One of the delights of a courtyard garden is its separation – whether it is part of a larger garden – or is the entire garden – the fact that it is enclosed by walls means that it can have its own unique atmosphere and does not need to refer to adjoining spaces. When areas of a garden flow into one another it can be jarring if the mood changes too dramatically, but with a courtyard there is not the same constraint. This is an opportunity for a bit of drama, or a complete change of mood.
One of the most successful courtyard gardens for delivering such a change of mood is the Carpet Garden at Highgrove. The external walls, built from local materials and wreathed in roses, give no hint of what is contained within. Outside is a quintessential English garden, step through the door though and you are transported to a Moorish courtyard with fragrant citrus trees, tiled paths and a bubbling mosaic fountain. It works wonderfully well, but unless you live in a Mediterranean climate, this is very much a seasonal garden. It is seen at is best on a sunny day – on a grey and rainy day it doesn’t work so well because the quality of the light is more subdued. The citrus trees are brought under cover for the winter and the mosaic tiles are covered to prevent them being damaged by frost. This seasonality does not matter in a large garden like this where there is so much else to see, but for smaller gardens it is an important consideration. You will want it to look good throughout the year. Similarily, if you have been inspired by a visit to a Greek island and have loved the courtyards with their dazzling white walls and scarlet geraniums, bear in mind that unless you too live next to the sea with its reflective qualities, the colours will never be as intense – and in the depths of winter it will probably looked chilly and uninviting.
Before you get too carried away with inspiring ideas, there are some important practical considerations to take into account.
- What is the aspect? If it is south facing it may bake for several hours each day during summer months, but be quite cool and shady when the sun is lower during the winter. Be aware of where the sun falls and for how long and it will help you make the right plant choices. If it is north facing it may get very little sun and you will need to plan a planting of shade loving plants. A predominantly green courtyard can look terrific, you can play with different shades of green and texture – and after all, not all shade loving plants are green.
- Is it sheltered? There is an expectation that all courtyard gardens will be sheltered, but in an exposed position wind can actually swoop over a wall and down the other side, and in an urban environment with lots of tall buildings the wind can funnel and twist around corners. In both cases it can help to plant a shelter belt of a plant that will filter the wind – something like a (non-spreading) bamboo does a good job.
- How will you use it ? Is it somewhere to indulge your love of plants, an entertaining space, somewhere the children can play safely, or is it where the bins and washing line are kept, but you would like it to look less utilitarian? If you are plant mad, then it is best to choose a family of plants suited to the situation – succulents or Mediterranean plants are ideal for a sunny courtyard, while ferns and hostas are great for shade. If it’s an entertaining space make sure there is ample room for guests to fit round the table and don’t hem them in with plants – it may be better to have trees that overhang rather than flowers that overcrowd. If its primary purpose is to be a space where the children can play, you could incorporate ‘roads’ in the paving for them to push their toy cars along, or have a narrow rill where they can safely play with water. Bear in mind that it won’t always be a playspace, so make any hard landscaping child friendly rather than child centred. Be sure that plants are non toxic and ideally incorporate some space where they can grow things. If the courtyard has to incorporate functional items like bins and the washing line, it’s not always a good idea to hide them away as that generally means that they aren’t readily accessible. If possible, make them a feature instead – metal dustbins can be painted in bright or subtle colours depending on your colour preference and coloured pegs will brighten up a washing line. When guests are expected I peg a length of bunting along the line and it instantly becomes festive. Wheelie bins are another matter and some sort of screen is probably the only solution.
Be consistent with use of materials. This is generally advisable in a garden, but particularly so in a small space. It helps the courtyard to coalesce if the walls and containers are in materials that are sympathetic with one another – otherwise it can look random rather than planned.
- Keep scale in mind. Just because a space is small doesn’t mean that all its contents need to be equally small. It is often more effective to treat a confined space as if it is a fragment of a larger garden and include a few large plants or pots and containers, rather than lots of little ones. The former looks stylish, the latter can look cluttered.