Backyard Makeover, Second Hand Success

A backyard! After decades of living in apartments, my family and I (Earth Mama Heather) were moving countries, and had chosen a house with A BACKYARD. My imagination ran wild, dreaming up so many ways to use this space. Dinners outside, enjoying fresh air. Space for my daughter to play. Trees, plants, bugs, and birds that would visit our yard. I could barely contain myself with the options.

Dreaming up possibilities, for me, is the easy part. Making those dreams a reality always involves more time, money, and elbow grease. We arrived at our house to find a great space, but the backyard needed some serious TLC. In the past, I would fastidiously research possibilities in stores (brick and mortar, and online) that met my budget, and hem and haw over which I would want to spend money on. Now that I am on my sustainability journey, I knew I needed to do it differently. Buying all those materials first hand was wasteful. Was there a way to get them or build them second hand?

Almost two years later, I can answer that question: It is possible, and usually better, to do it second hand. Better for the Earth, better for your wallet, and at times, better aligned with your visions because of the control you have over the process. 

Disclaimer: We did have to use some new materials to complete the designs. We tried to keep those materials to a minimum.

Sand pit – It takes time to get it right.

Earth babies playing in the sand

I am part of a local Mom’s group, connected via What’s App. One morning a group message went out: “Anyone want play sand? We are moving this weekend and need to get rid of it.

For months I had been wondering how we could get a sand pit in our backyard. My daughter loved playing with sand at my school’s playground. What a score! I immediately messaged back saying we would pick it up. Free play sand, that must mean we were halfway there! Now I know that things are a process, and it takes a few tries to get it right.

After researching different designs and maintenance basics, we settled on a “natural design”, aka a pretty simple method of building a pit. First, dig a hole. Then line the hole with landscaping fabric. Place rocks on the edges of the pit to anchor the landscaping fabric. Fill the pit with sand, and cover with a tarp.    

Sounds easy? Well, my husband would argue that digging a hole isn’t as easy as it sounds. Once the hole was dug, the rest took little time. Our daughter and her friends loved the pit and played for hours…. Except the rocks lining the edges kept falling in it. Large heavy rocks, intended to hold down the landscape fabric. And then our daughter enjoyed playing with the heavy rocks more than the sand, so I found myself arguing with a toddler about what to play with.

After regrouping with my husband, he decided to try a totally different design. He built a wood frame to fit the hole, stapled the landscaping fabric to the frame, filled it up with sand, and then crafted a wooden lid that we weighed down with large heavy rocks (our toddler wasn’t giving up on that).

This design works so much better. The rocks are moved to the side at the beginning of play, and blissfully ignored by my toddler. The frame is an easy sitting place for those not wanting sandy butts. Best but not least, it is easier to maintain and cover up. I’m glad we designed our own secondhand, because it gave us the flexibility to change when the original design wasn’t working for us.

Patio furniture – Don’t be shy to invest money in a second hand option

This story begins with a group message too: A family in our community posted on Facebook that they were selling their patio furniture. Yes! I had wanted tables and chairs so we could eat and entertain outside, but I just hadn’t found ones I liked. Half-priced and second hand sounds like a reasonable deal.

My husband went to inspect the furniture at the seller’s house. He sat down in a seat, and immediately the fabric ripped. A deal too good to be true was revealed as such: the fabric was very old and didn’t have much time left. The seller was reasonable, and said we could have the set for free. We took them up on the offer, though we were at a loss for how to salvage the chairs. 

It took some time and researching to find a contact that replaces patio chair fabric. In our throw-away culture, it can be hard to find people that will repair old appliances or furniture. Often the cost of fixing is more expensive than buying new, leading to a low demand low supply problem. Fortunately we found someone who would replace the fabric. Unfortunately, the price tag was a bit of a shock: about half the cost of a new set of patio furniture. I was taken aback and confused: shouldn’t it be cheaper, since the frames are already provided? Shouldn’t we just invest this money in a new patio set that will last longer? I took some time to think it through, and eventually sided with yes, let’s do it! 

End result – We got patio furniture in the exact shade we wanted. The frames are starting to rust, but we can easily solve that with some homemade remedies.

Play house – Sometimes missing a piece makes it better

Growing up, I loved playhouses, complete with shutters and a fake chimney. A playhouse was always part of the plan for my daughter. But how to get one? We saw one in a local market that sells food and secondhand goods, but when we returned to negotiate, it was already gone. Second time was a charm, so when another playhouse popped up in our local market, there was no hesitation.

Except the only problem: It didn’t come with a door. There wasn’t a lot of clarification about why it was missing a door, but the seller’s attitude was “Do you want it or not?” I got a bit hung up on the missing door, but knew I didn’t have much time. Fast forward a few months later, the missing door is a blessing. My daughter loves to hide in there, as well as neighborhood cats. With a quick look I am able to see what creature might be inside the playhouse and what they are doing.

I learned don’t get all hung up on how it is “supposed to look” but evaluate if it is what will meet your needs and wishes.

Mud kitchen – One person’s trash is another person’s treasure

Our backyard is bountiful in dirt. Maintaining grass in the desert is a fool’s errand, and an irresponsible use of water, so we’ve put some plants down that are native to arid climates. But there is still dirt here, there, and everywhere. 

Mud kitchen – well used!

I grappled with this abundance of dirt, and hatched a plan to include a mud kitchen. I asked my husband to help in this venture by crafting some countertop parts. Neither of us knew exactly how to make something that would handle the wear and tear of outdoor elements and toddler play. 

Then, one day he came home with this large ottoman frame. A neighbor had dumped it in the common park area. Other neighbors were annoyed, but my husband had found his mud kitchen frame. He sourced a sink from a local store, and voila, our mud kitchen was born. Lastly, another neighbor was moving out and giving away their kitchen utensils. Our daughter had her kitchen and cooking utensils: she was ready to bake!

In the past, I might have ordered a mud kitchen from a store because I wasn’t sure how to make one. Now we know we can go slow and take our time building one second hand.

What were my lessons learned – go slow, keep looking, use what you have, don’t be shy to invest a little money in a second hand option, and it won’t be perfect on the first try.

Our backyard is hardly instagramable. Yet it is a fun safe space for my daughter, and a relaxing haven for my family. And, important for future generations, it was done with minimal impact on the environment. 

Given our current reality, it can be scary to source things second hand. Communicating clearly with the buyer about hygiene, and following local protocols about how and when you are able to leave your home is best for everyone. We’ve communicated our want for second hand goods to our neighbors, and as they clean out their houses, we have received (after thorough cleaning) a myriad of books, kitchen utensils, and house decorations.

Other venues to source second hand play stuff and patio furniture:

Buy Nothing Project (international)

Facebook Marketplace (international)

Family and friends – ain’t no shame in broadcasting to your nearest and dearest that you are interested in hand-me-downs.


Gumtree (UK)

Craigslist (international)

Kijiji (Canada)

As we spend more time at home, find creative and second hand ways to makeover your space. What are your dream projects?

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