Designing a courtyard garden is a challenge we relish at Secret Gardens. While larger gardens grant the freedom to include everything, including the kitchen sink, the tighter confines of a courtyard encourage so much creativity, as we work to make the most of every inch. A well designed courtyard will be used in its entirety, so it’s a joy to make every part of it perfectly functional and aesthetically spot on.
Separate want from need
Be realistic about what you really need from the space, because every inch counts and there’s no room to waste on an extra seating area that won’t be used, or a patch of lawn that’s not large enough to provide anything except a maintenance hassle. In deciding what you need, look at how you live and entertain; clients often request a dining table, but on reflection, conclude that the relaxed way they live is far more conducive to a lounge setting. Sometimes it’s possible to compromise with multipurpose pieces like built-in seating, which can be used for lounging, then paired with a collapsible table or similar when dining outdoors.
Keep materials simple
The last thing you want in a small space like a courtyard is visual clutter, so it’s crucial to keep the palette of materials simple, consistent and concise, from the flooring (large-format pavers look best) to the boundary fences, which are much more noticeable in a smaller space. The devil is very much in the detail here; while in a larger garden, there is plenty of room and different features to draw the eye, there’s nowhere to hide in a courtyard and any scruffy bits will stand out like a sore thumb. The secret is to keep it simple, without too much busyness, and to make sure every detail is spot on.
Planting for a small space
More than perhaps any other garden space, a courtyard planting scheme is driven by what’s going on in the neighbourhood around it. It’s likely that the view from the courtyard will be of the neighbours’ walls or gardens, so planting for privacy – with tall screening plants or a feature tree – becomes the number one priority. Balanced with this, it’s important that plantings make the most of sunlight, especially in winter, as dark and cold are common complaints of courtyards.
With only a little room to grow, there’s still plenty that can be done with plants to make the most of a courtyard. Climbers can be extended above the fenceline (with the neighbours’ permission) to increase privacy, or used to create a low-maintenance green wall. Ground-level beds can be extended out from the boundaries to balance out the hard materials and create a feeling of journey through the space. Different types and sizes of foliage can be layered, or pops of colour can be added to delight the eye.