacks and converted to a garden shed. A wise man, my father.
I should include a rule # 11- just be open to using your imagination and having fun. Listening to my neighbor’s kids screaming, laughing, and running around, I think they’re doing just fine without my Top Ten list. Get outside, spring doesn’t last forever!