Details that Enhance a Courtyard

Planting pockets help turn this
attractive courtyard into a
private garden.

Don’t let the fixed walls of a courtyard stymie your creativity. Be as flexible as you would with an indoor wall, since you actually have more flexibility outdoors. Paint the walls or cover them with weatherproof art. One of the advantages of being outdoors is being able to grow plants on a wall, add a hanging fountain, and add large gas or candle sconces for lighting.

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Green and Growing

Because a courtyard has limited floor space, using the walls is a good way to add life and color. There are several ways to add green to walls.

Espalier is a traditional, though
labor-intensive, way to decorate
courtyard walls.

Espalier. This is the word used to describe training a small tree or shrub against a wall in a specific design.

Trellises. Whether a permanent one made of wood or a simple one made from wire, trellises support climbing vines and offer an alternative to espalier for covering a wall with green.

An advantage to a permanent wood trellis is that, if it is designed and built properly, it adds relief to the wall and looks good even when plants aren’t on it. A trellis may be an attractive solution if you grow annual or deciduous vines, which will leave the walls bare for part of the year.

The plants will need something to grow in. If planned for from the beginning, you can leave a cutout in the floor of the courtyard and plant the vines or shrubs directly into the soil. Otherwise, you will need to build a raised bed or, depending on the size of the plant, grow it in a container.

You can also use individual containers and decorative brackets to hang plants on the wall. Use a mix of upright and trailing plants.

Microclimate. Determine how the climate within your courtyard differs from the rest of the garden so you can choose and tend plants accordingly. The protection of the walls and limited air movement create their own microclimate. Although there is less danger of freezing or damaging wind, there may be a higher incidence of fungus due to poor air circulation and lack of sunlight.

A courtyard can be a prime
location for displaying
weatherproof works of art.

Adding details to the courtyard can give it personality and comfort.

Paint the walls. Select a color or colors that match the style and look you want and completely cover the walls with a solid color. Consider painting each wall a different color. Keep in mind that hot colors, such as red and orange, will jump out at you, whereas cooler colors, such as blue, lavender, and light green, tend to recede and make the space feel larger.

If you’re an artist or know one, consider using one or more walls as a canvas and paint a mural. Use a sealer over the mural to extend its life.

Fool the eye. To make a courtyard feel bigger, consider using trompe l’oeil — the French term for “fool the eye.” This can be as simple as hanging a mirror on one wall or part of a wall. This effect can be created solely with paint (if handled by a talented artist) or by using architectural elements like doors and window frames.

Ornaments. Many sculptures, plaques, and friezes can be used outdoors. Select those that match your sense of style and the style of the rooms that adjoin the courtyard. Consider framing the art with vines grown on a wire trellis.

Lighting is an important element
in courtyards because of their
enclosing walls.

Lighting. Utilize the walls for lighting. Walls can be used for mounting lights or the walls can be illuminated themselves. Use walls to hang candles or electric fixtures. Whether the wiring is standard or low-voltage, the trick is to hide it. Snaking well-insulated wire behind a trellis is one way to do this.

Another idea is to mount lights on the eaves of the house so they shine down on the walls. This reflected light is often adequate to illuminate the entire courtyard without having lights shine in your eyes.

Fountains are a soothing way to
break up a solid courtyard
wall, and their sound helps
mask outside noise.

Fountains. Wall fountains are self-contained and usually operate at a low volume. This is an advantage in a courtyard where sound tends to reverberate, making even a tiny splash go a long way toward drowning out unwanted noise.

This outdoor fan helps create breezes that might be blocked by the walls of the courtyard. If you go this route, be sure
to select a fan designed for outdoor use.

The lattice enclosing this small courtyard is attractive in its own right, but also provides support for plants that lend seasonal color.

Although typically open to the sky, a courtyard can benefit from the shade provided by an awning or arbor.

Simple planters or pots attached to the walls of a courtyard are an easy way to soften a hard look.

A short covered breezeway can create an alluring view into a courtyard.

Changes in level can help a courtyard conform to a slope and can improve the drainage of water away from the house.