Dos and don'ts for a great courtyard garden

Landscape designer Karen Wealleans replaced all the planting to create this courtyard garden in Milford, creating a ...
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Landscape designer Karen Wealleans replaced all the planting to create this courtyard garden in Milford, creating a series of garden rooms with lots of fresh green and white helping to keep the look cool. Vertical plants include papyrus and Japanese maple.

With the huge influx of terrace and infill housing in our big cities, there comes an interesting conundrum.

How to you provide an attractive outdoor living area in a small space, and how can you create a point of difference for your home, which may be one of dozens exactly the same?

The answer lies in the landscape design. No matter how small your space, there are ways to make it seem larger. At the same time, you can create a spectacular outdoor living area that will function as another room of the house.

Before: With terracotta paving, clay pots and orange-toned canvas chairs and umbrella, the garden was a little dull, and ...
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Before: With terracotta paving, clay pots and orange-toned canvas chairs and umbrella, the garden was a little dull, and it felt like a heat trap in summer.

Landscape designer Karen Wealleans of Changing Spaces Ltd was commissioned to redesign the courtyard garden featured here. She says the original garden was "very orange", which made it seem hot. There was also no sense of exploration – what you saw was all there was.

READ MORE:
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* Small Auckland garden designed as rooms to save space

 
Limiting the colours in the garden helps to keep the look fresh and sophisticated.
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Limiting the colours in the garden helps to keep the look fresh and sophisticated.

Wealleans retained the paving and structural elements, but completely changed the planting, removing much of the grass and an overgrown Phoenix palm tree, which freed up space. She then set about changing the idea of the different areas or spaces, creating rooms that are slightly, but not completely hidden from view.

"This creates a little bit of mystery – you want to know what lies beyond," she says. "For this project we introduced an edible garden, a spa, a lounging area and a bog garden."

The existing structure of the garden included a raised planter box where the palm had been. "This time it was all about keeping it cool with a lot of green and white to offset the colour of the terracotta paving."

A bronze metallic Burelli pot sits in front of a griselinia hedge that screens the spa pool. The low border is Abutilon ...
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A bronze metallic Burelli pot sits in front of a griselinia hedge that screens the spa pool. The low border is Abutilon megapotamicum.

The designer used around 25 different species, providing a variety of low, medium and high plants to create a layered and multi-tiered garden in different shades of green. The variety ensures there is something interesting to look at all year round.

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She also introduced a dramatic centrepiece in the form of a sculptural bronze metallic Burelli pot, which was made in Christchurch.

Key plants include a low border of Abutilon megapotamicum around the pot, Abutilon Burgundy, a medium-size plant with red flowers, the vigorous climber Solandra maxima, and Japanese maple trees.

Black furniture makes a dramatic contrast to the off-white elements and lush green planting.
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Black furniture makes a dramatic contrast to the off-white elements and lush green planting.

"This is not a low-maintenance garden," Wealleans says. "But the owners were happy to keep an eye on it and maintain it as required. I would have created a different garden if the owners had not been prepared to keep it in check."

With the help of Karen Wealleans we have compiled a list of things to consider when planning a courtyard garden.

1. PRACTICALITY

Most of the terrace houses in this development have corokia hedging along the street front. which will be kept trimmed ...
JAN HAWKES

Most of the terrace houses in this development have corokia hedging along the street front. which will be kept trimmed to the height of the fence. Most homeowners have added a mix of taller and smaller plants, and outdoor furniture.

The garden is an outdoor room, and it must work for the owner on a practical level. There must be an easy indoor-outdoor flow, space for entertainment and play, and a place to grow food for the table. Look to create a healthy habitat, not just for the family, but also for birds and insects.

If you are in a body corporate, read your contract carefully and ensure you work to the rules. These will vary with each development. Ensure also, that you comply with NZ Building Code and council planning regulations.

Good outdoor lighting is essential, and remember to provide permeable areas to absorb stormwater on site.

2. THREE DIMENSIONS

It is important to provide a three-dimensional design solution. Consider an overhead structure, such as a pergola, vertical gardens or a small shade tree.

Varying the levels and layering the garden makes it a lot more interesting, as you can introduce different plant varieties and create a sense of mystery and surprise about what lies beyond. This also makes a small space seem much larger. Screens and sculptures can also be used to manipulate the illusion of space.

If you live in a terrace house/apartment and your courtyard is fully paved, you can still create different levels with planter boxes to provide a 3-D effect. Creating an interesting outdoor room will be all about using plants to soften the hard edges, and grouping them for a natural look. This is the ideal place to create a vertical garden.

Take cues from the house architecture and its colour. But keep the design and the planting simple, without getting boring.

3. WHAT NOT TO DO

Common mistakes in courtyard garden planning including embarking on a project before working out exactly where you are going, how it will look and work. "Working in a piecemeal fashion without a clear vision of the completed project is never a good idea," Wealleans says.

Other common mistakes occur when the hard landscaping elements are rushed. Paving and walls that are not built and detailed to a high standard will never look smart. This is a time when near enough is not good enough.

Plant choices that are inappropriate to the site should also be avoided.

 - Stuff

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