Ministry Of Controversy

A Courtyard Garden Promotes Pondering

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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

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


  1. susan harris 1 January, 1970 at 04:00

    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. Allen Bush 7 April, 1978 at 20:07

    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!

  3. Evelyn Hadden 24 August, 1998 at 14:08

    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!

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