There’s something quintessentially English about a courtyard garden. The very thought of one conjures images of rustic stone and sun-bleached brick, ivy and clematis crawling the walls, and a bench made for two. If I close my eyes, I can picture Sebastian cuddling Aloysius, cocktail in hand, ruminating on the dinner menu at Brideshead.

When creating a courtyard garden, the reality is much more prosaic, as I discovered while tackling my outdoor space. For a start, slugs and snails love a courtyard – lots of places to hide, procreate and overwinter. It can also be a shady spot, meaning that stone flags are prone to moss, discoloration and dirt.

A lack of sun poses horticultural challenges, too. I’ve become well acquainted with areas stocking ‘shade-loving plants’ at various garden centres, doing my homework on the fern family as well as grasses which prefer a darker corner.

But there are plenty of positives. There’s something innately cosy about a courtyard and, if you invest in some vertical planting, an easily achievable sense of privacy from nearby buildings and nosy neighbours. While courtyards tend to be flat and surrounded by high walls, they provide the perfect opportunity to stock up on vigorous climbers. Even though my yard only has sun for about five months of the year, I’ve had success with honeysuckles, wisteria and rambling roses. I’m also optimistic about the buddleias in pots given that the genus seems able to thrive just about anywhere.

When I moved here in early 2021, the courtyard was an unloved space with only a few root-bound clematis doing their best to stay alive and a couple of random bay trees in crumbling pots. Much of what I’ve achieved in this space has been trial and error, and I’ve probably lost as many plants as I’ve managed to bring on.

But isn’t that part of the joy of a garden – finding out what works and what doesn’t? Just as I’ve learned that shrubs and trees at the top of my plot can suffer from wind burn, I’ve also come to understand that the sheltered yard outside my back door has its own form of education. For instance, the bamboos are perfectly happy to do their own thing, as are (for the most part) the roses, while Herb Robert can seed itself in every nook and cranny and still produce small pink flowers (not to mention pungent foliage).

I stepped things up a gear this summer and painted the garden furniture an alluring ‘forest green’. Basically, if something could be attacked with a roller and brush, I slapped some paint on it. It took four solid days but, oh my, everything looks so good. The new potting area has an air of a posh wendy house, the dilapidated miniscule shed no longer looks on the brink of collapse, and my weather-beaten bench looks brand new. Although, to be honest, I was bored to death of green by the end of the week.

I’ve had fun with what Ideal Home, my go-to magazine, calls ‘gardenalia’. The courtyard lends itself to a mish-mash of planting and collectables. As someone who can’t pass a reclamation shop without popping in, I’ve finally found places for my eclectic mix of outdoor items. It gives me genuine joy to see a chimney repurposed as a pot for my variegated ivy, and the stone toadstool always brings a smile to my face.

Meanwhile, Ideal Home recommends the inclusion of a so-called ‘hero tree’ to bring interest to a courtyard garden, so that’s next on my list. Even though I live in the North of England, the yard’s microclimate means that a tree shouldn’t need protecting come winter. When does the garden centre open?

Words and images by Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul


This article first appeared in Catena