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Small spaces can be a challenge for gardeners who are traditionally used to quarter acre blocks. They needn't be. Some of the most stunning gardens that are photographed 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 close together, and with limited garden space, such as terrace houses. They are an ideal use 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 make use of paving and garden areas being more common.
Characteristics of Courtyard Gardens
The protected nature of courtyards has both advantages and disadvantages. Courtyards can provide protection from climate extremes, particularly wind, or from excessive noise or bad 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 can be a real problem in warmer times. Some plants however will love this extra heat and reflection (eg. Heliconias, Adeniums, etc).
Water & drainage can be a major problem in courtyard gardens. However with careful design and the provision of essential drainage this problem can be overcome. Together 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 courtyard blends into the house.
* A feeling of space can be created by the use of a painted landscape or garden scene on walls. This can be further expanded by having the garden merge into the house. (Glassed entry areas and the use of indoor plants can help achieve this)
* 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, but be careful that they are not placed in a position where anyone is likely to dig. Professionally laid and designed, garden lights can be safe and stunning in their own right.
* "Stepped" or irregular shaped walls, as well as irregular shaped garden beds, can be used to reduce the 'box-like' effect that can be 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 (eg. 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 function both as a fence/wall cover and can 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 lose can quickly outgrow the available space.
Planting Ideas for Courtyards
Careful plant selection can make the most of the 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 will not have too invasive a root system, or will grow too big for the size of the garden.
* Do not overplant your garden. Remember that plants can grow very quickly once established, and you may find you have no space left to move in yourself.
* For courtyards that receive limited sunlight use shade-loving plants, such as ferns, begonias, clivias, 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, while plants (e.g. roses, 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 tub 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 both 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 (e.g. English Ivy) that 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.
Article by John Mason and staff of ACS Distance Education.