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by John Mason and staff of ACS Distance Education
Small spaces can be a challenge for many gardeners who are used to larger blocks of land. They needn't be. Some of the most stunning gardens are no more than a few metres wide.
Courtyards can be as small as the space between a house and garage or a side fence. They can also be quite large such as those found surrounded by large city buildings. Courtyard gardens are common in inner city areas where homes are generally packed more closely together, and where garden space is limited, as with terraced houses. They offer an ideal usage of a small space that may not be big enough for use as a work or living area but can be turned into a decorative feature. Larger courtyards may have areas of lawn, but smaller ones are generally unsuitable for lawns and commonly make use of paving and garden areas instead.
Characteristics of Courtyard Gardens
The protected nature of courtyards has both advantages and disadvantages.
Courtyards can provide protection from climate extremes, particularly wind, excessive noise or unattractive views. They can also be very private. The protection from strong winds in some cases may lead to poor ventilation or poor lighting.
Additionally, large areas of paved or concrete surfaces and brick walls may lead to heat build up or glare in the garden, which can be an advantage in cooler months but a real problem in warmer times. Some plants, however, will love this extra heat and reflection, for example Heliconias and Adeniums.
Water and drainage can be a major problem in courtyard gardens but with careful design and the provision of essential drainage this problem can be overcome. However, with a little imagination, water can become a feature through the use of small ponds, birdbaths, or even small fountains.
Some Design Ideas
* The type of paving material chosen will have a major effect on the overall appearance of the
courtyard. Glazed pavers and concrete slabs can create a formal effect, while bricks and stone will
often give a softer, more informal look. Pavers can be chosen to match tiles and other surfaces used
within the house, so that the courtyard blends into the house.
* A feeling of space can be created by the use of painted landscape or garden scenes on walls. This can be further expanded by having the garden merge with the house (glassed entry areas and the use of indoor plants can help achieve this effect).
* Lighting can be installed enabling you to use the courtyard at night and to highlight particular plants
or features. Any cables should be hidden from view as much as possible taking care that careful they are not placed in a position where anyone is likely to dig. It is recommended that you consult a professional to design and install garden lights safely.
* "Stepped" or irregular shaped walls, as well as irregular shaped garden beds, can be used to
reduce the 'box-like' effect often associated with courtyards surrounded by fences or walls.
*Keep the design simple by avoiding the temptation of using too many different types of materials or plants. If you use a lot of different colours and textures, the space can seem more confused and appear smaller.
*Avoid active colours such as red, yellow and orange as these make small spaces seem smaller.
*Use colours such as blues, whites, greens and purples to make small spaces seem larger.
Design and Function for Small Courtyards
It is possible to combine design style and function together. In fact it is sometimes easier to combine these in small courtyards than large gardens.
In essence, this refers to utilising the available space in a way that it may have multiple functions and above all is stylish in its design.
* Using plants as espaliers along walls to function both as a fence/wall cover, and to provide colour and fruit. Citrus is great for this.
* Removable shade cloth or canvas panels can be used over parts of a courtyard to provide summer shade.
* Spaces or gaps can be left in paved areas to create planting spaces.
* Plants may offer colour, scent, fruit, shape, texture and theme in the garden. Secateurs are an important tool for maintaining courtyard gardens. One or two plants let loose can quickly outgrow the available space.
Planting Ideas for Courtyards
Careful plant selection can make the most of a limited space, and reduce the impact of problems such as glare and heat build up. Consider the following:-
* Shade trees (deciduous) can be used to provide summer shade and winter light. It is important to
choose species that do not have an invasive root system, and that will not out-grow the garden.
* Do not over-plant your garden. Remember that plants can grow very quickly once established and
you may find that you have no space left to move in yourself.
* For courtyards that receive limited sunlight use shade-loving plants, such as ferns, begonias, cliveas,
fuchsias, impatiens and balsam.
* Containers are a good idea as they can be moved. This will enable you to create changing
vistas within the courtyard. Also plants in flower, such as annuals, can be moved to prominent
positions, whilst other plants such as roses and hydrangeas that may not look so good at particular times of the year can be hidden in less prominent positions. Camellias, dwarf rhododendrons and azaleas make excellent pot plants for cooler sites, while palms, dracaenas and crotons, are good for warmer areas.
* Hanging baskets are an excellent way to make more use of available space, and will make the
appearance of the garden more interesting, offering something to see at different eye levels.
* Espaliered plants and vines require very little ground space, and are good for small courtyards.
They can be used to cover walls helping to merge them into the garden, and reducing glare and
heat build-up. Espaliered fruit trees can be an attractive addition to the garden as well as
providing fruit. Vines can be grown on pergolas to provide partial cover over the courtyard, or can
be grown on trellis or wire framework to extend the height of surrounding walls to provide extra
privacy or shade. Be careful to avoid creepers with invasive roots such as English Ivy which may
damage fences or walls.
* Dwarf trees can create the image of a much larger garden. There is a huge range of dwarf
conifers that would be suitable. Dwarf fruits, such as some of the citrus or dwarf apples, such as
the 'Ballerina' range are not only attractive, but make excellent plants for containers or small beds,
as well as providing excellent tasting fruit.
* For long, narrow courtyards, such as entry areas, ground cover and low growing plants can be
grown to spill over paved walkways to soften the long straight lines of the pathway, and to reduce the
visual effect of distance. Statues or other features can also be placed at either end of the courtyard
to create a focal point which also reduces the visual effect of distance.
* Where there are overhanging, or taller, plants in neighbouring gardens you can arrange your
plantings by merging your plants into them, and not hiding them, to give the appearance that they
are part of your garden, creating the feel of a larger garden.
* Tall, bushy plants can be used to create 'walls' around a courtyard instead of solid fences or walls.
This can help improve ventilation and can be a lot cheaper than solid fences.
Native Plants or Exotic Plants
The choice to use either native plants or exotic is really up to you – or you may combine both.
If the garden has been designed then there is a particular theme that should be followed and the recommended plants suggested should be bought.
If the courtyard is not designed professionally, then the selection is up to the home owner. Consider first if the plant is suited to the site (climate, soil, aspect), then choose according to a theme, foliage density desired and colour of flowers and foliage.
Generally it is considered that native plants do not offer the range of suitable plants for small courtyards that most people want. Exotics tend to offer a larger range and hence are used more frequently in professionally designed courtyards.
The authors of this article are staff orf ACS Distance Education. This school operates from both Australia and the UK, offering over 350 courses (Hobby and Vocational). See www.acs.edu.au, www.acsedu.co.uk
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