Ideas for Rental's Large Back Yard?

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Q: We have lived in a rental house in the Bay area for the past 4 years. Sadly, we never invested much in our enormous backyard. But we've now decided we'll definitely be here for at least 3 more years, so we'd like to make our backyard more inviting. The landlord has expressed willingness to help to a very limited extent, only with items that would be easy for future tenants to maintain with a bimonthly landscaping service. We're ok with spending some of our own money, too:

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The backyard consists of: - A front area with a concrete patio, entered by a sliding glass door from the master bedroom. (There's also an entrance from a sliding door from a 1 bedroom cottage in the back of the main house, which we sublet to a friendly college student.) - In the front area, large flower beds occupied only by a few bushes, some weeds, and a leggy looking lavender plant. - Also in the front, some very sad, dog-trodden and urine-burned grass under a leafy tree. - A back area separated from the front by a fence, with a large open space that gets a ton of sun. It's filled with grassy weeds that are growing out of about a foot of built up and partially composted pine needles from an enormous pine tree that towers over the cottage.

Here are some constraints:
- Budget about $1500
- Some time for big weekend projects in the short term, but limited time for maintenance after that. Landlord currently pays for bimonthly yard work; we could also pay for some additional maintenance help (to make it weekly).
- Two dogs
- We have young kids (ages 5 months and 3 years) and would use the backyard for playing more often if there was a better play surface.

How should we spend some money and time so that we use our yard more? What can we do to create a better play surface — grass, with the attendant watering issues (and abusive dog issues)? Wood chips? Gravel? What's low maintenance (given our pine needles!) and dog and kid friendly?

Sent by Rachel

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Regina is an architect who lives with her husband and children in Lawrence, KS. As a LEED Accredited Professional and longtime contributor to Apartment Therapy and The Kitchn, her focus is on healthy, sustainable living through design.