Backyard Courts

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Looking for some summertime fun? Take a look in your own backyard. With a bit of work, you can transform your own lawn into a “staycation” worthy spot for leisure, socializing and maybe the smallest hint of exercise. Horseshoe, bocce, volleyball or croquet courts are all within reach with a reasonable amount of space and elbow grease.

Now the amount of time and landscaping involved is up to you, your wallet and your level of commitment. For a horseshoe feature, you can go beyond metal stake driven into the dirt and create an all-out landscaping feature. Sand pits can sit in the center of two raised gravel beds, backed by low walls of pressure-treated lumber. The backstops control errant horseshoes and offer a handy shelf to hold a drink while someone is pitching. Low retaining walls built of mortarless concrete blockcan  protect spectators and provide seating between games. Landscape lighting can flank the pits and low-voltage lighting can be tucked into the shrubbery.

Such backyard fixtures — more often associated with resorts than with private homes — are proliferating across the country, as lawns are enhanced by badminton and lawn-bowling courts, patios, decks, outdoor kitchens, bars and fireplaces. The construction of these outdoor "rooms" has grown into a $5.8 billion business, according to a recent tally by the Professional Landcare Network, a trade association. As reported by the group, some elaborate projects can boost a property's value as much as 20 percent.

Horseshoes are just one lawn game that can punch up a backyard — it can be as easy, or easier, to set up an area for volleyball, bocce or another outdoor sport. A nice thing about these projects is that there are no building codes to consult, no elaborate engineering specs to consider — basically, you can make what suits you as long as it doesn't bother the neighbors too much.

After you choose a game, the next big decision is how closely you want to follow the official rules, which may call for some elaborate surface materials to be trucked in. Most homeowners use an existing lawn. For games such as bocce and croquet, the mower should be lowered to about 112 in. — the shorter grass will reduce the drag on rolling play balls. Unfortunately, that's about half the ideal cutting height for common grasses. So, give the grass extra water, and after the playing season, rent an aerator and work over the surface. Then, fertilize and overseed with a specially blended sports variety

The lawn, of course, is not all a budding backyard athlete needs to consider — and depending on your seriousness (or how much time you have for shoveling sand this summer), you might not want to play on grass at all. Here are details on setting up three common games.

Like horseshoe pits, bocce courts are narrow — as little as 10 ft. across — and can fit into a side yard. A high-end surface for this Italian version of lawn bowling begins with 3 in. of packed pea gravel topped by a 3-in. layer of crushed limestone. Then comes tennis court clay, or an oyster-shell blend ($700 per cubic yard, boccemon.com). Or, just play on grass. Bocce sets, with a small target ball (pallino) and eight larger balls, start around $49.

The important element is fun. Get out there and play!

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