A Tropical Courtyard Makeover from Garden Up! Author Susan Morrison

by Guest Post on March 30, 2011

in Inspiration,Popular

Post image for A Tropical Courtyard Makeover from Garden Up! Author Susan Morrison

When Debbie hired me to turn her drab, condominium courtyard into an intimate tropical retreat, I’d like to say my design experience and aesthetics were what led her to me.  The reality?  Debbie was struggling to find any designer willing to take on such a small project.  Luckily for her (and me), she called when I was immersed in researching and writing Garden Up! Smart Vertical Design for Small and Large Spaces with co-author Rebecca Sweet and looking for opportunities to highlight vertical solutions for small gardens.  As a firm believer that small spaces deserve the same design attention usually reserved for over-sized gardens, I was thrilled to help her make over her 10’x16’ courtyard – and to do it within her modest budget.


Besides the obvious difficulties of limited space and proximity to neighbors, Debbie faced the additional challenge of a space-hogging A/C unit and HOA restrictions that prohibited attaching anything to the neighbor’s wall – as fate would have it, the one I’d mentally marked as the future focal point wall as soon as I stepped into the courtyard.  Debbie hoped to enjoy her garden from both the inside and out, and requested a design that would provide a lush and colorful view from the family room, while still having as much seating as possible for entertaining on warm summer evenings.

The Design

This design relies on three strategies – an inside-out connection, diagonal design and vertical layers.

  1. Ground plane (otherwise known as the floor) In a space this small, if you try to separate paved area from planting beds, you won’t have enough room for either.  Instead, treat your outdoor space like an indoor room and pave it over completely.  If your budget allows, choose a material that works both indoors and out, such as tile or acid-stained concrete to reinforce the connection between the home and garden. You now have a garden “room” that acts as an extension of the house – or in this case, condo. For the mild-climate gardens I design, tile is generally my first choice, as it can be laid on the diagonal to counter-balance the square shape of the space.  But ordinary concrete or even gravel will work as well.  For a plain floor or on a balcony garden, get the same effect by placing a rug on an angle.
  2. Containers A container garden makes better use of a narrow space than a traditional planting bed, as it allows plants to be layered vertically at different heights.  Mixing in unexpected elements, like an old bird cage of Debbie’s I found in the garage, personalizes the garden.

  3. Foliage over flowers Emphasizing brilliant, tropical foliage color rather than flowers extends the life of the garden over multiple seasons.  Pictured here are Canna Tropicana ‘Phaison’, Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomea batalas ‘Chartreuse’ and ‘Blackheart’) and Coleus.
  4. Architectural plants Tall, slender plants like Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos ‘Tequila Sunrise) with a “see through” quality are perfect to fill a narrow spot without overwhelming the garden.
  5. Furniture and accessories Inexpensive furniture can be given a designer touch with throw pillows in a mix of patterns and textures.  Placing the furniture on the diagonal “breaks the box” of a small, square space.  To make a small garden feel like a cozy retreat rather than a junior patio, stay away from the plastic cushions and flower patterns common to outdoor furniture, and choose fabric and colors equally at home indoors.  If you’re crafty and plan to make your own cushions, fade-resistant Sunbrella fabric is available in a large range of colors and patterns. The ambiance created by accessories like books and cut flowers is another low-cost way to take a small garden to the next level.
  6. Disguise eyesores A custom A/C surround provides seating, a countertop and storage space. When the A/C is in use, the cushions can be removed to allow the unit to vent.  One note of caution – if you’re considering a solution like this, it’s best to consult with a professional landscape contractor or A/C specialist, as adequate ventilation is a must to ensure your unit will continue to function properly.
  7. Go vertical As association rules prohibit attaching anything to neighboring walls, a freestanding trellis bolted to the floor provides a vertical frame for a fountain, plants and decorative lanterns. For vines, we paired Star Jasmine, chosen for its evergreen appearance and sweet summer scent, with Clematis ‘Jackmanii’, a deciduous climber that will twine through the jasmine for a juicy splash of summer color.

By borrowing a sense of style from interior design, breaking the box with diagonal details, and layering vertical elements throughout, this previously unused courtyard is now a tiny treasure, with seating for five and a lushly tropical flair that Debbie can enjoy both inside and out.

* * * * *

Susan Morrison is a landscape designer, master gardener and garden writer in Northern California’s Bay Area.  She is the co-author of Garden Up! Smart Vertical Gardening for Small and Large Spaces with Rebecca Sweet.

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy March 30, 2011 at 6:36 am

I just love it. The contrast in color, the layering look, and the AC cover. I would love to sit and have a fancy drink with an umbrella on that couch. Kangaroo Paws are my new fave. I must plant one this year. Just beautiful. It gives me some ideas for my driveway that functions as my entertaining zone. It needs some serious tlc.


Fern March 30, 2011 at 10:07 am

Nancy–I love Kangaroo Paws too. Their flowers last for so long, and they’re so low maintenance!

Jenny Peterson March 30, 2011 at 8:48 am

Well done, Susan! I love all the elements that you brought together to give Debbie a functional, beautiful space! Small space gardening requires more space planning than larger areas, and you did it all with such style!


Fern March 30, 2011 at 10:10 am

Interesting that you said small spaces require more planning, I never thought about it that way. Big spaces seem so intimidating to me, since I’ve never worked with much more than a balcony before.

Sprout March 30, 2011 at 9:53 am

Love the A/C surround. A very clever way to disguise an eye sore, plus it’s functional! Really like the iron trellis and all the great foliage. Wonderful transformation!


Fern March 30, 2011 at 10:14 am

Isn’t that a clever idea? So many condo/apartment balconies I’ve looked at have an airconditioning unit plopped off to one side. So nice to see ideas of what to do with them.

Susan Morrison March 30, 2011 at 10:25 am

Nancy, I’m a big fan of Kangaroo Paw also, particularly the super-tall varieties in the red-orange family, like Bush Dawn, Red Cross and Tequilla Sunrise. Be aware that although the foliage is evergreen, in most climates it gets what I call the “black uglies” in the winter, where some of the leaves turn black. You can trim and groom to make a nicer winter appearance, or just put up with it and wait for greener foliage in the spring. If this happens in your climate, just remember it’s not YOU, it’s the plant.


Michelle Helzer March 30, 2011 at 10:40 am

Excellent post and so inspirational. What a beautiful little gem. Love the use of the diagonal – I often forget about it visual use. Great idea about using containers. Nice work!


Mary C. March 30, 2011 at 10:50 am

Great ideas!


Matt Moore March 30, 2011 at 12:28 pm

I love learning more about small spaces as my back & side yards are tiny & boring & need livening up! Nice job, Susan.


Kellybean March 30, 2011 at 5:23 pm

What a cozy, refreshing space! Seems like it’d be so easy to do, but when I try to put a few items together to decorate my little deck, it always looks like a yard sale. :| Will take some cues and work on it with a renewed spirit when the weather breaks. Great job, Susan.


Fern March 30, 2011 at 5:29 pm

Great designers make it look effortless, but it really is a talent/skill to make a garden look gorgeous. I think if you keep on tweaking what you have on your deck, you’ll find a happy combination. It took me over a year to get my current balcony looking like something I’m proud of.

David C. March 30, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Mmmmm! Diagonals most definitely a great tool in the designer’s or property owner’s arsenal! Not to mention repetition of some colors in the plants.


Susan Morrison March 30, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Kellybean, I bet you’re a better designer than you think you are. If you look at the photos, you’ll see that in a little space like this, a lot of the pop is coming from the accessories. I love a bargain (plus Debbie blew over half her budget tiling the floor) so went to Cost Plus, bought a bunch of pillows, lamps and candles in tangerine and purple, then played around with them til I liked their placement. It’s easy to return things to Cost Plus, so pick out more than you need, experiment, and return the rest. Oh, and remember to bring everything inside when the rainy season starts. :-)


Kellybean April 2, 2011 at 10:23 am

Thanks so much, Susan! I am officially inspired to get my deck garden in shape.

Genevieve March 30, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Well done! A beautifully-explained design like this helps all of us achieve great results. Nice, Susan!


Debra Lee Baldwin March 30, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Hm. I’d be tempted to attach things to the neighboring wall by pounding nails in very softly. Seriously, this is full of great ideas. Like hanging things from the top of an arch alongside the wall. It’s like Susan thought: Can’t be done, eh? Well, we’ll see about THAT! I like her suggestions about laying tile on the diagonal and arranging furniture diagonally, too. Lots of neat tips. Only thing that bothers me (as a gardener) is paving the entire space. I would have left some area open for in-ground planting. Here’s another thought, too, for the space: a tile area rug.


Fern March 31, 2011 at 7:26 pm

Oooh, love the idea of a tile area rug!

Candy Suter March 30, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Wonderful job! I love this patio, it looks so cozy. Love the tile floor. My only question would be..where does the water go when it rains?


Julia Ferguson March 30, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Beauty of a space! Kang paws are a long time fav. Years ago I saw black ones at Britta’s nursery in Seal Beach, Ca and regret I didn’t get one as I nor she (Britta’s) has ever seen them again.

LOVE the trellis idea as I am always looking for ways to get wild with my Tilandsia’s. This is a sweet idea that I shall incorporate in my back yard to ‘garden up’ and include some of my hanging art as well. Joy Joy


Fern March 31, 2011 at 8:30 pm

Black Kangaroo Paws?! Oh man, I *need* one of those. I’ll have to keep an eye out.

Natti March 30, 2011 at 11:31 pm

Very nice … Some good ideas here, especially with the AC unit. And the Kangaroo Paws look amazing.


Debbie March 31, 2011 at 7:32 am

I love it. What are the vines? I’ve got a Canna Lily in a old vintage whiskey barrel outside my front door. I can’t wait to add some other seedlings around it from the 5 seed packages.


sheila schultz March 31, 2011 at 9:20 am

I love everything about this space. The color palette is warm and inviting, the arch is so innovative considering the restrictions, the a/c surround is nothing less than brilliant, the diagonal positioning of the tiles and furniture, and then there are the plants… Beautifully done Susan, thanks for all of the ideas!


Susan Morrison March 31, 2011 at 10:13 am

Debra, I’m glad you like it! Can you see the name of the book on the top of the stack? Hint: You’re the author. We decided against in-ground planting because with such a small space, I felt we could get a much richer layered look with containers. Staggering the container heights also meant a greater range of plants could be used to get a vertical effect.

Candy, there is a drain built into the patio, plus the paving does not extend all the way edges of the fence. There’s a 2″ border that’s filled with matching gravel.


Sandy Stites April 3, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Very informative, thanks for sharing! I’ve purchased my copy of Garden Up! So far loving the book as well!


Candy Suter April 3, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Great! I knew you must have addressed this but I was curious what you had done. Love it!


Lisa May 27, 2011 at 6:19 am

This little space is gorgeous, I just love it. I have a large yard, but I have fenced / sectioned part off for my 3 dogs and made a smaller courtyard out of my patio area. I have a bed of ferns and lots of plants in pots (banana trees, hostas, begonias, lemon tree) all under a dogwood tree. I like the look of the furniture on the diagonal, I am going to rearrange all my stuff this weekend now AND get an outdoor rug. btw I have gardened all my life and I have never seen Kangaroo Paws. Gotta find some!


Beth June 12, 2011 at 8:07 am

I absolutely *love* what you’ve done to transform this space! I’m also unfortunately dealing with the same restrictions about not bolting to the walls. Any ideas where to find an arched trellis like this? I’ve looked exhaustively, but cannot find anything that will just bolt to the floor. Many TIA.


Fern June 12, 2011 at 11:07 pm

Beth–Iron arches are pretty common at well-stocked independent nurseries. At least they are out here.

Annie Haven | Authentic Haven Brand December 27, 2011 at 6:02 am

Loved this Tropical make over the first time I saw it and still Loving it again now… Great inspiration Thank you


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