Courtyards and how to harness their potential.

Our gardens are becoming increasingly small. Where once quarter acre blocks were the norm, more and more home owners these days are finding themselves with small courtyards. And while this may seem a bleak prospect with lots of challenges, it doesn’t need to be. Creative ideas that harness your spaces potential can transform even the most drab concrete jungle into your own personal Eden.

The fist thing you need to know about your courtyard is it’s micro-climate. Where takes the full sun and where does the shade fall? Some courtyards spend almost the whole year in shadow while others turn into ovens during the height of Summer. Understanding your micro-climate will inform your design, style and help mitigate some of the failures faced through trial and error.

If your garden tends to be more of a oven during Summer, it is worth considering introducing some shade into the space. You can do this with built structures like pergolas which look very romantic when draped in climbers. Built structures can be as dramatic or simple as you like, but they are always beautiful in the way that they enclose a space. This can often be a good physical and psychological screen between you and the surrounding buildings.

Parthenocissus varieties, such as Virginia creeper, are perfect for growing over a pergola

Another dramatic look is to plant a single good sized tree that’s branches will form an umbrella over the garden. Trees need to grow tall enough that you can remove low branches and then stand under the canopy. Using trees with an open canopy creates a beautiful dappled light where as those with denser canopies will create cool, deep shade. If they are deciduous they will let in all the Winter sun to warm the garden and your home. Trees to consider would include Acer vitafolium, Moss white birch, Corymbia Scentuous, Blueberry Ash, Natchez Crepe Myrtle, Chinese Pistachio, Snow Pear, Tilia Green Spire and the Burnley’s Select Chinese Elm.

The beautiful overhead canopy of an Acer j. Vitafolium

If planting in the ground isn’t an option for you, there are plenty of small growing trees that happily grow in a good sized container. Place them strategically to cast shade on seating areas and windows, use them to screen out neighbors view into your yard or have them as the centerpiece of your garden. Trees that do well in containers include Japanese Maples, Cercis, Figs, Olives, Magnolias both evergreen and deciduous, Camellias, Crepe Myrtles, Lily Pillies, Ficus and Citrus.

Privacy is often a large concern for those with a courtyard as often neighboring homes are built close to the boundary. If you can plant in the ground then the Blueberry Ash is an excellent evergreen tree for screening that does not require a lot in the way of maintenance outside of watering and feeding. For a more structured look a hedge of Acmena Sublime or Acmena Firescreen is hardy, lush and can be kept in pots. Ficus is another option for pots but it is best not planted in the ground in small spaces. Clumping bamboo, like the Nepalese Blue and Gracillis, is another stand out option for screening. Happy both in the ground or in a pot they are a feature in themselves. Make sure you use a strong and sturdy pot as they are prone to busting out of thin or flimsy ones.

To make the most of every inch of your courtyard, you cannot overlook the walls! Self attaching climbers like Boston Ivy and Creeping Fig need no infrastructure to get going and can cover large areas for dramatic effect. Twining climbers like Star Jasmine can be trained along wires and have deliciously perfumed flowers that fill the courtyard with their fragrance. An espalier tree is another inventive way to use your vertical space.

And finally their are the small potted plants. In clusters, lined up in a row or even on the table top, these plants dictate the style of a garden and tie all of your elements together. They are great for hiding unsightly elements and are useful for bedding down larger pots that would look out of place otherwise. It is a good idea to plant out multiple pots of the same plants as this will bring cohesion to the garden. The pots themselves don’t all have to look exactly the same, however it is good to keep to the same finish. Whether you like white glazed, black matte, aged terracotta or a volcanic finish, choose your style and run with it. It will mean no matter what you plant it will look tied together.

It also pays to be aware that pots in the sun will dry out a lot faster than those in the shade, so it is worth going up a size for pots that will sit in the sun so you have more time between waterings.

Trough shaped planters are a great way to achieve a raised garden bed effect.

When selecting your plants bare in mind where they will go and what that particular micro-climate is like in that spot. If you have a predominately shady garden with one spot that gets full sun, then that spot will require a different plant to the rest of the garden. To tie them in with the rest of the plating, choose plants that are a similar height, shape or flower colour, and plant them in a matching pot. With smaller pots you can, however, move them to follow or hide from the sun as need be.

It is a nice idea to have plants with fragrant flowers in pots that you can put beside the door way or windows to allow the perfume to drift into the house. And don’t be afraid of deciduous plants. These often have the best show in Spring, Summer and Autumn and in winter they can be hidden away while they are out of leaf.

Courtyards can be as exciting and enjoyable as any other garden. They just require some extra consideration to really come together.

If you have a courtyard and needs some help getting started or even just a point in the right direction, call into the nursery or send us an email here and we can help you create your own personal oasis.