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Backyard garden ideas are often a hidden gem when it comes to garden design. Yes, they may be small, but they can make beautiful sun traps and escape spots.
A courtyard garden is often described as “a flat space surrounded by walls”, which doesn’t sound like the most inspiring idea for a small garden. But while your space may be overlooked by neighboring walls, it can be a space where shady plants thrive and you can be creative with your choice of landscaping, furniture and decorative accents when considering patio garden ideas.
There are other pros too. Stone and brick walls absorb, store and slowly release the heat of the sun – your courtyard could be a sanctuary at the end of the working day. Similarly, the walls around your yard can be a barrier to rain, so you need to think more carefully about plants and maybe choose those that don’t need a lot of water, while the frosts might not be as severe, so fruit trees might do better.
Interior and garden stylist and author Selina Lake loves a courtyard garden. “I’m always inspired by the backyard gardens you find tucked away in central Paris,” she shares. “I love her whimsical, secret garden appeal and her classic styling.”
So maybe it’s time to think small and creative and turn your backyard garden into your own hidden paradise.
Backyard garden ideas
1. Dress up the walls of your courtyard
Update tired brick with wood paneling and add a contemporary feel to your patio garden. Set out large planters that can be filled with perennials for color. If your courtyard feels gloomy in the evening, simple spotlights provide an atmospheric glow.
Space-saving bistro furniture is the best choice for patio furniture. Choose compact chairs that are comfortable enough to double as loungers, and add a pillow or two if needed.
2. Build a sofa area
It is important to use space wisely when considering how to plan a small garden space like a patio. A good starting point is to think about built-in seating.
Use the same brick as the walls surrounding your yard to construct a corner sofa that can be upholstered with cushions. Build such a sofa a little higher than usual so that you can place a garden table and chairs inside to create an informal dining area. Use overhanging trees for natural sun protection, while clematis add pops of color once in bloom.
3. Add a classic bench
Even the smallest yard or side yard can become an inviting retreat. Try a traditional bench that you can style with fun outdoor cushions to reflect your planting scheme for a cohesive look.
Use the walls with trellises and hanging baskets – they are the perfect planting solution for small patio ideas as you don’t lose valuable floor space. A large lantern gives your courtyard a cozy light. Just turn off all interior lights to fully enjoy the sunset.
4. Bring interest to the center with a hero tree
Plant a hero tree in the center of your courtyard garden and create a beautiful feature. Choose a palm tree that will love shady surroundings – you may also find that you don’t need to protect it in winter thanks to your backyard’s own mini microclimate.
Trees can also be used to zone a small space, divide a courtyard into dining and relaxation areas, and even make a small garden appear larger.
5. Add a feature wall
Bring one of our favorite decorating hacks outside to your patio garden – the feature wall. It’s a great way to break up a corner of the same brickwork. If you don’t want to paint old brick, attach a painted slatted panel up front (think those slatted wall designs behind TVs that are so trendy for inspiration).
Paint your feature wall black, which can be reflected in your choice of bistro furniture, adding a Scandinavian flair, while a fern, either potted or planted in a raised bed, will thrive and create mottled shade across your table area.
6. Render for a contemporary setting
White walls instantly make a courtyard garden look bright and modern – think a boutique hotel courtyard for inspiration and add chic black rattan-effect furniture with white cushions. Bring some garden lighting ideas into the space, downlights help set an inviting mood for an evening glass of wine, while potted laurel trees and a planter with seasonal bedding plants soften the monochrome feel.
7. Double the sense of space with a mirror
Hang an outside mirror to reflect your courtyard garden and add a sense of space. There are many garden mirror ideas to choose from, a horizontally hung mirror looks the most like a garden window. Alternatively, you can consider a full-length window mirror that makes a statement. This effect will also give the illusion of doubling the amount of plants you have.
To complement the space-saving trick, consider how to double up on furniture with a bench that can be pulled closer to a bistro set when there’s space for more than two people. Make a small patio feel like a natural extension of a kitchen-dining area by continuing flooring from one to the other – slate effect porcelain is a good choice.
8. Fill with plants and gardenalia
Find inspiration in the courtyard gardens of country houses, where gravel and brick pathways house an eclectic mix of plants and collectibles. When choosing plants, opt for a mix of periwinkles and showstoppers that thrive in partially shaded areas.
“The Ilex Dome is ideal for giving your outdoor area an evergreen structure. It has small, dark green glossy leaves and produces small white flowers in summer. The domes are evergreen, meaning they are always green. The domes like full sun, but do well in partially shaded areas,” recommends Will Williams, co-founder and creative director of Soto Gardens.
Also known as Pinus mugo ‘Pug’, the mountain pine will add color, structure and texture to your outdoor space all year round. This pine is nearly resilient and doesn’t require much pruning.’
Will also suggests that Astrantia Shaggy is a total looker. “It has small jewel-like white flowers resembling pincushions surrounded by a long greenish-white ruff. It’s a perennial, which means it blooms every year.”
Arrange your plants between boxes, terracotta pots and galvanized tubs. Even an old mangle adds interest to this shady corner, while climbing plants, herbs, boxwood and mini conifers ensure greenery all year round.
9. Treat it like an outdoor living room
Plan a courtyard like a living room and add an outdoor fireplace and sofa. Choose a plastered fireplace wall design that can be painted a specific color and even add niches for display. Use pavers as flooring to create a pattern that mimics a carpet, while planting forms the ‘fourth’ wall to this newly created cozy outdoor space.
10. Go tropical in a side yard
If you’ve expanded at the back and now have a side patio, create a visual foliage feast with some shade-loving ferns—you’ll love seeing the splash of greenery through sliding doors or French windows. Add downlights to illuminate at night – planting will feel a lot more dramatic thanks to the shadows they create.
Draw the eye further from the house by planting a palm tree or fern against your back wall or fence.
What do you put in a yard?
This depends on the size, but furniture immediately creates an outdoor atmosphere. “It has to invite you into the room,” says Selina. “I love an outdoor sofa that you can style with cushions and throws.”
No room for a table, then Selina says to a bistro set. “You can create a romantic al fresco dining setting with a few candles, lanterns and vases of freshly picked fragrant flowers.”
Pots and planters will also help soften the sharp edges of your yard walls; Try varying the height to add depth to a corner while climbers can create a nice feature wall. “I use plants with beautiful flowers and lovely scents, along with those that can be trained to grow up walls and free up floor space for furniture and living. My favorites would be roses, jasmine and wisteria,” says Selina.
The trick is to think of your yard as a room, and decorate its walls and floor before adding plants, furniture, and accessories.
How do you beautify a courtyard garden?
“Painting new walls white,” says Selina Lake. “It’s a classic trick, but it works so well. Remember to use facade paint. If you’re lucky enough to have aged brick or stone walls celebrating their heritage, choose white flowering plants to grow above them instead.
You can also use lighting to create a mini outdoor space at dusk. “Just attach garlands or hooks to the walls to hang lanterns for moody evening light,” says Selina.