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.


  1. Fabulous start, and soooo exciting! Lots of seating, vertical elements, no lawn – all good. The only thing I’d change is to turn those straight paths into curving ones – for the visual effect and ease of using them.

  2. 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.

  3. This is exciting. And I don’t care whether you have straight or curving paths… I can’t believe I’ve just written this: I don’t have any design sense at all. But what fun to see your progress in such a short time. Spring is around the corner. Ponder on!

    • Allen, that is just how I feel. Designing — visualizing what could be — is second nature to some people. In fact, I walked through the courtyard with a designer friend, and he immediately made a suggestion that I adjust one path so it is centered on the fireplace. Of course! I was just thinking of it as part of the wall, but it is an eye-catching feature. As soon as I tweaked that path, the entire place looked soooo much more peaceful and right. HE is a designer, and I’m just glad that he gifted me with his advice!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    I like garden rooms ideas. You touched on this in your thought process. A garden should reveal itself slowly, in the planning and in the actual garden itself. Being able to stand in a crossroads and see it all at once; no fun.

    Also there are some utilitarian aspects of garden spaces these days that sustainable gardens should include: an area to grow transplants, to compost, an area to work whether it is potting, or harden off seedling. Best to develop these areas and plant screening plants for those garden rooms early.

    • I like the idea of including a compost and seedling area somewhere, though not necessarily in the courtyard. You also have a big front yard and back yard?

      I know someone who has a small lath house in the backyard for seedlings — it blends right into the background. A potting table would also be a great thing to have. I’d site it so that you get a nice view when you’re working — so maybe that’s a vote for putting it in the courtyard. Or maybe you don’t want any reminders of work in the courtyard!

      Compost bins can be in the shade, but should be conveniently placed. They can be outside the courtyard if that’s more convenient to the kitchen and if there’s a good way to get from the yard (generator of garden trimmings) to the bins.

      Depending on the aspect, I’d use that big metal wall either as a blank canvas for a mural, or as the support structure for trellises — kiwi vine? beans? cukes? (oh, you’re in Idaho…will hardy kiwi grow there?)

      If it’s an area for relaxing, a water feature would be nice. Maybe not this summer, if you’re in an area hit by drought, but the sound of running water brings in birds and is so relaxing. Whenever I’m in a garden with running water, I feel like sitting down and not leaving!

    • Gemma and Rachelle, these are helpful notes about utility areas. I do have more space (a whole acre!), but I should ponder more about where to put potting table, compost, and so forth, before I have filled all the area with plants!!

      I’ll have to post pics later in the growing season so you can see where the young trees and shrubs are. So far I’ve planted 6 small trees/large shrubs to screen various areas of the courtyard, including much of that garage wall.

      It’s fun to have feedback! I appreciate all these perspectives from the different commenters.

  7. 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.

    I am sure you have a drawing of what you are going to do, don’t you?
    Looking forward to seeing its progress.

    Take care

  8. 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!

  9. 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!!

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

    • Hi, Grace. I’m not fond of plastic in the garden either! But for these paths, in addition to what Mischelle said,
      (1) I didn’t want to add any organic matter that could encourage seedlings to sprout, and
      (2) We needed to be able to walk on them all winter.

      I do plan to reuse the plastic to solarize other areas after it has done its job here in the courtyard garden. These paths will soon be paved with a gravel/sand mix (and eventually, I’d love to add brick/rock as the budget allows).

      • 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.

        • Grace, I use the cardboard/thick mulch method to smother lawn in the planting areas. Really works great at building soil and attracting soil life. You should see all my worms!!

  10. I vote curved paths … except you already have them in & planting season is just around the bend …

    Love this idea & I’m a little envious until I realize my entire backyard has that “courtyard” feel – fenced all around, plants & hardscape of my choosing. My own private decompression chamber.

    Can’t wait to see how it shapes up & what challenges present themselves along the way.

    • For Laura, Susan H., and the rest of you who advocate curved paths, I will just share that this is the only place in the garden where I’ve used straight ones. This is the formal place that I’ll use for entertaining as well as private contemplation, there is another section that will be more of a stroll garden with meandering paths and curved planting beds, and then there will be a wilder area further from the house. (This could all take years!!)

  11. Thanks to all of you for being so kind in your comments about my personal garden. I do plan to continue to update you on my progress; it’s fun to have a “virtual tour” and the ensuing conversation with other gardeners. Don’t know about you, but I’m very interested in ordinary gardens and their challenges and strategies.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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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