Courtyard garden styles – Courtyards are found all over the world, and certainly formed the basis for gardens from very early times. The heart of a Roman house, the central open courtyard or atrium, had an enclosed hortus off it; both turned their backs on the often harsh environment outside. The great Islamic gardens of the Persians and the Moors, like the monastery gardens of Europe, were set within enclosed courtyards formed at least in part by the surrounding buildings: walled enclosures that provided protection from the elements and from attack. Today, the courtyard thrives in a thousand guises, from an enclosed Spanish patio to a backyard in New York.
The real prerequisite is that the space should be surrounded by walls, often those of the house or surrounding properties. Since these, mainly urban, courtyards are often not very large and, being protected by walls, have a climatic advantage oversurrounding areas, they make ideal outdoor rooms.
The potential for living outdoors is enormous, and the best courtyard garden styles take full advantage of this, with ample room for sitting and dining, barbecuing and relaxation.
Hard surfacing plays a major role, and this should be planned to provide a positive link with the interior of the house itself: paving to match the floor inside; an indoor color scheme continued outside. Overhead beams running out from the house will provide dappled shade, essential in a hot climate, as well as support for fragrant climbing plants. They may also provide privacy – screening from neighboring windows – and act as a ceiling for your outside room.
The smaller the space, the more important the attention to detail, as everything is close to hand and easily seen. In terms of walling or fencing, this will mean that not only is the choice of materials important, but also the way in which they are used. In a modern situation, brick laying and timber-work will need to be perfectly implemented, while surfaces such as exposed aggregate paving or carefully laid slate can look superb if used taking their cue from the adjoining buildings. There is a trend to try and create a feeling of space by the use of mirrors, false perspectives and murals.
Courtyards need not be rectangular; many, particularly in towns, are formed in the awkward angles between adjoining buildings. Shapes like this offer all kinds of interesting design possibilities, including the opportunity to construct a wide range of features such as raised beds, built-in seating, lean-to buildings and conservatories, as well as water in all its guises.
New courtyards are being built today, as architects increasingly realize their social potential, but many older ones started life with a very different role from that of an outside room for relaxation. Stable yards, storage yards, communal work spaces and farmyards were all working areas. Many, no longer needed for their original purpose, have now gained a new lease of life as a garden or leisure area.
Your design of courtyard garden should be sympathetic to the original structure, and you should salvage materials wherever possible. Fine paving may, for example, have been covered up; if only part of it remains, try to match it with paving from a demolition yard. Walls can be restored and original doorways worked into the design.
A courtyard area that is used for other practical purposes can happily be made into a garden in one of a number of garden styles: you could have a ‘Japanese’, ‘Mediterranean’, ‘formal’, ‘contemporary’, or even a ‘cottage’ garden. You could also plant it up in no particular style but in response to the kind of architectural space, and to the aspect and climate that prevails.
The microclimate of a courtyard is often very mild, thanks to the protective walls. This may enable you to plant tender climbers but, since heat may also be more intense than outside the walls, you may have to choose drought- and heat-resistant plants.
In general, plants flourish in courtyard garden styles. There is much less likelihood of neglect as they are always on view and, since courtyards tend to be thoroughfares as well as sitting areas, there is a premium on keeping them tidy, and the plants dead-headed and in good condition. Containers can be placed on hard standing where they are secure, and can be positioned either singly (if large), in pairs at entrances, or in informal groupings. Foliage plantings can also be effective.
Water is a feature in many courtyards and is usually used in a formal way. The planting will therefore be restricted to plants for a pool, and to waterside planting of those species which look like bog plants but which do not require wet conditions and will tolerate heat.
Fragrant plants are essential in a courtyard, for the still air traps scent. This means climbing plants such as jasmine, of course, but also night-scented annuals like Matthiola bicornis and nicotiana. The range od scented plants for pots is vast, but herbs must be the first choice where a courtyard leads off from the kitchen. On a warm evening and if lit effectively, the courtyard, even more than the terrace or patio, can provide the perfect outside room.