Turning Your Backyard Into a Vacation Spot


Savannah Shyne has big plans for the summer, and none of them involve leaving her backyard in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

On her quarter-acre lot, she’s managed to squeeze in a 15-foot-wide inflatable pool, a 10-foot-wide trampoline, a vegetable patch, a climbing dome and a butterfly garden, all while leaving enough space for the new family puppy to run around.

“We’re not sending the kids to camp. We’re not doing the pool. This is a whole different lifestyle,” said Ms. Shyne, 43, who, in a typical summer, would have sent her 8-year-old twins to day camp in the mornings and then spent the afternoons at the village pool with them. “Everybody is freaking out. What are we going to do?”

Ms. Shyne and her husband, Sam Effron, 46, a lawyer, have surrendered to the very real possibility that the summer of 2020 will be a dud. Facing the prospect of prolonged social distancing orders and business closures, they have turned their backyard into a substitute for the places the family might have gone had life not ground to a halt because of the coronavirus pandemic. Even as some venues and activities open, Ms. Shyne doubts the family would venture out since she is immuno-compromised. And so the yard that was once a neglected afterthought where the children rarely bothered to play is now the main attraction.

As millions of Americans prepare for a summer spent largely at home, despite the loosening of some stay-at-home orders, many are taking a fresh look at their outdoor spaces and finding ways to make them more inviting. They are adding play sets, bounce houses, fire pits and basketball hoops, anything to keep themselves and their children busy during the long, hot months ahead. Big-ticket projects that may have been shelved for years, like outdoor kitchens, in-ground pools, hot tubs or cabanas, are suddenly top priorities, with homeowners calling contractors to see if such projects can be completed during a shutdown.

“Parents are realizing that camp will probably be canceled,” said Karri Bowen-Poole, the founder of Smart Playrooms, a Rye, N.Y., play space designer. Many are diverting money that might have been spent on camps or vacations to purchases they hope will keep restless children occupied. “If you have kids who are whining and unhappy, parents are like, ‘I have to solve this problem.’”

While many industries are at a standstill, landscapers, contractors and outdoor equipment companies report rising or steady business, as customers attempt to turn their yards into mini-amusement parks or serene retreats before the first heat wave hits.

On Wayfair, demand was up in April 2020 from the same time a year ago for trampolines, swing sets, bounce houses, seesaws and hammocks, according to the company. Web traffic and inquiries to Yardzen, an online design service, spiked by 300 percent after shelter-in-place orders were enacted, according to the company. And at Solo Stove, which sells low-smoke fire pits, the spring buying season kicked into gear in April, a month earlier than normal.

The quarantine “got people preparing for summer early,” said John Merris, the chief executive of Solo Stove, a Southlake, Texas-based company. “You can only watch Netflix for so long.”

Homeowners just now starting to shop are discovering that some outdoor items are almost as difficult to come by as toilet paper, with stocks low and shipments delayed.

Ms. Shyne started to get anxious that she was late to the game when she spoke with a friend in Los Angeles where temperatures were already summerlike in the beginning of May. Her friend advised her to stock up fast. “She’s like, ‘you have to get on this, everyone is buying them, you’re not even going to be able to get anything!’” Ms. Shyne said.

“I just never would think I would look in my backyard and see all this gear,” she said. “But on the other hand, these are unprecedented times.”

Christopher Argenziano, the chief executive of the Pool Boss, a pool installer in Wayne, N.J., says business has been steady, and clients this year are more motivated to start work than in typical years. But even if the client is ready to go, state and locals guidelines are confusing, inconsistent and shifting. “It’s day by day. It’s so unclear,” he said.

But for homeowners fortunate enough to live in areas where outdoor construction is possible, a new pool could happen. Mike Hooyman decided just a few weeks ago to install one at his 9,000-square-foot house on 1.3 acres in Florham Park, N.J. He and his wife, Jamie Bossert, 36, had canceled their summer beach house rental reservation on Long Beach Island on the Jersey Shore, and the couple’s three children, ages 2, 4 and 6, were “busting at the seams,” Mr. Hooyman said.

“The summer rental thing freaked us out. Who’s going to be renting before us? Do we want to be on the beach?” said Mr. Hooyman, 42, who owns a retail display company that, during the pandemic, has been manufacturing and distributing personal protective equipment for hospitals.

So Mr. Hooyman called an architect who had recently sketched plans for them for an in-ground pool and cabana, and told him to move ahead with the job. The $250,000 project will include a 20-by-40-foot pool. The cabana will have a bathroom; an outdoor kitchen with a pizza oven; and an outdoor living room with an 82-inch television and a fireplace.

Mr. Hooyman sees the investment as one that will give his children ample space to play, and his extended family a safe area to gather. “This will allow the grandparents to come and sit at the poolside,” he said. “They’ll be safe.”

He sees his retreat from the beach as a long-term shift for his family, and doesn’t anticipate renting a summer house again. “I’d rather have the sanctuary of my home versus the unknown,” he said. “I think fear is going to be there next year.”

So he built a treehouse.

“I always wanted a treehouse as a kid and I never got one,” said Mr. Bowes, 46. Although he’d long planned to build one for his children, he “didn’t expect it to be in the middle of a pandemic when the sky is falling.”

So Mr. Bowes disassembled a wooden play set with a green plastic slide that his children, ages 3 and 6, never used, scrapping it for parts. He used other materials left over from previous jobs, like Andersen windows, concrete siding and corrugated plexiglass that he used for a skylight.

With money tight, the family doesn’t expect to add any more attractions to the yard, except for a few hand-me-downs they acquired from neighbors. But the treehouse appears to be plenty, as the children have made a home out of it, filling the space with food, toys — and living room pillows and blankets, to their parents’ chagrin. Seemingly unaware of the challenges of construction, they have also been asking their father to set up a television, and install heat and electricity. “They want to move out of our house and move into that house,” Mr. Bowes said.

It’s not just children who need an escape. Kerri Sloan, who’s lived in her 3,800-square-foot house in Darien, Conn., for a decade, decided this spring would be the one when she finally planted a vegetable garden. She’d always wanted one, but summers spent raising her three children were too busy to make a commitment.

But this summer is different. The children are teenagers, and no longer in need of her attention, and her summer vacation plans are most likely canceled. Not only might a garden help her pass the time, it might also grab the attention of distracted teenagers.

“I literally was like, ‘you guys have to help me,’” said Ms. Sloan, 49, who also lives with her husband, Craig Sloan, 50, who works in sports advertising. “You’re all going to be in this with me, tell me what you want to plant so you’ll help me.”

Her yard had space for a 16-by-16-foot bed, but it needed substantial fencing to keep the deer out. Rather than build it herself, she found Homefront Farmers, a Redding, Conn., company that designs and builds raised beds and fences. Ms. Sloan declined to say how much the structure cost, but John Carlson, the owner of Homefront Farmers said a bed and fence generally costs around $8,000 to build and install.

Her vegetable garden was installed in mid-May, and the company provided her with a layout for where to plant her crops. Ms. Sloan plans to plant strawberries, broccoli, cucumber, snap peas, carrots, herbs, zucchini and green beans. “We are hoping this garden gives us a reason to be outside,” she said.

Buy a new home right before a pandemic, and your renovation plans can run amok. When Ashley and Dino Petrone closed on a four-bedroom house in Santa Clara County, Calif., set on 2.6 acres with a vineyard, in the beginning of March, they did not fully realize that the country was headed for a shutdown.

The land was in rough shape, with overgrown vegetation and a pool in need of repair. “The backyard looked like a bomb went off,” said Ms. Petrone, 34, who is pregnant with the couple’s fourth child. Mr. Petrone, 38, is a software engineer for Netflix.

The list of repairs was long, but the quarantine shifted their priorities, and their timetable. “All we wanted was a place at home where we could have a retreat,” said Ms. Petrone, who has 400,000 followers on her Instagram account @arrowsandbow.

They hired landscapers to clear out the overgrowth, but they couldn’t do anything initially to fix the 18-by-40-foot in-ground pool, which was in disrepair and needed to be resurfaced, re-piped and needed new equipment. Once the state relaxed some restrictions at the end of April, a crew was able to come onto the property, and begin restoration work.

Ms. Petrone designed a new layout for the space on Yardzen, and bought a canvas tent from Shelter, a San Francisco company, that is large enough for a bed so future guests can comfortably sleep outside.


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