Phillip WithersDesigning small, urban courtyards

As our cities move upwards, and urban living gets smaller and more confined, we all still have that need to involve some green in our life. The small courtyard or balcony garden that often comes with the traditional inner city dwelling needs to be treated with care. These spaces, which might be a few metres wide by only a little more long, come with a mix of challenges such as privacy, eyesores and hard walls, making it tricky to know where to start.

Think Outside Gardens

Design by Think Outside Gardens, Sydney

The biggest consideration in these areas is space, and what to do with it. What I find works best is to look at how you can use the perimeter of the space, as well as how you may be able to soften the walls to create some peace within a built-up environment. So how do you make a small garden something that you can’t wait to come home to? A place where you and your family can go and sit out in the open air, relax and let go of life’s challenges…

Phillip Withers courtyard design, Melbourne

Phillip Withers courtyard design, Melbourne

Design by Candeo

Design by Candeo

I like to start with a surface to wander out the back door onto. This is usually a high traffic area, which is best solved with a proper hard surface, such as some nice decking or paving. Then I’ll add seating and a table within the area, so people can sit and enjoy it. Often bench seating works well in a small garden of this nature as it can be worked in around the edges, which conserves space. A really good way to think about seating is to understand the logic of a table. Yes, it has four sides, but if we take two of the sides and put the chairs on the wall, such as in the corner of a courtyard, we instantly free up a lot of area for use.

A feature in the wrong spot

A feature in the wrong spot

I try to keep the entertaining area as open as possible, as this is one of the first ways people run in to trouble when designing a small garden courtyard. List your uses, before you start to aim for what may look nice. Don’t make the mistake of throwing a feature right in the middle of a small space (as I have seen on many occasions), as you’ll simply kiss your lifestyle within the garden goodbye. But you can be practical and still have an inviting and elegant retreat. A good place for a feature is at the back of the garden, as this gives a feeling of depth. I also always consider its position for views from the windows. If you can look out on something special from the kitchen and living space, it will bring that the extra touch of harmony between house and garden.

Design by Secret Gardens of Sydney

Design by Secret Gardens of Sydney

Don’t forget to think about the services that need to be included. Do you need a barbecue, a washing line etc, and if so how are you going to include it without effecting the composition? This is where clever designers make their money – concealing, screening and developing interesting solutions to suit each garden situation.

Design Richard Bellemo

Design Richard Bellemo

Lastly it’s about the planting and how we surround the garden, as it’s here where the beauty lies. But you do need to consider the a tight scale. I choose plants that will give height but also have a tight habit. If you don’t have space or the ability for planting into the ground you can include some planter boxes. I really believe that the more edges you cover with green matter, the more you will create an atmosphere you will want to be in.

Design by Cultivart, Perth

Design by Cultivart, Perth

Another element that is a winner on many levels is a lawn area, both for leisure and simply to cool down a space. Not every garden will have enough room to include a small area of lawn (and equipment for maintenance) though, where possible, a small patch can really make the difference.

Pepo Botanic Design courtyard

Design by Pepo Botanic, Sydney

To take a soothing courtyard and turn it onto a really interesting one takes real planning, and here I like to start to play with form but in a way that doesn’t affect function. Cutting some different geometric shapes into the hard surfaces can give an interesting effect, or a change of hard surfaces also adds interest when done well. Maybe you could look to create different heights for definition within the space; I find that using different heights of planter boxes really leads the eye up the wall, making a courtyard feel bigger. Maybe you could incorporate a contemporary small vertical garden, or a screen for a creeper to ramble upon that lights up from the rear to let the skeletal branching figures cast shades in the early evening. It’s these little hints of extra magic that we need to sit down and think about before bursting into the new garden – oh, and trust me, the greener the better.

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Phillip Withers

About Phillip Withers

Phillip started his design through more art based development studying a Diploma in Arts at RMIT. He was then drawn to garden design through garden maintenance and construction, studying a Diploma in Landscape Design and Sustainability at Swinburne University. He started Phillip Withers Landscape Design and has been lucky enough to create 3 show gardens in different forms, from achievable, to student, to professional. He has also taught Computer Aided Design with Kangan Institute and now Swinburne University. Phil is also a keen traveller and believes that it is the key to keeping design interesting…

5 thoughts on “Designing small, urban courtyards

  1. Ackroyds on said:

    Loved your ideas!!! Thanks for the information!

  2. maine9 on said:

    Loved your ideas and accompanying photos. Definitely inspirational. Many thanks.

  3. Great design advice there, Phil, and some well-chosen examples. I always think it’s important to try and leave some central space open. People seem to want to stick their furniture right in the middle of a courtyard, which then often means they can’t get past it and it dominates the garden. To one side always looks and feels better.

  4. Pingback: How To Tips On Designing Small Urban Courtyards - Plant Care Today

  5. Wa'el on said:

    what paving design do you think will work better for a small courtyard? I want to make it feel bigger???

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