How to create the ultimate courtyard garden in 10 steps

Turn a bare, partly enclosed space into the ultimate outdoor room – a place of shelter, beauty and comfort just a step away from your home

How to create the ultimate courtyard garden in 10 steps

We’ve been hanging out in courtyard gardens for thousands of years, long before the Romans even thought about building an empire. No surprises there – after all, who can resist the idea of an enclosed, private sanctuary with bountiful plants and perhaps a fountain, where you can escape from the demands of a busy life?

Today, courtyard gardens are even more in demand with townhouses and terraces increasingly common and outside space such a precious commodity. But how do you create a lovely, relaxing garden when you’re surrounded by hard surfaces, tall buildings, neighbours or high walls? As always, clever design is key.

1 Soft touch

Plants are often an afterthought for small outdoor spaces but they’re essential for softening all those hard surfaces. They’ll have the same impact on the overall design of your courtyard as cushions and curtains do inside. Use low groundcovers to create a living border between walls and ‘floors’, or along the edge of paths. Plant narrow hedges or upright grasses to green up tall boundary structures or disguise retaining walls. And consider a small tree for shade and vertical structure to balance high fences and walls.

2 Keep it simple

It’s the golden rule of small spaces. Try not to use more than two materials on the ‘floor’ of your courtyard, unless it’s a big space. Likewise for boundary and other structures – for instance, if you have timber exterior joinery, use timber for the pergola and fences. A reduced palette of materials and plantings gives courtyards a more cohesive feel than you’d achieve with a jumble of different materials.

3 In store

When space is tight built-in storage is a life-saver for outdoor living spaces. We all know that the more fun you have outside, the more stuff is involved: outdoor cushions and rugs, lanterns, fuel for the barbie and outdoor fireplace, a petanque set and other toys. Tuck a cupboard or two into any unused corners, under stairs or along a south-facing wall, and create storage lockers beneath built-in seats.

4 Stretch out

Extending the ‘floor’ as close to the boundary as possible will make the courtyard feel more spacious and give you more room for outdoor living. Running pavers or decking boards horizontally will also make the area look wider. Do the opposite if your courtyard is short in length.

5 Go with the flow

How well does the courtyard connect to the interior living spaces? Ensure there’s an easy, clear circulation route between the two and emphasise the connection by using similar materials underfoot. For instance, timber floors could flow out to a timber deck. If the outdoor ‘floor’ is quite different, try covering it with decking modules, ideal for enhancing the room-like feel of your courtyard.

6 Go vertical

Utilise high walls and fences for plants and art. Climbers such as star jasmine, native clematis or bougainvillea are ideal for clothing bare boundary structures with foliage and flowers, and some will add scent into the bargain. For contemporary courtyards think about a green wall system but only if conditions are suitable and the system is easy to manage.

7 Sun trap

If your courtyard is sunny then some kind of overhead protection is vital, as enclosed spaces increase heat and glare build-up. Overhead structures also provide shelter from rain and privacy from above. The range of options is fantastic these days, from high-end automatic louvre roofs, outdoor blinds and retractable awnings to more affordable shade sails and UV-resistant polycarbonate sheeting.

8 Eye candy

Drawing the eye inwards is the best way to deflect attention from ugly buildings or other not-so-pretty views from your courtyard. Think about positioning a beautiful focal point – such as a piece of sculpture, an architectural plant, a handsome pot or a water feature – so that it can be seen from inside the house and from the outdoor dining or sitting area. A gently splashing fountain or softly tinkling wind chimes can also help disguise the sound of nearby traffic and neighbours.

9 Prioritise space

Get tough with your wishlist and focus on those items that you really can’t live without in your courtyard. Is it a lovely tree or a pergola? A barbecue or a pizza oven? An outdoor fireplace or a portable gas heater? A spa or an outdoor shower?

10 Get a room

Walls or fences on at least three sides of the courtyard is the general rule for constructing the ultimate outdoor room. Run with that idea by furnishing it in a similar style to the rooms inside your house. Think about comfy outdoor sofas and chairs rather than the standard outdoor dining table, and add artworks, lighting and heating. Place plants strategically in large pots or planters as you would indoors.

Words by: Carol Bucknell. Photography by: Maree Homer, Bruce Jarvis, Jason Busch/

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