Whether you’re a down-sizing baby-boomer or a young 20-something couple just starting out, a small courtyard may be your only outside space – for dining, entertaining, plant growing, clothes drying and, perhaps, playing as well. Whether you’ve had a courtyard for a while and just not been able to figure out what to do with it, or if you’re in a panic, having just arrived from a big garden and thought “how can I make a garden I love in this space?”, I have some inspiration for you here.
Outdoor room, or garden?
I’m assuming, if you’re reading this, that you like plants. I can’t see any point at all in having an outside area where you could garden, and then turning it into just another room, albeit an outside one. By all means, make yourself and your creature comforts a part of it, but a room without a roof is NOT a garden. And I’m sure you already have a kitchen quite nearby, so just a small BBQ, eh?
You’ll probably want to start by reducing the hard surface footprint you’ve inherited, as most people’s response to a courtyard is to pave the lot. Lift a few pavers to find out what you’ve got beneath. If it’s concrete, then it’s raised garden beds for you but they can have many good points too.
Your first big problem is lack of space. Unfortunately, there’s no getting around the physical limitations of only so many square metres (or feet). Unless, of course, you’ve bought a tardis. Apart from getting rid of all but the essential tools (and more on that later) you’ll need some built-in storage. Unrelated clutter, like bikes, a clothes airer and hoses need to all get neatly packed away or your courtyard will always look messy and unappealing. You can buy pre-made steel storage cupboards to fit in narrow spaces, or build your own from timber treated for outdoor use (like treated pine). Make sure the roof drains well and is waterproofed. You can hang tools and store paint and a ladder in a very narrow side cupboard. If you build it around an outside tap, then your hose can also be hidden away inside too. Add an outdoor powerpoint if you can, for powering water features, watering systems or low-voltage lighting.
I think courtyard clothes drying is also a must. You could bring an airer outside but there’s so many clotheslines that flip out, flip down and retract these days, there’s really not much excuse, is there? This website has a great selection of styles to choose from.
Built in seat storage is also a good idea. You may like the flexibility of only having furniture you can move around, but if you want sleek, clean lines, then built-in is the way to go. You can hide a lot of stuff under a built-in daybed!
If you design raised garden beds with a top wide enough for seating, then you don’t have to have as much furniture which can clutter up the space, as every garden bed edge becomes a seat when your party spills outdoors. If you need taller beds, incorporate a bench into the retaining wall. This works best if you’ve designed the shape and positioning of the beds with that in mind – that they are seats as well as gardens, so ideally they should face a number of different directions, with angled or curved beds. (And I will do a future story about how you fill a raised bed with soil/potting mix – remind me)
Out of the box
Second, courtyards usually have a very rigid, boxy shape. This will look static and boring if you fill it with a rectangular table, a few rectangular garden beds and troughs and a rectangular bench. However you can work this groundplane shape in much more interesting ways, like with lots of intersecting rectangles of different sizes and heights.
Or you can go in completely the opposite direction, and disguise your boundaries so well with layers of plants, screens, or false archways, gates and windows, that it’s impossible to tell where your courtyard begins and ends.
Another approach is to break up the rectangular shape using diagonals and angles. Triangular beds in corners, or ones that spear out from side boundaries, keep your lines straight and simple but add a very dramatic dimension.
If you’d prefer to use curves, choose a strong shape like a circle, elegant ‘S’, parabola, or an arc.
Use the vertical space shaped by courtyard walls to make the small floor area seem bigger. Take the eye up with a tall but open design pergola, artwork high up the wall or a small tree that has been crownlifted to several metres.
On a lower level, build in some vertical interest with floor areas of different heights, such as a split level deck, raised garden beds or low walls to delineate separate areas. High courtyard walls can feel oppressive in a small space so step down their height with a layer or two of plants, or a false wall in a different colour.
Vertical gardens are all the rage. You can do it big-time with a specially designed, custom-built automated system which while costing plenty looks as good as any art work and really will survive. Or do it small time with any number of off-the-shelf systems of trays fastened to the wall which you can use for foliage, flowers or food plants. I’ve even seen a wheeled rack system which can be moved about to get enough sun at different times of year.
Alternatively, you can grow one of the more well-behaved vines or climbers on wall-mounted tensioned steel cables. You need something that can be clipped flat, doesn’t adhere to the wall and doesn’t go berserk. Star jasmine is a candidate, although I have seen it make little adhering roots, so keep an eye on it. If you want a wall-adhering vine, like English or Boston ivy, or creeping fig, know that you will NEVER be able to remove all the little roots/disks from the wall if you change your mind.
Many courtyards can be viewed from a second storey window or balcony, so you need to design a groundplane that makes a nice picture from on high, using shapes, colours and very bold textures.
You will mostly view your courtyard from inside your home, like a framed picture. Rather than symmetry, which fails if everything is not exactly so, go for a balanced picture. If you want to use a single shape like a square, circle or rectangle for a paved seating area, set it to one side rather than in the middle. Balance it by the mass of stronger planting in a deeper bed, or a water feature or sculpture on the other side. You can also use strong or dark colour to give ‘weight’ to some areas. If you add anything, like a new pot, go back inside as you position it to make sure you haven’t tipped your balance
High walls around your courtyard can create turbulence on their leeside in windy areas. If you can, insert some breeze blocks, grills, slats or small openings in the wall to equalise the air pressure. This is also a good way to allow some cooler breezes in without compromising your privacy; in humid climates, a courtyard’s still air can be unbearable. It’s not a silly idea to bring out a fan on those muggy days, or even install one outside if you’ve got a covered area. My parents had a back patio accessed through double glass doors. In winter they would pull their unflued gas heater to the door and turn it to the outside so we could sit out there for a BBQ on a cold night. You could probably see the glow from space.
Creating some canopy is a must-do for those with hot summers. You can use shade sails or umbrellas, but plants, either a small tree or a vine-covered pergola, will give you much more pleasant shade as these naturally vent, so there’s no heat build-up from trapped hot air (even if you’ve got those full-of-themselves neighbours over for the Obligation BBQ). Be careful if you’re installing a roll-out awning or permanent all-weather covering that it spills out hot air – don’t tuck it in under your house eaves.
By creating a microclimate within your courtyard, you can grow plants not normally seen in your zone, like tropicals in warm temperate areas.
If you’ve got a problem with poor north-south orientation casting winter shadows over your courtyard, try and bring in more light by using reflective paint, shiny metals and mirrors angled to bounce light back in from any part that does get some sun. Using tones of orange, gold and dark red in wall paint, cushions and foliage will help give it a warmer feel. If it’s really dark on a winter day, I’d cheat by turning on some warm-toned fluoro lights when you’re out there.
Night lighting is a must but try and be subtle. First rule is you should not see the light source, unless it’s part of the show. Let lights wash over rough-textured surfaces, backlight a stunning laser-cut screen, or uplight a beautiful small tree, but don’t turn night into day. Leave some parts of the courtyard still in darkness for a hint of mystery.
I’m also quite taken with the current fashion for a bit of backyard bling in your lighting. A cheap or second hand chandelier can be modified for candles, or wired in if you’ve got solid cover. Somehow what can look a bit tacky or overdone inside can look delightfully frivolous outdoors.
Bring in the zing
Most people are scared of using strong colours in their gardens. To be honest, I am too! But whenever I see a courtyard garden with stunning vibrant walls, or an in-your-face colourful sculpture, I just love it. Take the plunge – it doesn’t have to consign you to burnt orange forever. Keep your ‘floor’ a solid neutral and choose outdoor furniture with character but not too much colour. Then you can go for broke on paintable walls, in pots, cushions, or foliage and flower colour. Cool (or should that be hot?) colours for this year are warm pinks, dark orange, cobalt blue and chartreuse. If you’re not sure how to use colour, look at Maria Killam’s interior design website Colour Me Happy for loads of tips and good advice.
If colour just doesn’t ring your bell, then try texture instead. Warm neutrals look great if they’re livened up with texture contrasts from bamboo or reed cladding, timber slats, chunky fabrics, textured paint finishes and a variety of foliage from fine, wispy grasses to large-leafed beauties.
I’d also have a look at lots of show gardens. Chelsea, Hampton Court, MIFGS, Ellerslie, and Garden World Spring Festival all have courtyard sized gardens that are great insipration. If you can’t get to see them in the flesh, there’s usually lots of website photos and videos.
If you’ve got stuff in your courtyard you don’t like but can’t fix or hide, or unrelated views around you, then create a distraction with a focal point, If it’s up high, then draw the eye downwards with something spectacular at ground level, like a floor mosaic, or to something straight at eye level like a stunning wall sculpture or mural. And don’t despair – just because it can’t be perfect doesn’t mean it can’t be brilliant.
Planting success comes from designing beds that are deep enough to have more than a single line of plants, so one failure doesn’t destroy your whole picture. My advice is:
– don’t buy anything that’s going to outgrow its bed/container and don’t overplant. Read the label and do your own research too! You might think “It will be fine, I’ll just keep it clipped/pruned” or “I’ll just take out every second one when they get a bit crowded” but we know that’s not going to happen. That means even if you love that 20m eucalypt or birch tree, just don’t. This also applies to large shrubs. Nothing looks worse in a small courtyard than a gangly, oversized shrub that’s swamped everything around it
– things that look like they’ll be narrow can be very deceptive. Take tall, thin conifers; they look like they’re going to stay skinny and give you that height you need for privacy but they are trees and the trunks will become very thick as they age. There goes the retaining wall!
– try an espalier, where you clip the plant flat against a wall, which lets you grow something and be decorative too. Although there are lots of fruiting tree espaliers, some (I think the stone fruits) won’t like being against a wall and need better air circulation
– if you’re growing everything in raised beds, you will have to keep them well-watered and well-fed
– if you’re in a warm-temperate to subtropical zone, read Peter Nixon’s post ‘Rooftop raver‘ for a range of spectacular, low care plants
– don’t be backward in getting help. Courtyard plant selection is really very tricky, and this might be a good point to find a local garden designer/horticulturist to help (see GardenDrum’s Links page for a list of places to start in your country)
In a walled courtyard, no one outside those walls can see what you do. No gasps of astonishment as passers by marvel at your 3D interpretation of a cubist painting, Arabian nights harem, jungle outpost, or your own Tex-Mex cantina. So don’t be boring. Go wild!
Just remembered I said I’d talk about essential courtyard gardener tools. Secateurs, obviously, (I still like my Felcos) including some cut-and-hold long handled ones (mine are Kamaki) so you can cut back plants that are growing over into the neighbours’ courtyards without dropping bits in their lunch. A Fiskars trowel and small fork as they’re (nearly) unbreakable, and still cheap as chips. A small-headed spade – in Australia, NZ and Japan) that’s definitely a Digadoo which makes one only 15cm wide (I have the very snazzy all-chrome one). A small battery hedge shear (mine’s a Bosch Isio set) A plastic trug. I’d also have a groundsheet you can spread out when you’re working on a garden bed (a bit like a painter’s dropsheet), so you don’t get dirt stains on your pavers.
In the next Garden Design Centre post, I’ll profile 2 fabulous courtyard makeovers!