Designing a Courtyard Garden

Stir a little outdoor magic by designing a courtyard garden. These secluded spaces create a cozy ambience perfect for Sunday brunch, curling up with a book or catching a few z’s on a comfy lounge chair. A courtyard garden embodies a sense of separation from the world otuside. The result is a secret garden that often becomes everyone’s favorite spot.

Every courtyard garden has a sense of enclosure. Four walls may actually be present, or they may be implied by a hedge or section of lattice blanketed with vines. Some courtyard walls have windows cut into them to frame neighboring views—and to give the space a feeling of openness. This is especially important in very small courtyards.

In a courtyard garden, rely on greenery and flowers to help soften hardscape, and the vertical surfaces of walls provide an ideal spot to train vines. Vines can sink their roots in planting beds or containers. If you’re using containers to host perennial vines, like poor man’s ginseng (Codonopsis pilosula) or Arctic kiwi (Actinidia kolomikta), make sure they’re large enough to give roots adequate room. Many courtyard gardens are shady, so select vines that withstand lower light conditions.

Planting space is often at a premium in courtyards, so consider tending a garden in containers.

Annuals, perennials and shrubs can all perform well in pots. Do your homework and prepare the right soil mixture to help plants thrive. It’s also vital to supply adequate moisture. If watering is difficult, your containerized courtyard garden won’t complement the scene.

Choose tropical plants to give a south-of-the-border feel or non-stop flowering annuals to stage a courtyard cottage garden. Bamboo, Japanese forest grass Hakonechloa macra) and Japanese iris Iris ensata) in pots support a Japanese garden theme. Ferns, hosta and silver-variegated brunnera (Brunnera macrophylla ‘Silver Heart’ or ‘Jack Frost’) give a lightly shaded courtyard the feeling of a forest grotto

If space permits, plant trees in containers to give your courtyard garden a vertical element. Trees need large pots unless you plan to prune roots on a regular basis. If your courtyard is small, you might need to rely on vines trained on tall trellises and walls to add vertical movement to your garden.

Include furniture in your courtyard garden to provide a comfy place to enjoy the atmosphere. Because a courtyard lacks a ceiling, it often seems larger than it is, which can easily lead you to choose furnishings that overpower the space. Some courtyards are large enough to hold a dining table and chairs; others can fit only a bistro set. The smallest courtyards may work best with just a bench.

Make a small courtyard seem larger by including mirrors. A wall mirror can effectively double the perceived depth of a narrow courtyard garden. Or consider using a series of mirrors along a wall to mimic windows. Painted murals or tromp l’oeil also create the illusion of additional space in a courtyard.

A water feature belongs in every courtyard garden—just be sure to choose one scale to the space. A fountain that’s too large and noisy can easily overpower conversation in a small space, while a small wall fountain doesn’t take up square footage and has a gentle trickling sound.

Lighting is also important when you want to create an inviting courtyard that takes on a magical feel after dark. Twinkling light strings in trees, along walls or on trellises make every evening a festive occasion. Candles enhance intimacy, and paper lanterns invite a party. Choose lights that support your courtyard garden’s theme. Illuminate key features, like a fountain, and always light walkways for safety.