By definition, the main element in a courtyard is that it is an enclosed space. The degree of enclosure will vary, but in a small courtyard we can expect it to be quite marked. How can we choose plantings that help to dispel any tendency to claustrophobia? In this example I will discuss a possible treatment for a city courtyard six feet wide by ten feet long.
The first thing we need to do is to emphasise the horizontal dimension, since the enclosing walls already strongly define the vertical. In such a tiny space, likely to have limited exposure to the sun because of the shading effect of the walls around it, we must avoid (as much as possible) dark tones and all clutter.
Light and geometry will save us. We begin by defining a straight path of two foot width across the center of the yard. Whether it is ten feet long or six feet long will depend on the orientation of the yard to the sun, as we aim for the best fit to a north-south orientation that we can get.
The path is paved in a lightly toned color, with materials chosen according to budget. We now have at our disposal two areas for development, each of twenty or twenty-four square feet (depending on the length of the path).
Against the walls, on the perimeter of the courtyard, I will plant shrubs that will grow to an eventual height of no more than five feet. My plantings also have due regard to drains and other services.
Exact species will depend on the sun/shade mix they receive, but will include specimens such as chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), golden leaf dogwood (Cornus alba aurea), and burning bush (Euonymus).
I am looking for shrubs that will provide fall color following summer flowering. I will prune if necessary, to limit growth to the five-foot mark. I do not wish the eye to be drawn upwards: I want it to concentrate on the horizontal.
My plantings will be massed, succession and geometric. I divide each of the two major areas into successive diamonds – a diamond with a distance of about one foot across its widest point, and sides perhaps eighteen inches long in the centre, then progressively larger diamonds moving towards the walls and the central path.
I fill most of these diamonds with mass drifts of perennials and annuals – low growing pansies, violas, impatiens nearest to the path, taller salvia, asters and chrysanthemums next, and so on successively, ending with Japanese anenomes, hydrangeas and alstremerias along the back.
In amongst these plants I place spring flowering bulbs: gladiolus, freesia, ranunculus and the like. My aim is to always have colour on display to draw the eye down, away from the enclosing walls, to give a sense of meadow space, but with an imposed order.