When we moved into our Park Slope apartment a year and a half ago, our backyard was covered in snow. It looked a bit suspect—the oddly uneven terrain suggested there might be hidden surprises beneath—but ohmygoshwhocared. It was OUTDOOR SPACE, that elusive New York commodity, and it made us excited for warmer days.
Those days came, the snow melted, and I wanted to cry. Lie! I did.
While not an outright dump, our backyard resembled an abandoned lot, with all the expected detritus: broken glass, rusty chairs, discarded nails, bits of wire, the odd tube of mini toothpaste. And poop. Lots of it and in various stages of decay. The previous tenants had obviously used the space as a private dog run. Or offered it to passing toddlers for bathroom emergencies.
Of course, none of this—not even the surety of contracting tetanus—deterred Ben, at two, from wanting to play “out back,” on either our stretch of cracked, urine-smelling concrete or the alternative: an elevated area of weeds and dirt.
This, as well as being seven months pregnant, had me
maniacally frantically brainstorming solutions, while cursing that we had chosen this apartment because of its backyard and after looking at no fewer than 70 other places in Brooklyn over the course of close to a year. Fact.
The internet was of no use. The backyard remedies I found were either too costly an investment for us as renters, too simplistic (pave! everything!), or not city-friendly enough (for the most part, grass, whether in seed or sod form, won’t survive a shady Brooklyn backyard). When my final idea—GET OUT OF DODGE—was nixed (fine, Shon), we (I) had to get off Craigslist and get creative.
Glorious [Fake] Grass
When Shon suggested we look into turf, I said “ew.” I may be a salon blonde from New Jersey, but the idea of fake grass made me cringe. Wasn’t the point of a backyard to experience the outdoors–dig dirt, find worms, breathe fresh, phthalate-free air? But when we visited Lowe’s and I realized synthetic grass could be more than that of itchy soccer fields and artificial putting greens—it comes in different lengths, colors, and textures—my disdain started to dwindled.
More than a year after installing turf on 50 percent of our backyard, I’m 100 percent sold. I love that we can play outside in spring, summer, and fall with just bare feet or socks and remain cleanish. (I really don’t mind dirt, but on even our tamest days, we average two to three outfits per person). After a rain, the turf dries in no time and “caring” for it entails little more than sweeping off stray leaves. And although I think it looks a little too manicured to pass for actual grass, people have briefly mistaken it for the real deal.
I should note, we DID NOT install it properly. Doing so—compressing the ground, using a weed-suppressing membrane, adding multiple layers of sand and crushed stone—would have be costly and not worth it to us as renters, but our method of installation has been, at the very least, a short-term success.
Before laying down the turf, we dug up and removed big rocks and gnarly roots and shifted around dirt to even the terrain. Once we had a sort-of even surface, we sprinkled a sparse layer of gravel for “drainage.” (People always ask about drainage. I have no idea why. To my mind, if weeds can grow up and through turf–what the weed-suppressing membrane is supposed to prevent–water should be able to evaporate pretty easily, too, right? The answer is yes, and it does.) We then unrolled the grass, planted U-shaped hooks to hold it in place, and called it a day.
I worried the rocks and roots we couldn’t unearth (including the remnants of a tree trunk–ugh) would still feel hard underfoot. Amazingly, they don’t. The grass is uniformly soft and squishy, and the unevenness of the surface–all the bumps and dips–lend a more natural-looking appearance, to my mind.
As for being able to dig in the earth, we left a generous dirt border for growing herbs, flowers, and vegetables like cherry tomatoes and peppers. We find an insane number of worms, snails, and slugs.
I’m sure one day we’ll live somewhere with real grass, and I’m starting to think my first reaction to that may well be “ew.”
Easy Outdoor Tiles
Fake grass rescued half our yard, but we still had a large swath of broken, smelly concrete to contend with. Bleach—the solution to so many of life’s ills—took care of the lingering pee odor, but it did nothing for the large cracks intent on tripping toddlers. Enter Ikea.
And don’t even make a joke.
On my short list of life loves, Ikea ranks high. Not for its furniture (much of that’s meh), but for its smaller, pitch-perfect home design—and life—solutions. Need a cushy, unfussy carpet for a kids’ room? A basic-not-boring mirror to open a space? Somewhere to entertain amped up kids on a rainy day? Ikea, holla.
In its most impressive feat yet, Ikea saved and seriously beautified our backyard. Using its teak-colored, interlocking Runnen tiles, we were able to turn nearly every bit of our uneven concrete space into a beautiful surface for playing. For a year-plus, these tiles have weathered bikes, scooters, race cars, and trains. They’ve been covered in chalk, bubbles, and finger paint. They’ve baked in the sun, held layers of ice and snow, and withstood a ton of foot traffic, and they still look great–maybe a bit faded, but there’s nothing wrong with a well-loved look.
Today, our backyard–which now has a grill and fire pit (the picnic table and pavers, which we moved around, were in the yard already)–is one of my favorite places anywhere. It’s become the backdrop for so many happy events: BBQs, marshmallow-roasting parties, and pool playdates.
We’ve used it for birthday parties, snowball fights, and New Year’s Eve toasts. Shon and Ben have even “camped” out back, in a tent and sleeping bags.
And then there are the hundreds of hours we’ve logged just hanging out, too: watching planes on their way to JFK; enjoying meals and snacks; kicking balls; petting the wet nose of Max, our neighbor’s dog; spying on cats, birds, and squirrels; playing, playing, playing.
I wish I had pictures of our yard before our improvements. Or maybe I don’t. In New York, sometimes it’s best to ignore how you can pay so much to get so little. And it doesn’t matter anyway. Our relatively small investment paid big, and we now have a space we use All. The. Time. Plus, had our yard looked the way it does today–under all that snow a year-plus ago–our apartment would have been priced way out of our reach, for sure.
So, in the end, everything worked out, and I learned a valuable life lesson: Snow so doesn’t melt poop.
Oh, wait, no. That’s not the one. Here it is: Don’t rent an apartment without seeing its backyard first.
What? You thought that was obvious?