08 Jun 2010


Courtyards are some of the most private and impressive landscapes. Some homeowners, however, who move into new spaces can feel a bit underwhelmed and unsure how to proceed in small courtyard space limited by confining walls.

To create the most welcoming outdoor room, carefully consider the color of the walls and whether repainting is necessary. Bright colors make spaces feel smaller, while cooler colors like whites, greens, and purples help to open the space up. Courtyards are like a little microclimate. Walls provide shade and a windbreak, but at the same time they make for a hotter and dryer landscape.

Plain courtyard walls are pretty uninspiring. Adding tall plantings, fountains, wall art or hanging pots are all great ways to help soften the look. Palms, nandinas and tropical foliage plants cast beautiful shadows on the courtyard wall, in natural light or with powered splash lights. Taller trees and shrubs planted in the ground or in pots hide corners and add depth to the landscape. They also frame other landscape accents, like a wall sculpture, mural, or water feature. Don’t be afraid to break up a courtyard with a dividing planting. Trees and screen-forming shrubs work great to break up outdoor space, just like open architecture, making each part of the courtyard seem like a private room. Vining plants are another excellent way to cover some of the bare walls. Climbers can be planted in the ground, or in containers, and trained to grow up trellises. Fragrant plants and climbers, like jasmine, are good choices for private courtyards that are used to relax in the evenings. Hang potted plants from the walls for added interest and a classic provincial look like the original courtyards in Europe.

Courtyards can vary from solid patios with no room for planting to patches of shallow soil applied over concrete. The type of surface in the courtyard will largely dictate the way specimens are planted, but not what can be planted. Test the soil depth and drainage by digging a large hole and filling it with water. Shallow soil is suitable for perennials and grasses and some shallow rooted shrubs like manzanitas. If grass is very important, try ornamentals or slow growing grasses like zoysia, the Japanese lawn grass, buffalo grass, or blue grama. Zoysia looks particularly soft and fuzzy when grown over round river rocks.

Many Mediterranean natives and drought-tolerant plants are well-suited for courtyard plantings. Perennials like rosemary, lavenders, penstamons, salvias, veronicas, and verbenas are excellent for a traditional Spanish Mediterranean look. Tropicals, like palms, ficuses, and cordylines, are great for planting in the ground or in pots. Daylilies, cannas, and elephant ears are excellent and easy to grow choices for seasonal interest. Cacti, cycads, and succulents are also great choices for a courtyard landscape, as long as these prickly plants are planted out of the way.

Even large tropical plants and trees are right at home in containers. Group containers for impact and arrange them to create height and dimension. Walls, steps, and ledges can be transformed into a multi-tired oasis with the addition of a few container plants. For the most versatility, purchase plant stands with heavy duty casters, so plants can easily be rearranged.

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