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Courtyard garden ideas are often a hidden gem when it comes to garden design. Yes, they might be small, but they can be beautiful suntraps and places in which to escape.
A courtyard garden is often described as ‘a flat space, with walls around it’, which already doesn’t sound like the most inspiring small garden idea to work with. But while your space might be overlooked by neighbouring walls, it can be a space where shady-loving plants thrive, and you can be creative with your choice of landscaping, furniture, and decorative touches when considering courtyard garden ideas.
There are other pros too. Stone and brick walls absorb and retain heat from the sun, slowly releasing it – your courtyard could be a haven at the end of the working day. Similarly, the walls around your courtyard can provide a barrier to rainfall, so you’ll need to think more carefully about plants, perhaps choosing ones that don’t need much watering, while frosts might not be as harsh, so fruit trees might fare better.
Interior and garden stylist and author Selina Lake loves a courtyard garden. ‘I’m always inspired by the courtyard gardens you find tucked away in the centre of Paris,’ she shares. ‘I love their whimsical, secret-garden appeal and classic styling.’
So perhaps it’s time to think small and creatively, turning your courtyard garden into your own hidden paradise.
Courtyard garden ideas
1. Clad your courtyard’s walls
Update tired brick with wooden cladding, giving your courtyard garden a contemporary feel. Place large planters in front, which can be filled with perennials for colour. If your courtyard feels gloomy in the evenings, then simple spots will create an ambient glow.
Space-saving bistro furniture is the best garden furniture choice for a courtyard. Choose compact chairs that are comfortable enough to double as loungers, adding a cushion or two if needed.
2. Build a sofa area
It is important to be smart about space when considering how to plan a small garden space like a courtyard. A good place to start is thinking about built in seating.
Use the same brick as the walls surrounding your courtyard to build a corner sofa which can be dressed in cushions. Build such a sofa slightly higher than normal, allowing you to move a garden table and chairs in to create an informal dining space. Use overhanging trees as a natural sunshade, while clematis will add pops of colour once in bloom.
3. Add a classic bench
Even the smallest of courtyards or side-returns can become a welcoming retreat. Try a traditional bench, which you can style with fun outdoor cushions, echoing your planting scheme for a coherent look.
Make use of the walls with trellis and hanging baskets – they are the perfect planting solution for small patio ideas as you won’t lose valuable floor space. A large lantern will give your courtyard a cosy glow, just turn off any internal lights to appreciate it fully come sundown.
4. Bring interest to the centre with a hero tree
Plant a hero tree in the middle of your courtyard garden, creating a beautiful feature. Choose a palm, which will love the shady environment – you might also find that you don’t need to protect it come winter, thanks to your own mini microclimate of your courtyard garden.
Trees can also be used to zone a small space, dividing a courtyard into dining and relaxing areas, even making a small garden look bigger.
5. Add a feature wall
Bring one of our favourite interior tricks outside into your courtyard garden – the feature wall. It’s a great way of breaking up a corner of the same brick work. If you don’t want to paint old brick, then fix a painted slatted panel in front (think of those slatted wall designs behind TVs that are so on-trend for inspiration).
Paint your feature wall black, which can be echoed in your choice of bistro furniture, lending a Scandinavian feel, while a fern, either potted or planted in a raised bed, will thrive and create dappled shade over your table area.
6. Render for a contemporary setting
White walls will instantly make a courtyard garden feel bright and contemporary – think of a courtyard at a boutique hotel for inspiration, adding chic black rattan-effect furniture with white cushions. Introduce some garden lighting ideas into the space, downlighters will help create a welcoming mood for an evening glass of wine, while potted bay trees and a planter of seasonal bedding plants soften the monochrome feel.
7. Double the sense of space with a mirror
Hang an outdoor mirror to reflect your courtyard garden, increasing the sense of space. There are plenty of garden mirror ideas to choose from, a mirror hung horizontally will act all most like a garden window. Alternatively, consider a full length window mirror that will make a statement. This effect will also give the illusion of doubling the amount of planting you have too.
To complement the space-enhancing trick think how furniture can double up, with a bench that can be pulled nearer a bistro set when entertaining more than two. Make a small courtyard feel like a natural extension of a kitchen-dining space by continuing the flooring from one to another – slate-effect porcelain is a great choice.
8. Fill with plants and gardenalia
Be inspired by courtyard gardens of country homes, where gravel and brick-laid paths are home to an eclectic mix of planting and collectables. When choosing plants opt for a mix of evergreen and showstoppers that thrive in partially shade areas.
‘The Ilex Dome is great for adding evergreen structure to your outside space. It has small, dark green glossy leaves and produces small white flowers in the summer. The domes are evergreen meaning they are always green. The domes like full sun but can do well in partially shade areas,’ recommends Will Williams, co-founder and creative director at Soto Gardens.
‘The Dwarf Mountain Pine, also known as Pinus mugo ‘Mops’, offers colour, structure and texture to your outside space throughout the year. This pine is almost indestructible and doesn’t require much pruning.’
Will also suggests including Astrantia Shaggy is an absolute showstopper. ‘It has small jewel like white flowers reminiscent of pin cushions, surrounded by long greenish-white ruff. It is a perennial, meaning it flowers every year.’
Arrange your plants between crates, terracotta pots and galvanised tubs. Even an old washing mangle add interest to this shady corner, while climbers, herbs, box and mini conifers provide year-round green.
9. Treat as an outdoor living room
Plan a courtyard like a living room, adding an outdoor fireplace and sofa. Choose a rendered fireplace wall design that can be painted a feature colour, even adding niches for display. For flooring, use paving to create a pattern, mimicking a rug, while planting provides the ‘fourth’ wall to this newly created cosy outdoor room.
10. Go tropical in a side return courtyard
If you’ve extended at the back and are now left with a side return courtyard, create a visual foliage feast with some shade-loving ferns – you’ll love seeing the splash of green through sliding doors or French windows. Add downlighters to illuminate at night – planting will feel much more dramatic thanks to the shadows they create.
Lead the eye further away from the house with a palm or fern planted against your back wall or fence.
What do you put in a courtyard?
This depends on the size, but furniture will create an instant outdoor room vibe. ‘It needs to invite you into the space,’ says Selina. ‘I love an outdoor sofa, which you can style with cushions and throws.’
No space for a table, then Selina says to go for a bistro set. ‘You can create a romantic alfresco dining setting adding a few candles, lanterns and vases of freshly picked scented flowers.’
Pots and planters will also help soften the harsh edges from the walls of your courtyard; try varying the height to add depth to a corner, while climbers can create a beautiful feature wall. ‘I use plants with beautiful flowers and lovely scents, along those that can be trained to grow up the walls, freeing up ground space for furniture and living. My favourites would be roses, jasmine, and wisteria,’ says Selina.
The trick is to think of your courtyard as a room, decorating its walls and floor, before adding plants, furniture, and accessories.
How do you brighten a courtyard garden?
‘Paint new walls white,’ says Selina Lake. ‘It’s a classic trick but that works so well. Remember to use exterior masonry paint. If you’re lucky to have aged brick or stone walls celebrate their heritage and instead choose white flowering plants to grow across them.’
You can also use lighting, creating a mini outdoor room come dusk. ‘Just string-up festoon lighting or attached hooks to the walls to hang lanterns from for ambient evening light,’ says Selina.