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My kids play in my backyard a lot (4 kids aged 2-11). We've been in the house for about 6 months and when we moved in there was grass in the back yard. When we moved in the grass wasn't in amazing shape. This isn't really a surprise - our back yard is very shady (it's a "typical" sized backyard but has a dozen mature trees, so most of it is always shaded). Other than grass, there were always plenty of weeds.

We have two rope swings set up that the children play on often. We have actual swings for them, but more often they take the swings down and just hang on the end and swing back and forth in all sorts of ways. This inevitably ends with feet dragging on the ground.

As a result, the grass has gotten much more ragged since we moved in, and in large circular patches around the rope swings, it is completely bare dirt. Now the kids get filthy when they play outside, and it's a bit of a pain.

My wife would love to have the grass back. I'm not sure if it is possible given the conditions. The shade obviously isn't going away and I don't want to take down the rope swings. Convincing little children to be nice on the ground is probably impossible. So my question(s):

  1. Is it possible to get healthy grass under these conditions?
  2. If not, what are some cost effective alternatives? Main concerns would be not looking tacky and helping to keep the children from turning into pig-pen everytime they go outside.

Here's a picture of the play area under the main swing - in front of a clump of trees which I tied up with some old ropes. You can (hopefully) see the big patch of dirt in front, and scraggly grass elsewhere. It gets some sun in the morning but later in the afternoon (and during the summer) it's almost completely shaded.

enter image description here

Here is a patch of grass at the side of my house where the kids haven't trampled. It gives you an idea of what the lawn used to look like (although it was never great under the tress). It's winter, so it looks worse, but it's still not in great shape, nor was it when we moved in.

enter image description here

  • IMO the only solution directly underneath the swings is to pave or wood deck the area, or install artificial turf. Grass is never going to survive daily scuffing from the kids' feet. The rest of the lawn may be salvageable with hard wearing grass species - it depends on your soil quality, drainage, water supply, etc, etc, not just on sunlight. But you will have to keep the kids off the new grass while it is getting established, or you will be throwing your money away. – alephzero Feb 4 at 20:52
  • have you considered creeping plants like thyme in the area since it will stay short, and you can walk on it all you want? – black thumb Feb 4 at 22:17
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    @blackthumb never occurred to me, but I'd definitely favor anything green that might actually stand a chance. – conman Feb 4 at 23:38
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    Hi conman! This is a great descriptive question! You're already getting help, so a picture may not be necessary, but it would be really great to see at least a section or two of what you're dealing with! Thanks! – Sue Feb 5 at 3:23
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    Just an aside, find some huge cardboard boxes and give them to your kids out there. Bring them in at night or throw them away when they get wet. Nothing is better for tweaking kid's imaginations! – stormy Feb 6 at 1:31
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Kids and shade are the kiss of death for cultivated lawns. I am going to make a few assumptions; you have rope swings IN your trees at the back of the yard? Hanging from the limbs?

If so, and your home is backed up to a greenbelt, you simply need to get rid of those swings and build a play area right NEXT to your house so that the kids can be seen EASILY from a kitchen window or a family room. I've taken clients out to track cougar and bear and bobcat and badger and raccoon and porcupine. They were most certainly in every greenbelt I checked. Those clients hired me to move the play area each time. Mature trees are usually found in greenbelts or near greenbelts is why I am assuming and just had to make sure you understood that if you DO have a greenbelt or wilderness area nearby this is something critical to consider. Parents out walking their dog allowing their toddler to hold their hand and walk slowly have had either their dog taken or their toddler by cougar. Right in front of them. Cats should never be allowed out of doors, dogs kept close to the house and heck, kids? After showing how close we live with apex predators? People never let their kids out alone and learned how to carry bear spray (gnarly pepper/military nerve gas) or a 44 magnum revolver. With ammo and practice and experience.

One solution is to make a play area that is MOVEABLE with the help of a couple of guys or use of wheels that can be locked. This would entail heavy wood such as 6X6 posts, perhaps post anchors in two places on the lawn (in the sun) where it is close to the house.

The other idea is to use pea gravel; 9". The bark chips cause lots of splinters and the asphalt chunks are extremely flammable. Toddlers don't normally eat rocks but they try it out for sure. Supervision at first and allowing them to put the rocks in their mouth and showing them how to spit them out would be good. Otherwise, pea gravel had the least problems.

Make sure to excavate the ground to allow 9" of pea gravel. Use pressure treated 2X10 dimensional lumber or 2X8 with 1" less pea gravel to form the sides. Use stakes to support the lumber sides and pound the heads down to be below ground. For the corners use angle brackets screwed into the wood; at least 3 1/2" screws. Never use nails (in any wood construction).

Install landscape fabric at the bottom on top of undisturbed subsoil Then install 9 or 8" of pea gravel. No compacting because it wouldn't work anyway. I would also think about installing sonatube filled with concrete and a post anchor to attach the play equipment to. For this application, 4X4s are enough or aluminum tubing 2 to 3" in diameter, 1/8"thick walls for this tubing.

Lawn is nice to fall on but this stuff is even better, softer. Honest. Gives more! Hard to walk in but great exercise.

For the best lawn in the rest of your yard make sure you are not mowing closer than 3". Sharp blades. Fertilize 3 or 4 times per season. Aerate once per season. Only water when you are able to see your footprints and never before or worse a little everyday! Forget trying to grow grass in shade. I don't care what the package says...Shade and Play? It is safer to have pea gravel for a play area than grass. Keep the lumber edging at ground level or slightly slightly above to keep gravel in gravel area. Rake the piles of gravel out of the grass that your kids threw out into the grass before mowing. Make sure your deck is set for 3" or better, 3 1/2" to cut grass. No kids around, and bag those clippings. There is not a mulching mower that truly mulches! Dump on those weeds under the mature trees only an inch or two. Very good for the soil under the trees.

Let me know more about your circumstances so that I am able to better answer?

  • This is all very helpful, thanks! Just because: I'm in a development, not backed up to greenbelt. This general side of town is undergoing crazy development, and everywhere they put a development they first cut down everything in the entire development area. So it seems my development was a bit out of the norm - otherwise I presume your assumption about a green belt would be perfectly applicable. My house is ~20 years old and my oak tress are ~30-40 feet tall, so I presume that when they developed my area they didn't slash-and-burn first. Swings are in the trees though - 100% right there – conman Feb 4 at 22:13
  • Conveniently, I work from home and my office window is at the back of the house, so I can see them playing all the time. – conman Feb 4 at 22:14
  • I agree with Stormy on the pea gravel, but you need to take several lthings into consideration, in my opinion: 1) Do not cut major tree roots when installing it. You can actually kill the tree. I personally think that 8-9" is overkill (I believe that 6" is what parks use). 2) You have oaks? Is oak wilt in the area? If so, then be careful about harming the bark on the trees. This is only a big concern in warmer weather (at least in my northern area) 3) You may want to try to cap the lumber edging with rubber- the wood hurts when the kids land on it or stub their toes on it. – Jurp Feb 4 at 23:55
  • As for mowing, Stormy and I vehemently disagree on mulching vs. bagging - I STRONGLY recommend a mulching mower - bagging is (in my opinion!) a huge waste of time. Stormy - if you're reading this - no need for us to get back into that conversation! :) – Jurp Feb 4 at 23:56
  • Yes we do...leaving clippings on the grass to decompose oh so slowly blocks light and water from getting to the soil. Bagged clippings are gold...IN your compost not on your lawn. Mulching? Name me ONE decent 'mulching' mower, Jurp! Even double blades to chop twice do not chop enough to help decomposition. And keeping the edging slightly above grade will not injure your kids. They gotta learn sometime by mistakes not by the word no...earlier the best and easier the lessons. Just saying, grins! 9" was specified by King County in the PNW as well as Whatcom County and even in Idaho. – stormy Feb 6 at 1:17

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