As most of you know, I live full-time on a farm in Westchester County, New York. As a "farmer," I have concentrated my efforts on maintaining healthy, green fields for the horses and donkeys and for occasional visiting livestock to graze on daily. The woodlands on the property are being replanted for sound ecological considerations. Additionally, I've put in numerous trees and shrubs for shade and to beautify the landscape.
But I have kept certain areas open and groomed for the express purpose of providing courts for some of my favorite lawn games. It used to be that almost every suburban and country house had a patch of grass large enough for the family to put up a net and play a game of badminton. When I was growing up, many of my friends had a horseshoe court or a croquet lawn. Several even had the perfect spot—level and rectangular—for the more exotic game of bocce.
The area we've set aside at the farm is bordered by a horse paddock, by the drive and the pergola, and by a road. It is a sunny and protected spot, and the grass grows thick and well there.
A game of croquet and a game of badminton can be played simultaneously. There was just enough space under a very tall stand of hemlocks to build a proper packed-dirt bocce court, and a horseshoe game was set up on a gravel area near the equipment barn, which adjoins the croquet lawn.
A regulation croquet court requires special greens-type grass, and the maintenance is quite heavy-duty. The courts at the historic Claremont Hotel in Southwest Harbor, Maine, are a beautiful example of tournament-grade lawns. The hotel hosts an annual tournament, and this year the 33rd croquet classic will be held during the first week of August. Until I become the reigning neighborhood champion, which I don't really think will happen, we will maintain as level and as green a lawn as possible at Bedford, without installing an official, professional turf.
We built the bocce court last summer, and everyone loves this "conversational" game, which involves tossing heavy resin balls in an attempt to get closest to a smaller target ball. Bocce is the Italian version of this game. In the South of France, a variation known as petanque or boules is played with metal balls, also called boules.
Of course, each game has official rules and regulation-size playing areas, and you can be a gentle amateur or an aggressive, competitive player in any of these sports. All that really matters is that one gets outside, picks up a racket or a ball or a mallet and enjoys nature and friendship at its best.
A cousin of lawn bowling, bocce requires a mix of skill and chance.
Eight large balls (in two colors, made of resin) and one small pallino, or "jack," the target ball. Tournament bocce sets are available at L.L. Bean and pro bocce sets are available at Design Within Reach.
Object of the Game
Toss the large balls so they land as close to the pallino as possible.
The court is 60 to 90 feet long and about 12 feet wide. Its surface—fine gravel, packed dirt, clay, or grass—should be level. A center line is marked, as are foul lines, at four and 10 feet from each end and one foot in from each side.
Each player (or team) has four balls. Standing at the four-foot line, a player tosses the pallino past the center and then tosses a bocce ball; then the opponent tosses, attempting to get closer to the pallino than the first player. This player keeps tossing until a ball has landed closer or no balls remain. Play continues until both teams have thrown all four balls. The winner begins the next frame at the other end of the court.
A player (or team) scores one point for each ball that is closer to the pallino than any of the opponent's. Thus, only one side scores (up to four points) per frame. Play ends when a player (or team) earns 12 points.
According to lore, this pastime is as old as the Olympics, with roots in ancient Greece.
Two three-foot iron stakes and four steel shoes. Tournament-quality horseshoe sets are available at frontgate.com.
Object of the Game
Toss a ringer (ring a horseshoe around a stake).
The playing field is anchored by two stakes that stand 40 feet apart, 14 inches high and lean about 10 degrees in toward each other. A six-foot-square pitchers box is marked around each stake. Official courts are usually clay or sand, but grass works for a casual game.
In a two-person game, players start at the same stake. In the first inning, one player (standing inside the pitcher's box) pitches two shoes, followed by the opponent. The score is tallied. The players aim at the other stake for inning two, alternating stakes for 25 innings; you can also play to 40 points. In doubles, partners separate and pitch from opposite stakes.
How to toss a horseshoe? For a flip, hold the middle, second from top. For a one-and-a-quarter and a one-and-three-quarter, the grip is along one shank; the names refer to the number of turns in the air before landing.
Any shoe landing within six inches of the stake scores a point. A ringer scores three (you should be able to draw a line between the shoe shanks without touching the stake).
Get tips for pitching ringers and details on building a court at horseshoepitching.com.
Born on English lawns in the mid-19th century, this game conjures images of refined garden parties, but expect a day filled with rollicking competition.
Nine wickets, two stakes, and four colored balls (blue, red, black, and yellow), plus one mallet per player (or teams can share one). Croquet sets are available at frontgate.com.
Object of the Game
In nine-wicket croquet, two sides (single players or teams of two) square off on a grassy field set with a course of arched metal-wire wickets and a pair of stakes. The first team to get its balls through the course in the correct order wins.
A standard court is 100 by 50 feet, but the size can be scaled to suit your yard. Wickets are arranged in a double diamond, with an extra wicket and a stake at each end. (For backyard play, you may need to alter the course to work around trees and other fixed elements.)
The winner of a coin toss chooses his colors: either blue and black, or red and yellow. (In singles, one person plays two balls; in doubles, its one player per ball.) Players take turns striking the appropriate-color ball (the striker ball) with a mallet; the balls are played in the sequence of blue, red, black, yellow. One strike is a turn, unless the ball passes cleanly through a wicket, which earns the player one bonus stroke, or hits another ball (a roquet), which earns the player two bonus strokes. In the case of a roquet, the player can pick up the striker ball, move it next to the ball that was roqueted, and hit the striker ball again (a croquet shot); after this, the roqueted ball is out of play until a wicket is run or the next turn begins. These are the basic rules; for variations, see 9wicketcroquet.com.
There is no wrong way to hold a mallet; you just have to swing at the ball, not push it. The between-the-legs swing is a classic because it offers the most accuracy. The side stroke, similar to a golf swing, packs more power.
The first team to maneuver both balls through the course (running all wickets and hitting both stakes) wins. When a ball completes the course, it is removed; remaining colors carry on playing without it.
Watch videos of croquet strokes and look at a diagram of the course at 9wicketcroquet.com.
British officers first played this game -- an adaptation of a sport called battledore and shuttlecock -- in the 1860s in colonial India. It's now an Olympic sport but still fun for backyard athletes.
Lightweight rackets, a net, and shuttlecocks (also called shuttles or birdies; they were traditionally made of feathers but are now commonly found with plastic skirts). Badminton sets by Seletti are available at the Conran Shop. Tournament-quality badminton sets can be purchased at frontgate.com.
Object of the Game
Volley the shuttlecock across the net without letting it fall to the ground.
A standard rectangular court measures 44 feet long by 20 feet wide (for doubles) or 17 feet wide (for singles); powdered lime can mark temporary boundaries on short grass. The net should be five feet tall at the center and an inch higher at each end. A service line divides each side into right and left halves.
After a coin toss, a player serves a shuttle from her service court to the opposite corner, beginning a back-and-forth rally. The serve must be underhand and below waist level with the racket shaft pointing downward (unlike in tennis). Other strokes may be forehand, backhand, or overhead. The player (or team) who sinks a shuttle on the other side before it can be returned scores a point and wins the rally. The scoring team then serves the shuttle to begin the next rally.
No net? No problem. Just hit the shuttle back and forth, without letting it touch the ground.
A point is earned with every serve. The first player (or team) to reach 21 points wins the game, and the best of three games takes the match.
Find a court diagram and links to badminton clubs in your area at usabadminton.org.
Want more ideas? Learn how to host a family game night with a DIY "tumbling tower":