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Garden design made easy - Courtyards and patios

Matt JamesMatt James
Garden designer

In part three of Matt James' Garden design made easy series, follow Matt's design ideas to make the most of your outdoor space by using clever planting, focal features and the right balance of materials.

A small courtyard or patio garden may be no bigger than your sitting room, but this makes a successful garden project much more achievable. If you have a small space, it means you can spend extra time on what really counts – the finish and finer details.

Identify a theme
Exotic jungles, Mediterranean or oriental themes work better in courtyard and patio gardens more than anywhere else. Often they’re not affected too much by their surroundings, so there’s less of a need to consider how to blend your design into the neighbourhood beyond the boundary.

It can be a space where literally anything goes. However, don’t forget the look of your property when you’re putting together a courtyard or patio design. Consider its colour, the materials and the proportion of doors and windows. You can then use similar colours or sizes in your garden so that the two sit seamlessly together.

Container plants
ABOVE: Create interest in a courtyard garden with several container plants – but choose small specimens to avoid dominating the space. Mini bay trees, bedding plants and herbs are ideal.

Consider the layout
Traditional courtyards usually have a simple – often symmetrical – layout with paved or tiled flooring. Attention is drawn inwards by either a water feature or a sculpture, which is usually placed in the centre or against the back boundary in the middle in order to keep this space as open as possible.

If you want more flexibility in how you use the space, keep the centre clear and plant borders around the edges. The patio dining set, sun loungers, toys, paddling pool or barbecue can all come and go as the mood and season takes you.

Walls and fences provide useful garden space, so think vertically with your design scheme. Fix vine eye screws and wire to a fence, or a trellis to a wall, for wall shrubs and climbers to grow up. You can mask ugly walls with cedar strips, ornate trellis or concrete render. If you choose to paint them, keep the colours light and subdued so that boundaries recede. Cobalt blue walls, for example, will make the space feel like a blue cell, so stay neutral.

Tall fencing, walls or dense planting can create cramped little corners in small courtyards, which aren’t practical to use. However, if you subtly conceal parts of the garden so that you can’t see the entire space all at once it can make it feel bigger than it actually is. A large potted bamboo or two, a freestanding trellis covered with sweet peas or tall planting with lacy perennials, such as Verbena bonariensis spilling from the flowerbeds, will help to achieve this without taking over your garden.

Changing the direction of the paving, introducing other surface materials or simply using different sizes of the same material – small porphyry cobble setts next to porphyry pavers, for example – can help to mark out one area with a particular function from another.

Moroccan-style courtyard
ABOVE: This space draws on Moroccan influences with African slate flooring, a pretty mosaic water feature and rustic-style furniture made from railway sleepers. (Image supplied by Earth Designs,

Choose the right materials
Less is definitely more in a courtyard garden – the worst designs that go over the top with different materials can look horribly chaotic. Use no more than three to four materials in combination: slate, brick and oak, for example, work well together.

If you live in a small Victorian terraced property, choose sympathetic materials that complement the period feel. Use dark grey cobble setts with brick-built houses and blue-black slate or grey sandstone to link perfectly with a slate roof.

Consider linking the flooring in the room that has access to the garden with the surface of the courtyard, whether it’s by repeating the stone, tile or hardwood, or echoing the colours in the room. A seamless transition from indoors to outdoors is an easy way to make both spaces feel bigger. Decking is a useful material too. It’s the perfect solution to cover a decrepit concrete surface that is either too difficult or too expensive to dig out.

Add a water feature
If you would like a pond with a fountain, don’t buy one that’s too big. The pond should be at least three times wider than the height of the fountain – then it won’t empty when the wind picks up.

Wall fountains work well in very small spaces (try Or, you can go for a water blade cascade feature. Build a rendered brickwork pool up from ground level that will act as the reservoir to hold and collect the water and install a pump so that the water is recycled. The top can then be clad with timber to double up as useful impromptu seating (try Choose a feature that will look good even when it’s not working.

If you want a contemporary feature, go for glass or steel ‘walls’, where the water shimmers down one side. Decent models start from around £200 – try for ideas.

For hassle-free installation, buy a feature where the sump (water reservoir), pump and fittings are all included. Many kits also come with waterproof lighting, or add your own to transform your courtyard or patio.

David Dixon’s garden, Tatton Park Flower Show 2011
ABOVE: David Dixon’s garden at the Tatton Park Flower Show 2011 makes the space seem larger than it actually is with its change in levels and low-growing plants.

Devise a planting scheme
If you want border planting rather than a potted plants scheme, you’ll need to pare down your choices as the depth of borders can be narrow – choose plants that perform all year round or help to define space.

Plant up the boundaries first with climbers, then layer plants down in front of them, finishing with the smallest at the front. With space at a premium at the back, choose well-behaved wall shrubs instead of big, spreading shrubs. Good choices would be Ceanothus, Chaenomales and Garrya elliptica – the gorgeous silk tassel bush – pruned and trained tight to the boundary. For an oriental feel, try tidy clump-forming bamboos like Fargesia nitida and grasses like Miscanthus; both are tall but thin.

For the middle tier, plant smaller evergreens such as Christmas box, sage, Cistus, Pittosporum‘Nanum’ and the smaller deciduous Viburnums, depending on the aspect. Mix in stalwart perennials, like Japanese anemones, Geranium phaeum and ferns for shade, with asters, Echinacea, Linaria and Lysimachia for sunny aspects.

Plant the pockets in the front tier with ground cover perennials such as silver Stachys byzantina, Ajuga, catmint, ornamental dead nettles and low-growing thyme. Sprinkle a few bulbs throughout for added interest in this space.

Incorporate storage
Built-in seating can conceal cupboards underneath where you can store tools and cushions. A shed is harder to incorporate as you don’t want it to dominate the space. Painting it an earthy green, fixing on some trellis and installing an eco-friendly ‘green living’ roof will make it feel part of the garden. If you have a Victorian outside WC, you can disguise it in the same way. If you can view the whole garden from your house, don’t put a new orange-coloured shed against the wall opposite a window as your eye will be drawn to this rather than the rest of the garden.

All prices and stockists correct at time of publishing