Catherine Stewart3 tiny courtyard makeovers

What do you do with a tiny courtyard that’s only a few paces in each direction? Although there’s every reason to despair that you can have something that is truly useful as well as gorgeous, when you put the design in the hands of a professional, it’s quite amazing what wonders can be achieved. Here I’m profiling 3 very different solutions to tiny, walled spaces in Sydney, London, and Perth.

Sydney courtyard. Design by Outhouse Designs

Sydney courtyard. Design by Outhouse Designs

OUTHOUSE designs, Sydney 

Courtyard beforeThis courtyard in Sydney’s inner west is at the back of a terrace house with rear lane access. Only 3.5m (11ft) wide by 6 metres (20ft) long, it’s surround by 3m (10ft) high wall, so in summer it was a hot box and, in winter, a dark, cold and unpleasant place. Consequently it had become a de facto storage area, decorated with a few potted plants but rarely used for entertaining or just being outside.

Outhouse Designs, Sydney courtyard

Outhouse Designs, Sydney courtyard

The client’s design brief was for something that felt inviting and had a good visual relationship with the 100 year old house. The main difficulties from a design point of view were the confronting height of the boundary walls, the need to preserve a passageway and stairs to street level, lack of planting opportunities and structural double walls along one side.

The solution from the multi-award winning Sydney design company OUTHOUSE designs focussed attention back on the ground plane and also created several levels with overlapping rectangular shapes to hold attention down low, rather than the eyes being drawn straight up to the sky. Large sandstone pavers are set crossways to add horizontal lines. Note how the timber cladding on the rear wall adds also adds more horizontal lines and the fixed rusting steel panels add interesting detail without actually becoming too much of a feature. A strong feature on the end wall would have taken attention straight across the space, making it feel smaller. At night, the steel panels are lit to cast shadows across the wall.

Courtyard design by Outhouse Designs, Sydney

Courtyard design by Outhouse Designs, Sydney

A fixed timber bench is supported by the wall so there’s less clutter of chair legs, and two small folding chairs can add extra seats when needed.

By reusing some of the existing planter box structures OUTHOUSE designs was able to keep costs down. A calm, neutral palette of stone paving and rendered painted walls combined with the warmth of timber provides a quiet backdrop for splashes of colour and allows the owners to easily ‘redecorate’ with a new look in the future.

Courtyard plan by Outhouse Designs

Courtyard plan by Outhouse Designs

Planting – OUTHOUSE designs has crammed in plants wherever possible while keeping the planting palette very simple. Plants include Magnolia ‘Little Gem’, ground covering and cascading native violet, tufts of low-maintenance Liriope, and climbing Trachelospermum on tensioned steel cable to clad one wall. A small vertical garden gives the owners the opportunity to grow a changing assortment of herbs for the kitchen and a built-in BBQ also keeps the space free of clutter.

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Chris O’Donoghue, London

West Hamstead courtyard before

West Hamstead courtyard before

After success with a Moroccan-themed garden at the Chelsea Flower show, award-winning garden designer Chris O’Donoghue was asked to reprise those ideas for a tiny courtyard in West Hampstead. The damp and dingy courtyard was rarely used, and decorated with a handful of dead pot plants and a rusting bicycle.

Looking down on the West Hamstead-courtyard. Design Chris O'Dononhue

Looking down on the West Hamstead-courtyard. Design Chris O’Donoghue

West Hamstead garden elevation

West Hamstead garden elevation

And tiny this courtyard certainly is, at only 1.5m (5ft) wide by 3m (10ft) long but Chris has managed to create a tiny garden that looks good viewed from the double access doors and from the rooms above but is also now an inviting place to be.

Creating the relief walls for West Hamstead courtyard. Design Chris O'Donoghue

Creating the relief walls for West Hamstead courtyard. Design Chris O’Donoghue

Chris’s clever solution was to create a Moroccan-inspired theme shape and use it to add a pattern and shadow relief to one wall using two layers of waterproof board cladding. Painting all the walls a pale colour bounces more light around the space while the terracotta tiled floor is both practical and a warm colour contrast to the cool blues and white, and foliage greens. The tiled planter box can house a rotating display of foliage plants, book-ended by architectural palms in glazed blue pots.

West Hamstead courtyard with mirror. Design Chris O'Donoghue

West Hamstead courtyard with mirror. Design Chris O’Donoghue

At one end of the courtyard, a mirror set in the same domed shape adds an illusion of a second courtyard beyond, and reflects the ornate Moroccan tiled fountain. A matching tiled table gives a patch of colour interest when the courtyard is viewed from above, and lightweight metal chairs don’t intrude visually on the small space.

And all in 4.5 square metres (50sq ft). Remarkable.

West Hamstead courtyard tiled planter and Moroccan fountain. Design Chris O'Donoghue

West Hamstead courtyard tiled planter and Moroccan fountain. Design Chris O’Donoghue

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Janine Mendel – Cultivart, Perth

Courtyard design Janine Mendel Cultivart, Perth

Courtyard design Janine Mendel Cultivart, Perth

Courtyard design Janine Mendel Cultivart, Perth

Courtyard design Janine Mendel Cultivart, Perth

Janine Mendel is easily one of Australia’s best landscape designers and has deservedly won many awards. This small front courtyard in Claremont in Perth uses one of her trademark design styles that I call ‘angled energy’. Here she’s taken a rather odd-shaped space roughly 6 metres wide by 5 metres deep and turned it into somewhere you’d want to look out at every day.

One of the other things I love about Janine’s work is that she’s not afraid of using strong colour, and she’s able to persuade her clients as well. The clever thing about where she uses bright colours is that you can easily change the look as rendered walls are easy to repaint  – and then you’ve got a whole new look for $200 worth of paint. But I’d fall so in love with the zing of this pink and blue I think it would have to stay!

Courtyard design Janine Mendel Cultivart, Perth plan

Plan for courtyard design, Janine Mendel Cultivart, Perth

From the front entry gate - courtyard design Janine Mendel Cultivart, Perth

From the front entry gate – courtyard design Janine Mendel Cultivart, Perth

Combining curves and sharp, straight lines this way makes such an interesting assortment of shapes, you’d never even notice that you’re surrounded by walls. Notice how the primary shape is rectangular that’s then intersected by two curves of constant (and the same) radius, showing how you can combine basic geometric shapes to great effect. And Janine goes one step further by using these intersecting shapes on different levels, so there’s layers of vertical interest as well. Those shapes are practical too, as it means there’s a deeper section that provides plenty of planting room for lush palms and two scented frangipanis.

Courtyard design Janine Mendel Cultivart, Perth

Courtyard design Janine Mendel Cultivart, Perth

A small blade fountain adds another smooth textural contrast as well as pleasant sound. The other thing to note here is the cushions that have been made to fit the seat exactly. Expensive to do but definitely worth it so that the area maintains its sleek, smooth look, a perfect foil to the feathery look of the palm fronds and strap-leafed plants. Uplights in the pond combined with other hidden lighting gives this courtyard a new look at night.

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Creator, curator and editor of GardenDrum. Sydney, NSW.

5 thoughts on “3 tiny courtyard makeovers

  1. Alison S on said:

    I guess most of us would probably want just a tad more space than these tiny courtyards but, on the plus side, it does make it feasible to use more expensive materials (such as that lovely stone paving in the Outhouse garden) than would be possible in a much larger area. I also love the zingy colours in the Cultivart garden (though I would need to have my hand held by a professional designer to give me the confidence to go for it!)

    • I’m glad you mentioned the paving as it’s another feature of courtyard design that’s so important – the quality of the finish. Every mitred corner, every paving cut, the smoothness of the render and the condition of every plant is on full display. There’s nowhere to hide mistakes and poor performing plants. That said, I’ll soon show another tiny courtyard that’s been done on a shoestring and with a lot of ‘make-do and mend’. It’s just fabulous too.

  2. Janice Heath on said:

    Thanks for all the garden news. And photos!

  3. Wow, how inspiring! I absolutely love the shapes that Janine has created and the diagonal bias makes it look so much bigger, whilst removing the complex boundaries. I am also amazed at Chris’s teeny tiny courtyard. I would worry about losing even an inch of space there with the cladding, but there is no doubt that the recessed mirror and textured walls are a stroke of genius. Clever man.

    • Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Janine’s ability to ‘work the angle’ and use bold colour in the right places gives her gardens such energy and excitement and yet they also feel lush, and comfortable too. And I think that Chris’s idea of giving apparent depth to those walls with just a few centimetres of relief shows how good design can use subtle suggestion to achieve a desired effect, as our imaginations will immediately supply the rest.

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