A Courtyard Garden Promotes Pondering

A Courtyard Garden Promotes Pondering

My understanding of a place dawns slowly. Occasionally I design a garden, and it is a ponderous and effortful activity because it doesn’t come easily to me. This has been brought home to me over and over as I struggle to set out the bones of my new garden.

What is now my courtyard garden used to be a large lawn surrounding a rotting but still productive apple tree, with a nearby patio and small lily pond. The first step was clear to me: adding a tall wooden privacy fence between the house and the detached garage to create a three-walled space that could become a courtyard garden. This has been my dream for years and years. (And I confess I get a distinct thrill each time I type “my courtyard garden.” Ooh! There it is again!)

The first step: adding a fence between two buildings to create the courtyard.

Because it was so exciting, and because winter was fast approaching when I moved in, this was the first area of my new yard that I designed. Nothing makes winter pass more pleasantly than having a sheltered outdoor area in which to soak up precious sun, and such an area is even more appealing if it contains plants (even if they are baby plants, and dormant).

I like to start a design with paths and clearings, the places where people will move through an area and where they will pause to spend time. Designing this “floor” of the landscape seems relatively straightforward, with practical requirements limiting the potential choices.

The courtyard’s large lawn needed irrigation every few days to stay green in this summer-dry climate. I would rather spend my precious water on a diverse mix of plants (and the animals they bring).

My new courtyard has five main entry/exit points — doors to the house, detached garage, and garden shed plus paths to the front and back yards — so after some time spent pondering, I created paths to connect these entry/exit points with each other. Since straight walls surround the courtyard, and the existing pond and patio are rectangular, I made all the paths straight and the subdivided spaces rectangular too.

I lined the new paths with rock and covered them with black plastic to solarize the lawn beneath them. The planting areas were smothered with cardboard and a mulch of leaves and grass clippings, delivered free by a friendly neighborhood lawn care service.

I laid out paths and planting areas, gradually smothering all the lawn within the courtyard.

Once the floor is settled, then there are the vertical elements to consider: plants, hardscape, furnishings, and art. To my mind, these are much more complex and challenging. The “garden room” metaphor begins to break down, since these elements do not merely form walls and ceiling; they determine the three-dimensional areas that will be filled and how densely they will be filled, and the areas that will be open, and where the light will enter and how much and when. And I’m just talking about shapes here, without delving into colors and textures.

To me this stage of design presents an amorphous blob of infinite possibility. That is, until I have sat with the place long enough that the next most important step occurs to me. (Or maybe a great designer friend gives me a suggestion.)

The lichen-y old wooden shed blocked a sheltered sitting area with a potential view across the entire courtyard garden.

Removing the older shed added a prime seating area in one corner, hidden from outside the courtyard but visible from its main paths and entry points.

Luckily, the next step was also fairly obvious in my courtyard garden (ooh!). I quickly fixed my sights on the old, ramshackle second garden shed. It was sitting directly in front of a sturdy structure that was probably used as a carport for a riding mower, but it could just as easily be treated as that rare and valuable garden element: a roofed arbor. If the old shed were removed, that arbor would make a perfect spot from which to enjoy a view of the entire courtyard garden while lounging in a hammock.

So this is one excellent result of all my pondering so far: a place in which to do more pondering.

The view from the newly liberated “arbor” will improve as the garden emerges this spring and evolves in the future.

Posted by

Evelyn Hadden
on March 5, 2014 at 3:45 am, in the category Lawn Reform, Real Gardens.


    • Tibs
    • 5th January 2016

    Keep the straight lines. Curved looks forced and more unatural in a small area when every thing else is on angles. Advice I read years ago in a 1920’s landscape book for small gardens.

    • admin
    • 14th March 2016

    Chiming in on the paths – yes, keep ’em straight. This is too small an area for curves, and once you have plants spilling over the edges those hard lines will soften right up.

    • Deborah
    • 20th November 2016

    Very good verbal visual of your new yard. You have great vision to be able to see beyond the next year or two of growth to what will most likely develop.

    • Rachelle
    • 15th December 2016

    Hmmm… I’m with Susan, add some curves! Everything looks too boxy, square, If I was walking to the garage to get something from the sliding glass doors, I would not be walking straight lines. Also I would make screening that prefab metal garage (?) a priority. It doesn’t speak to me of oasis.

    • Dan Halsey
    • 16th December 2016

    Hi Evelyn,
    first of all I really like the fence and the use of hybrid materials. Metal post in the ground will last for a very long time that think it is a good use of that material.

    • Catherine
    • 16th December 2016

    You are off to a great start! As for the paths, if the space were larger I would normally try to curve the paths to provide some relief from all the rectangles but since your courtyard is small I think the straight lines make sense. If this garden was mine I would soften the corners of the beds by rounding them. Even though the plant material in the beds will eventually create that effect in summer, in winter it will be pretty angular out there and the look of a few curves along with the mounds of dormant plants might be a nice organic contrast with the linear character of the buildings. But this garden is yours and YOU need to love it so do what feels right to you…but please do share the progress with us. It so wonderful to see a garden space evolve! Enjoy and thanks for sharing!

    • admin
    • 17th December 2016

    This is so fantastic! I love your progress his far and can’t wait to see it when things start growing. I too have always really really wanted a courtyard garden!!

    • Grace Silva-Santella
    • 17th December 2016

    Why plastc and not cardboard to smother grass?

    • admin
    • 17th December 2016

    Plastic is used to solarize soil, essentially killing not only plant matter but weed seeds and disease pathogens.

    • Grace Silva-Santella
    • 18th December 2016

    Thanks for the reply to my question. Here in my part of California eco friendly gardeners and progressive landscape professionals are using card board only and mulching thick. Soarizing the soil isn’t an issue for us.

    • Belleview Florist
    • 18th December 2016

    Fantastic start! Will you post an update to see how it turns out?

    • Taman Kolam
    • 18th December 2016

    This is very good ideas to maximize the gardening functions.

    • Maria
    • 18th December 2016

    Thank you for confessing that design comes slowly and with great effort! When I was designing and consulting in other people’s gardens, I thought I was not very talented because I could not come up with the design quickly and effortlessly. Impatient clients who didn’t hang in there with me while the design emerged also thought I was not very talented. But, thankfully, those who were patient were rewarded with interesting, pleasing designs that met their needs. Your design is emerging very nicely! Looking forward to seeing the process as it develops.

    • Andy
    • 19th December 2016

    Great to see you making use of a forgotten piece of your yard.
    I have a similar piece of land at the back of my house and was planning on doing something with it this year.
    Just like you have done I am going to use straight paths rather than curved.
    Straight lines are far more appealing to the eye.

    • cocojen
    • 19th December 2016

    Nice start. I am new in gardening and learning a lot of things. I have a small garden where I grow tomatoes, peppers, and some houseplants including flower plants. Your blog gave me a boost to do more. I wish to learn from you more.

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