You don’t need a referee — or a football — to have a field day in your own backyard. Croquet, bocce, horseshoes and other relaxing outdoor games are classics that anyone can play, and the rules are flexible enough to fit the play around the rosebushes. Gardeners always have the home-field advantage.
“Having a place to play a game in the garden makes it a fun place to be — and it gives you more impetus to make the rest of the yard look good, too,” says Kristopher Dabner, a garden designer and the owner of The Greensman in Kansas City, Mo. “Pick a flat spot, give it visual interest, and put in a little landscape lighting,” he says.
Wendy Lindquist, a garden designer in Bridgeport, Conn., had so many requests for bocce courts from her clients that she developed a side business, Bella Bocce, to accommodate them all. A standard bocce court is 10 feet wide and 60 feet long. “They have to be level,” Lindquist says, which may require excavating, but when they’re complete, they become instant party-starters. Some of her clients even donate the use of their bocce courts for fundraisers.
“They say it’s the only sport you can play with a glass of wine in one hand,” Lindquist says. “It really gets people riled up — but in a nice way.”
Both Lindquist and Dabner try to design bocce courts as more than just a playing surface. A tree or a gracious pergola at one end of the court keeps the garden itself in the game, Lindquist says, and garden benches on the side turn part of the party into a spectator sport. Fan participation is always a big element in the game, and a few strictly unofficial umpires, often just as adept with a wine glass as the players themselves, can be relied upon to offer their impartial services to the advancement of the art.
Finding the space for games amidst the flower beds may require some adjustments and refinements of the rules. Instead of full-court bocce, for example, a 30-foot, half-court layout may work just fine, with all players tossing their balls from the same end of the court, instead of from opposite ends. The layout for a game of regulation nine-wicket croquet requires a space 50 feet wide and 100 feet long, but even the United States Croquet Association allows players to “adjust the size and shape of the court to fit the available space,” according to the official Rules of Backyard Croquet on the USCA’s website.
Hundreds of thousands of croquet sets are sold in the United States every year, and millions of people play croquet in backyards, says Dylan Goodwin, publisher and editor of Croquet News. All you need is a lawn, and it doesn’t have to be kept highly groomed.
Goodwin and his wife started playing croquet with friends at barbecue parties, whacking balls around on a rough lawn. Eventually, the group of friends agreed that boundaries, as in most sports, are an essential part of the game, having discovered that “if you’re not digging balls out of the bushes, you have a lot more fun,” he says. Now Goodwin mows his fescue lawn very short — just 1 to 1 1/4inches tall — for a fast playing surface. At the moment, he has a six-wicket “American Croquet” configuration on his lawn in Overland Park, Kan. Just looking at the croquet green gives him pleasure, he says, and he’s always ready for a game.
Michael Whitton, president of the American Cornhole Association, grew up playing horseshoes, croquet and other lawn games in Ohio. Then cornhole, in which 6-inch-by-6-inch canvas bags filled with corn are tossed into a hole partway up an inclined board, became his sport. Cornhole has amazingly broad appeal and can be played in gardens of any size, he says. Whitton is now retired and lives in California, where his two-deck cornhole set is in demand at garden parties and family events. The game has caught on: The association has almost 40,000 members.
Cornhole decks are 4 feet long and should be spaced 27 feet apart. If a garden comes up a little short, it’s not a problem, Whitton says. One deck will do: just be sure to leave a little space so players won’t be stepping in the flower beds.
For everyone who has ever played backyard games, the competitions have some characteristic sounds: the whack of a mallet on a wooden ball, the ring of a horseshoe against its iron stake, the whistle of a whiffle ball. Like garden-fresh tomatoes, flashing fireflies and the sizzle of a burger on a grill, the sounds, smells and flavors of the event all contribute to an experience much bigger than your own backyard. But it is the garden that makes the game: the whole point is to get everybody outside in the air among the flowers and under the trees.
“Make your garden a destination,” Dabner says. “Have friends over. Grill brats.” And line up a game: the competition isn’t all that stiff when everyone’s relaxed.