Growing grass, and kids, in the back yard

Growing grass, and kids, in the back yard

We are not yard people by nature. Rather, we are not “yard work” people.

We inherited a beautiful yard when we bought our house in 2001 from a professor of landscape architecture. Nice patio out back, perennial beds, brick walkways, lots of shade trees, spring bulbs, flowering bushes, the works. And still plenty of lawn for the kids to play.

That first year, we delighted in the yard’s surprises — the brilliant fall leaves, the bursts of color from the tulips and rhododendrons, the giant elephant-ear hostas and fragrant lilac tree.

But those amenities require some care. The perennial beds sprout new weeds daily. The maple trees seem to drop something every month, from helicopter seedlings to green flowery buds to piles of leaves. Not to mention the gingko’s “stinky balls.” The bushes need trimming. All sorts of things try to grow between the brick pavers. And growing grass in a shady lawn is its own challenge.

So, over the years, the yard has, well, changed. In fact, we’re pretty sure we’re known around the neighborhood as “the people who ruined the landscape architect’s lawn.”

Don’t get me wrong: I love gardening. I spent many hours in the garden before we had kids, eager to make something, anything, grow.

But then we had two children, and in those early sleepless years, we were lucky to get a few pots planted around the patio. With both of us working, including many weekends for my husband, there wasn’t much time for yardwork.

We managed to kill some things outright, including the poor lilac tree. Our kids loved hanging from its branches — it was the only tree small enough for them to climb — which is apparently not a good idea for a very old lilac tree.

(In a frightening turn of events, my husband bought a chain saw and chopped it down one weekend while I was out of town. “You what?” I kept saying. He still has all his limbs.)

We’ve never liked the idea of using fertilizers or herbicides, so the lawn suffered the most.

Weeds proliferated, and the backyard evolved into a mud pit. Years of baseball practice, soccer games and inflatable swimming pools trampled whatever grass the weeds hadn’t choked, aside from scattered patches.

We didn’t worry about it for a long time. In fact, we sort of reveled in it. The bare spots proclaimed to the world: This is a house with children.

A friend who visited a few years back looked at the toys scattered around the lawn, the scraggly pitcher’s mound and home plate area and said, “This yard looks well-loved.”

I made half-hearted attempts to fill in the patches by throwing out some seed, but it never took. So the mud multiplied, caking on our children’s shoes every time they played out back and eroding down the hill into our driveway with every rain.

This year, I was determined not to go through another summer of mud.

Besides, our kids are older now, and we no longer have to have a yard like the Clampetts.

We got bids on new sod, but other house projects (can you say new gutters?) claimed that money. So I invested $50 in some grass seed.

For the bare patches, I bought the kind that comes with the mulch/fertilizer built in (though it feels like you’re spreading newspaper on your yard).

I spent a couple of weekends raking up leftover piles of leaves, prepping the soil and spreading the seed, being careful to water daily (and secretly rejoicing in the rainy spring).

I banished our children from the lawn. I considered using yellow police tape, but they were fairly cooperative.

And I waited.

Within a week or so, the first seedlings appeared. Flush with victory, I planted more seed. And it grew, too.

I never thought I’d get so excited about a little grass.

Gradually, it filled in the bare spots. We now have a full-fledged, almost suburban-like green lawn. That no one is allowed to walk on.

We’ll see if it lasts. I’ve had grass grow before, only to falter in the heat of August. And the shade remains a challenge.

My son timidly asks every now and then when he can play baseball again. I put him off. I am strangely protective of those little green stalks. I yell out the window at the squirrels who seem to have buried all their nuts in the newly seeded areas. They pay no attention (until I turn on the sprinkler).

I realize I’m being silly. The whole point of growing grass is to give my kids a comfortable, mud-free area to play.

They do have other options. They’re old enough now to play out front. They run around the side yard shrieking with delight as they play “ghost in the graveyard.” They ride their scooters down the sidewalk. They draw chalk or shoot hoops in the driveway. My daughter and her friends invent treasure hunts or fairy games under the trees.

The yard is still well-loved, just not beaten down.

My son has almost outgrown backyard baseball anyway. Last summer, he and his friends repeatedly hit our neighbor’s house (and car) with line drives, though luckily it was a Wiffle Ball.

But as I was comparing the before-and-after photos of my grass-planting experiment, I got a little pang when I saw those old bare patches. I can still picture my son with that giant plastic bat, taking his first swings as a toddler, or cracking one off the tee at age 5. I remember my daughter’s love affair with our inflatable pool (which most moms will tell you is more trouble than it’s worth).

And I realize I’m not ready for one of those manicured lawns where you know the kids have grown up and moved away.

So the police tape will come down, and I will hope that grass and kids can coexist. And revel in the life of the lawn.


Julie Wurth writes and blogs about family issues, social services and the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Her column appears in the paper every other Tuesday. Leave a comment below,  contact Julie at 351-5226 or or follow her on Twitter at


Before. the soccer-goal area in early spring, top. Pretty much a mud pit.

After: The grass has filled in the soccer area as well as what used to be the pitcher's mound and home-plate areas at far right. Julie Wurth/The News-Gazette


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