How to create a courtyard garden

PUBLISHED: 12:05 15 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:49 20 February 2013

The client's garden after...

The client's garden after...

East Anglian designer Paul Baines tells us how to create, and get the best out of, a small garden

Increasingly, in this part of the world, we seem to benefit from balmy Septembers, enabling us to spend more time in the garden. And you dont have to have acres of lawns and flower beds to savour the sun-blessed days oflate summer. Here East Anglian designer Paul Baines tells us how to create, and get the best out of, a small garden

There are a few basic principles in designing a small garden or courtyard, which if adhered to, will help make the space a success. Here are my six topical tips to help achieve this.

  • Keep the design simple. Use bold ground shapes and make sure each area is in proportion and scale to the overall size of the space and its relationship to the house.

  • Use a limited number of different materials less is more. Be creative with a few hard landscaping materials. The courtyard uses just three, brick, random York paving and gravel. The use of the hard materials must enhance the layout of the garden without overshadowing the planting. The hard and soft landscaping should complement each other, not compete. Also try to avoid a lawn in a very small space. Its impractical and will be a lot of hard work to keep it looking good.

  • Use plants that are suitable for the site, soil, aspect and local climate of the garden. Work with the conditions you have and dont try and fight against nature. You wont win! If you have light sandy soil in full sun, plant accordingly. Lavenders, cistus, agapanthus, santolinas, are all plants that love those conditions. If on the other hand you have heavier or moisture retentive soil in shade, plant hostas, ferns, hemerocallis, hydrangeas. Basically, if you put the right plant in the right place, you cant go far wrong and youll have a successful garden.

  • Think of plants in terms of their structure, form, leaf shape and texture as well as their flower and colour. Most plants only flower for a relatively short period, although there are exceptions. Once the flowers are over youre left with the foliage. With a little careful planning, plants can be grouped together to make a very pleasing design with just the foliage in mind. An example of this might be a grouping of blue leafed hostas, a variegated grass, hakonechloa macra Aureola, with a purple leafed shrub, physocarpus and white flowering Japanese anemones.

  • In small gardens use a limited palette of plants and use them in bigger numbers. Once again, less is more. This will give the garden a greater impact and avoid it looking too busy. Use herbaceous plants in drifts and clumps, and make sure the plants you use have a long season of interest, as each plant needs to earn its keep. Plants like penstemons, euphorbias, astrantias, heleniums, asters and grasses will all provide weeks of colour and have good foliage too.

  • Autumn is a great time to be thinking about designing or redesigning a garden. All the planning, construction, and planting work can be carried out over the autumn and winter time in readiness for you to be able to start enjoying your garden next spring.


My client, a semi retired doctor in Suffolk, commissioned me to design a new courtyard garden within an existing small walled courtyard measuring 12 x 12m.
The courtyard is situated to the northwest corner of the house and accessed through an existing wrought iron gate set into part of the old red brick wall, which forms two sides of the boundary. The remaining two boundaries comprise close board fencing. The existing garden was paved over with a few spaces for planting and it looked a drab, depressing and uninviting space in which to be.
My brief was to create a space that could be used for relaxation and entertaining primarily between the months of April through to the end of October.
The client is a keen gardener and plants person, and therefore would be happy to carry out the maintenance and upkeep of the garden. The layout was to be informal using a variety of materials to create interest on the ground.
The courtyard receives sun and shade and seating areas were to be designed into both locations. As a keen plants person the client wanted to incorporate a variety of plants to provide interest right through the season, with both flower and, just as important, foliage texture, form and shape.


From this comprehensive brief I was able to create a space that fulfilled the clients requirements.
The design is based upon a circular theme comprising three large interlocking circles using several courses of a red paving brick as an edging to each circle. Simulated random York paving was used in two of the circles to create sunny seating areas, while compacted gravel was placed in the third.
This third circle would be planted up with six large buxus globes giving the garden just a hint of formal structure.
A narrow gravel path through planting leads to a small, painted, wrought iron seat set in the shady corner of the garden.
The main dining terrace has four Golden Catalpa trees planted at equidistant intervals around the circle to provide dappled shade during very hot spells. These trees can be pollarded back every couple of years to keep them compact and in proportion to the size of the space.
The smaller seating area has a timber painted summerhouse incorporated into it. The planting comprises a mix of both shrub and herbaceous material in blues, mauves, purples, whites and acid yellows. As the season progresses the colours change to more orange russet tones and the grasses become lovely golden oatmeal colours, which help extend the season into the autumn and beyond.

Paul Baines
Garden Designer.
Tel: 01255 671161 Mob: 07747 495489

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