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