These brilliant courtyard garden ideas could transform your outdoor space

small courtyard garden with outdoor kitchen and patio furniture
(Image credit: Talking Tables)

Courtyard garden ideas help to retain privacy in an outdoor space but can be tricky to get right due to their often compact size and lack of views. 

With the right garden landscaping ideas up your sleeve, these enclosed spaces can be some of the most beautiful and interesting. 

Combining complementary boundary wall materials, plants, trees, patio and seating are all essential to the success of a courtyard garden, so take a look below for inspiration and expert advice. 

Courtyard garden ideas: What's a courtyard garden? 

"A courtyard is any outdoor space enclosed by the walls of a house or another building," explains Marcus Chilton-Jones, curator at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). 

"A courtyard garden may be fully enclosed on four sides, with a gate or another doorway for entry, or it may be three-sided. For instance, you may have a semi-enclosed space as an entryway leading to the front door of your house."

1. Take inspiration from the property style

large courtyard garden with dining and seating areas and lighting

(Image credit: Solar Centre)

"Gardening in a courtyard can be done any way you like, from a formal French-style garden to a more free-form cottage garden or native landscape," Marcus Chilton-Jones says. 

Finding garden design ideas that suit your particular taste, size of garden and level of willing effort can be tricky, especially when it comes to extra barriers of courtyard walls. Taking a cue from your home's architectural style and interior styling is one way of finding inspiration — a contemporary scheme pairing well with a modern extension, for instance.

The back-to-back gardens at RHS Bridgwater include two different styles of courtyard-style spaces for inspiration.

2. Create the illusion of space in a small courtyard garden

small courtyard garden with seating area and pergola

(Image credit: Bridgman)

"There are limits to courtyard garden design, but with a little creativity, you can work with them to create something great. For instance, if your courtyard is entirely bricked over, design a container garden," suggests Marcus Chilton-Jones. 

This stunning cottage courtyard garden make the most of the limited space and high walls to create a seating area. Their ingenious solution to not having enough room for pots or planters is to hang colourful baskets high and proud from the pergola above. The outdoor mirror further creates the illusion of extra space. 

While the space shown is paved, the style could be recreated in a courtyard alongside gravel garden ideas, where the opportunities for planting in beds are restricted. 

3. Use lighting to elevate an enclosed space

large courtyard garden with furniture lit by lighting

(Image credit: Detail Lighting)

The right garden lighting ideas will transform any space, including a potentially shadowy courtyard. Use either carefully places solar lights or talk with your electrician about hard-wired lighting for the most impactful effect (unfortunately one which comes at a cost). 

“Outdoor lighting can be highly effective at creating something from nothing within a courtyard," begins Piero de Marchis, director at Detail Lighting. "A wall that you might not think twice about during the day can become a dramatic feature at night with clever lighting. 

"By aiming a wide beam of light from below or above, a wall can be washed with light and bring its warm tones to life. Alternatively, positioning the beam closer to the wall can catch and accentuate the natural texture of the wall itself using light and shadow. 

"However, if you have a modern home with a 'perfect' finish, any slight imperfections and undulations would be exposed by positioning the light close to the wall. So, consider the position of your exterior lighting carefully — possibly even experiment at night using a wide beamed torch to see how light affects the surface."

4. Add depth and interest with considered planting

rattan garden furniture in courtyard garden with lavender

(Image credit: Bridgman)

Courtyard gardens can range from sun traps to shady enclosed spaces, so carefully consider what plants you are introducing to best suit your space. 

"If you have very high walls, plant strategically and use shade-tolerant species," advises RHS's Marcus Chilton-Jones. 

The structure of a courtyard might inspire organic gardening or vegetable plots, or you might like to highlight your boundary walls and include some climbers into your plans. 

Here, tall, leafy trees compensate for the small stone wall's lack of privacy, while the gravel garden is lined with lavender and evergreen shrubs for a low-maintenance but interesting seating area. 

5. Create a room outdoors in a courtyard garden

outdoor diing table with pergola in courtyard garden

(Image credit: Garden Trading)

Utilise narrow garden ideas for shady courtyards — including making a haven for outdoor entertainment. Capitalise on brick or stone walls which will absorb the heat from the day and emit a lovely warmth come the evening in the summer by positioning a dining table or seating area close by.

“Entertaining outdoors has become increasingly popular and with that, more attention is being paid to the ambience of our external living spaces such as patios and courtyards," says Detail Lighting's Piero de Marchis. 

"We tend of think of these areas as extensions of our homes — outdoor rooms, even. Patios are now our outdoor lounges where we can sit and socialise with friends and family well into the evening."

6. Screen suntrap courtyards from above

white walled garden with blue seating area and covered pergola

(Image credit: B&Q)

If your courtyard garden suffers from overlooking, garden screening ideas and overhead covers will be your ally. 

Elongate an existing brick or stone wall that is too low using natural willow or a stylish modern timber. Alternatively, if your neighbours can see into your garden from their first floor windows, choose a covered pergola so you can sunbathe in peace. 

7. Zone your courtyard garden

clack timber fence around a courtyard garden seating area

(Image credit: Thorndown Paints)

"Your garden will be limited only by the conditions in the courtyard such as space, lack of soil, and even sunlight due to the walls," says Marcus Chilton-Jones from the RHS. "Design around these and you can create any type of garden that suits your dreams and home" 

Plan a large courtyard garden by observing how the sun moves around the space and how each corner is either lit or shaded. This will help you to create zones for early morning coffee, vegetable growing, a lawn for children to play, and evening dining. 

8. Experiment with different materials in a new modern courtyard

small modern courtyard garden seating area with festoon lights

(Image credit: Danetti)

For new courtyard gardens, waiting for hedges and trees to grow can be like watching paint dry. 

Design garden wall ideas to immediately provide the sheltered paradise you're dreaming of — but be sure to carefully consider mixing different materials to create a space which feels nature, modern and welcoming. 

While we all love brick and stone walled gardens, these can be combined with best privacy fence ideas to soften the look in a courtyard garden. 

Here, a pale rendered wall is complemented by a contemporary timber fence and faux greenery for an immediately impressive and interesting seating area. 

What are the best plants for a courtyard? 

Planting is key to the success of a courtyard garden — plants, shrubs and trees will help soften a courtyard garden, particularly one surrounded by hardscaping and masonry walls.

Marcus Chilton-Jones from the RHS provides the following advice on the best planting for courtyard gardens:

  • Climbers to clad the walls, i.e. Trachelospermum jasminoides, Campsis radicans, Clematis armandii, Hydrangea seemanii or Pileostegia viburnoides.
  • Evergreen shrubs for year round interest. i.e. Fatsia japonica, Teucrium fruticans, Laurus nobilis, Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’ or Aucuba japonica ‘Crotonifolia’.
  • Plants suitable for baskets and containers, i.e. Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’, Fuchsia triphylla ‘Thalia’, Echeveria agavoides ‘Taurus’, Begonia bolivensis ‘Crackling Fire’ or Phormium tenax ‘Yellow Wave’.
  • Dwarf or small trees, i.e. Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Compacta’, Cercis chinenesis ‘Avondale’, Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Garnet’, Arbutus unedo or Cercis canadensis ‘Ruby Falls’. - RHS

How do I brighten my courtyard? 

"Harsh, bright cold lighting isn’t exactly conducive to relaxation. For external courtyard lighting, it can be too hard on the eyes which is why we always recommend using warm white LED lighting for outdoor spaces — something with a colour temperature in the region of 2700K-3000K. This bathes areas in a wonderfully golden light that feels cosy and comforting," says Detail Lighting's Piero de Marchis. .

"In-ground uplights and spotlights should always have a form of glare control cowl, honeycomb or baffle. For subtlety, avoid direct light — either wash walls with light or uplight to gently highlight features, including garden furniture from below. Spike lights are great too for tactical lighting.”

Amy Reeves

Assistant Editor Amy began working for Homebuilding & Renovating in 2018. She has an interest in sustainable building methods and always has her eye on the latest design ideas. Amy has interviewed countless self builders, renovators and extenders about their experiences for Homebuilding & Renovating magazine. She is currently renovating a mid-century home, together with her partner, on a DIY basis, and has recently fitted her own kitchen.