Low Water Use Backyard 

My family recently rehabbed an approximately 300-square-foot grassy area into a low-water-use play area for our young child. Although we had been planning on doing this project for awhile, the incentive of getting a rebate back from our utility made it even more compelling. There are a lot of considerations when planning a landscape design, especially one involving a play structure: how do you want the space to function, what’s the appropriate fill for safety, how much maintenance do I want to do, what are the safest materials, budget, etc. I hope to touch on all of these points in describing how and why I designed the project the way I did.

Our first goal with this space was to provide our daughter with an outdoor area for her to play. Because the space is small, we chose this geodesic dome play structure from Lifetime (available on Amazon here) because we felt that it allowed for more “unstructured” and imaginative play. We put a swing and some monkey bars hanging from the inside (it’s 5-feet tall) and also have a parachute that can go over the top and make it more of a igloo or house inside. The sand pit provides a safe surface should someone fall, but is also a fun place to build sand castles or bury treasure. The structure really packs a lot of punch for the space it takes up! We then planned the rest of the small space AROUND the play structure. We put mulch down because it was cost effective and good for safety. It also allows us to change our mind later as we may add some low-growing ground cover after the heat of summer passes such as dymondia.

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This job ended up taking us about two full-days with 2-adults. We had to remove about 4-cubic-yards of soil and grass. We then created a circular structure with some bender board that helped  us decide where to place the structure (this is KEY since the assembled play structure is VERY heavy.) If you notice to the left of the firepit there is a gravel-ly looking area, this is a drain for water, and the entire space gently slopes towards that point.  Without drainage all of our sand and mulch would float away and/or get moldy during the rare but torrential rain that we experience here in Los Angeles. There is also a drain under the sand pit which is  about 18-inches deep in the very center.  Here is a short document about the required depth of ground covers for safe play areas. Also, if you use sand for a play area, be sure it is “silica-free” sand because of the danger to children’s lungs of inhaling the fine silica.  Read more about that here.

Grass and synthetic grass are not considered safe ground covers for play structures because they become dense and compacted over time (don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger here…) We wanted to move away from grass anyway because of the water use, we also avoided synthetic turf for reasons I mentioned in an earlier post about low water use landscaping and about lead in synthetic turf.

Once the shredded wood bark and sand were in place, we then planted with some low-water-use plants including fortnight lily, blue fescue and yarrow. I love how the plants soften the angular lines of the firepit, they also help keep kids away from the corners which was my original reason for planting them. With the plants in place the final design has a pond-like feel with the “pool” of sand in the middle and the reedy-looking fortnight lily sprouting up in random corners. There is still plenty of space in front of the firepit to place chairs and hang out, and the flexibility of the mulch will allow us to plant more at a later date or put in a vegetable garden again if we ever decide we have the time for that. This design is practically no maintenance, and our daughter and her friends have been thoroughly enjoying the multi-functional nature of the space.

Be a spark in the world!

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