A courtyard garden is the ultimate urban luxury. Its walls create a private sanctuary, reflect the warmth of the sun and capture the heady scent of summer flowers. Follow our guide to creating your own private oasis
Courtyard gardens are romantically intriguing. From outside their walls we can smell the flowers, hear the birdsong and see glimpses of fresh greenery – trees poking their heads above the walls and climbing plants spilling over them. These private sanctums provide small oases in the urban environment, where space is at a premium, and provide valuable space in which their owners can unwind. However, they are not just the preserve of the city dweller; so attractive are they, architects often incorporate courtyard gardens into new-build homes where they are carefully positioned to draw in light and allow glimpses of greenery from internal windows; even major office buildings can have planted atriums at their hearts. Here's our guide to creating such a space in your own backyard.
Strictly speaking, a courtyard is an outdoor area that's partly, or completely, enclosed by the walls of a house or building. It's usually open to the sky – although internal courtyards may be covered with glazing – and either square or rectangular in shape.
Some countries have a great tradition of creating gardens within courtyards: in Japan, China and Morocco, for instance, the verdant courtyard is the heart of the home and light, tranquillity and space enhance the rooms that surround it.
Traditionally a courtyard is at ground level, fairly simple in design and contains some sort of water feature. But of course there are no hard and fast rules when creating your own space – your design will depend on the style of building you have and the courtyard's intended use. If you want it to be a soothing place to unwind, you might go for a cool palette of simple planting, a small seating area and a water feature. But if you're planning to do lots of outdoor entertaining, warmer ochre tones, substantial seating areas and an open fireplace might be more suitable.
An enclosed space
A courtyard garden is an inward-looking space, but you ought to feel cocooned, rather than claustrophobic. The key to this is employing a few sensory tricks. Water is so prevalent in courtyard garden design because it reflects the sky, creating a sense of space – some designers use mirrors to give an illusion of space, but they're not restful on the eye if there are often lots of people in the garden. Sound is also important – the sound of running water is, of course, very relaxing, and you don't need loads of space for a moving water feature such as a bubble fountain. Water also creates much-needed humidity; courtyards get hot and containerised plants soon dry out, so consider installing an irrigation system if you don't enjoy regular watering. The plants will repay you with summer flowers and clouds of scent.
High walls block out the sky and create a feeling of being hemmed in. Therefore, if you're going to build walls, keep them low (you'll need planning permission to go over two metres in most areas anyway). If the courtyard is already encased by high walls or buildings, concentrate on techniques that will focus the eye on the lower part of the walls – for example, by attaching a one and a half metre run of trellis along the bottom and growing plants up it to that height, or by painting the bottom two metres of the wall in a different colour.
You might choose to enclose the courtyard with hedging or trellis woven with climbing plants. This will allow the breeze to enter the garden and, in blustery places, filters strong winds and thus prevents the turbulence that can result from wind flowing over solid boundaries.
Landscaping materials set the tone of the garden, so choose them carefully.
Paving Black or grey paving (such as slate) looks stunning with a lot of foliage plants and white furniture and pots, but if your courtyard is especially shady, it could make things a little too dark and mysterious. Paler stone (such as travertine) won't get as hot underfoot; plus it will make the garden look a lot bigger than it is. A smooth flat surface is ideal for an outdoor dining area and for creating a Moroccan-style lounging area with cushions and rugs.
Gravel is the cheapeast option but does need holding in place within a framework of brick, stone or wooden edging. Fine grey chippings can look wonderful with white walls and furniture and the silver-grey tones of olive trees.
Decking is also a fairly inexpensive option and will provide a softer, warmer surface than gravel or stone paving. If you can afford it, go for tropical hardwood decking as it will last longer than softwood – make sure it has Forest Stewardship Council or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes abelling denoting that the timber was sourced from a legal, sustainable, well-managed forest.
Informality is what most people want from a courtyard. Although larger courtyards could include more formal structures such as raised flowerbeds, these need careful thought if they are to work successfully. Make your courtyard look more spacious and inviting by linking it to the house wherever possible. Floor-to-ceiling windows or glass doors create a flow between inside and out, or you could connect the two by using the same flooring/paving, style of furniture or the same colours.
Keep the design simple, especially if you have a small area to work with. For example, place one large ornament or a group of trees in the centre, or follow Moorish tradition and focus the whole design on a water feature, such as a rill or a fountain. A rill is a narrow rectilinear stream that looks right at home in the contemporary courtyard and can be used to draw the eye to a focal point such as a sculpture or wall- mounted water feature.
Most courtyards are small so subtle lighting is a must – dot lanterns about and use uplighters on the walls. High-pressure sodium and halogen lights complement red or yellow tones, but use metal halide light on white walls. Solar lights will probably not be suitable for a Landscape and garden designer Declan Buckley created this stylish suntrap in Broadstairs, Kent, in 2008. Owner Dan Cooper is a keen gardener and his partner, Alex Dawson, loves to cook, so they decided to create a courtyard garden for entertaining.
'We were using the courtyard as our main living space during the summer,' says Dan, 'but it badly needed a revamp. Since we love to play host, we decided to redesign it as an eating and entertaining space.' The shady part of the garden contains an outdoor kitchen, which has a barbecue, hob and sink, and the dining table in the centre of the courtyard seats seven. The materials and plants used give a light, contemporary feel – the slate on the raised beds and the floor looks fabulous next to the mass of greenery; splashes of blue agapanthus provide colour, and the pale green shiplap on the walls echoes other buildings in the area. 'We adore the courtyard,' says Dan. 'Our windows look out on to it and because the planting is evergreen, it looks good all year.'
Words Hazel Sillver