Courtyard garden ideas – 17 ways to create a hidden paradise

Transform your space with smart planting and clever design tricks

courtyard garden
(Image credit: Future Plc)

Courtyard garden ideas are often a hidden opportunity when it comes to garden design. Yes, they may be small, but they can be beautiful suntraps and become relaxing retreats.

A courtyard garden is often described as ‘a flat space, with walls around it’, and while this may not sound like the most inspiring of small garden ideas to work with, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the options. The courtyard can be a space where shady-loving plants thrive, and you can be creative with your choice of landscaping, furniture, and decorative touches.

There are other pros, too. Stone and brick walls absorb and retain heat from the sun, slowly releasing it, meaning it traps in warm air to keep even cooler days at a more pleasant temperature. Similarly, the walls around your courtyard can provide a barrier to rainfall, so you’ll need to think more carefully about plants, perhaps choosing ones that don’t need much watering.

Courtyard Garden ideas

Interior and garden stylist and author Selina Lake loves a courtyard garden. ‘I’m always inspired by the courtyard garden ideas you find tucked away in the centre of Paris,’ she shares. ‘I love their whimsical, secret-garden appeal and classic styling.’

So perhaps it’s time to think small and creatively, turning your courtyard garden into your own hidden paradise.

1. Trick the eye

Courtyard with mirror on white wall in front of garden dining set

(Image credit: Future PLC/Colin Poole)

Especially when dealing with the smaller end of courtyard garden ideas, it's well worth adding the illusion of more space with a few simple tricks. Paint your rear garden walls either a light-reflective bright white or a shade which disappears into the view behind.

Mirrors are always a good idea to visually boost space, and if you choose one designed to look like a window, you'll trick the eye even further. Consider your furniture choices, too. Pick oval or rectangular tables to lead the eye away, rather than more visually confronting squares and circles.

2. Cover with a canopy

Courtyard garden surrounded by blue walls and covered with fabric canopy

(Image credit: Future PLC/Jonathan Jones)

Since courtyard garden ideas can be somewhat of a suntrap, there may be times where the heat gets a little too intense. Prepare for this with a garden canopy - there's all manner of shapes, styles and colours available, so you're sure to find one which works for you.

Make sure to consider if you want a permanent structure, one which can be retracted or a style that you manually put up when required. For the latter, make sure you've got adequate garden storage for when it's not in use.

3. Turn a narrow return into a dining setup

Narrow courtyard garden covered in gravel and tiles, with dining table and benches

(Image credit: Future PLC)

A lot of courtyards are quite narrow outdoor spaces, but this doesn't mean you can't make the most of this space - you just have to adapt layouts to fit. A slimline table and benches which can be pushed underneath when not in use become the perfect way of adding an al fresco dining moment in.

4. Paint the walls a jouyful shade

Courtyard with coral painted walls, bright bistro set and pots

(Image credit: Protek)

Cheer up dreary courtyard garden ideas with a lick of joy-inducing, bright paint. A warm orange or terracotta will make the green of your planting pop beautifully and enliven even the greyest of days. For extra impact, choose colourful furniture, or select monochrome items for a contemporary look.

5. Add a corner arbour bench

Corner arbour bench surrounded by potted plants in courtyard garden

(Image credit: Future PLC/Lizzie Orme)

The corner of a courtyard is the perfect place to add a fitted arbour bench. Surround with copious plants to create a hidden nook that's perfect for when you need some relaxing time alone or with a loved one. Add solar powered or have some wireless garden lamps to hand so you can enjoy this cosy corner when the sun goes down.

6. Utilise climbers

Courtyard garden with climbing plants and small bistro set

(Image credit: Future PLC/David Giles)

By their very nature, courtyard garden ideas are prime real estate to enjoy the beauty and ease of climbing plants. Train them up the wall, on bamboo sticks alongside the walls, or up a trellis for support or even a mixture of all three depending on the plant and your personal preference.

Make sure to pair with some flower beds or low potted plants so you can interest at all heights.

7. Create a Mediterranean haven

Mediterranean style courtyard with garden sofa and olive tree in terracotta pot

(Image credit: Future PLC/James French)

Although most courtyards in the UK lean to a more rustic, country style, why not take inspiration from the home of some of the most beautiful courtyards around with Mediterranean garden ideas?

To achieve the look use terracotta liberally, add a few pops of bright colour (ideally blues and turquoises, to really pop against the burnt oranges) and some Med-specific plants, like olive trees.

8. Clad your courtyard's walls

courtyard garden with wood panelling and bistro set

(Image credit: Future PLC)

Update tired brick with wooden cladding, giving your courtyard garden a contemporary feel. Place large planters in front, which can be filled with perennials for colour. If your courtyard feels gloomy in the evenings, then simple spots will create an ambient glow. 

Space-saving bistro furniture is the best garden furniture choice for a courtyard. Choose compact chairs that are comfortable enough to double as loungers, adding a cushion or two if needed.

9. Build a sofa area

Outdoor dining with built in bench seating around table

(Image credit: Future PLC)

It is important to be smart about space when considering how to plan a small garden space like a courtyard. A good place to start is thinking about built in seating.

Use the same brick as the walls surrounding your courtyard to build a corner sofa which can be dressed in cushions. Build such a sofa slightly higher than normal, allowing you to move a garden table and chairs in to create an informal dining space. Use overhanging trees as a natural sunshade, while clematis will add pops of colour once in bloom.

10. Add a classic bench

courtyard garden with wooden bench and pink cushions

(Image credit: Future PLC)

Even the smallest of courtyards or side-returns can become a welcoming retreat. Try a traditional bench, which you can style with fun outdoor cushions, echoing your planting scheme for a coherent look.

Make use of the walls with trellis and hanging baskets – they are the perfect planting solution for small patio ideas as you won’t lose valuable floor space. A large lantern will give your courtyard a cosy glow, just turn off any internal lights to appreciate it fully come sundown.

11. Add a hero tree

Sectioned garden with tropical planting

(Image credit: Future PLC)

Plant a hero tree in the middle of your courtyard garden, creating a beautiful feature. Choose a palm, which will love the shady environment – you might also find that you don’t need to protect it come winter, thanks to your own mini microclimate of your courtyard garden.

Trees can also be used to zone a small space, dividing a courtyard into dining and relaxing areas, even making a small garden look bigger.

12. Create a feature wall

courtyard garden with black feature wall

(Image credit: Future PLC)

Bring one of our favourite interior tricks outside into your courtyard garden – the feature wall. It’s a great way of breaking up a corner of the same brick work. If you don’t want to paint old brick, then fix a painted slatted panel in front (think of those slatted wall designs behind TVs that are so on-trend for inspiration).

Paint your feature wall black, which can be echoed in your choice of bistro furniture, lending a Scandinavian feel, while a fern, either potted or planted in a raised bed, will thrive and create dappled shade over your table area.

13. Add a contemporary render

Garden with white walls and rattan furniture

(Image credit: Future PLC)

White walls will instantly make a courtyard garden feel bright and contemporary – think of a courtyard at a boutique hotel for inspiration, adding chic black rattan-effect furniture with white cushions. Introduce some garden lighting ideas into the space, downlighters will help create a welcoming mood for an evening glass of wine, while potted bay trees and a planter of seasonal bedding plants soften the monochrome feel.

14. Go oversized with mirrors

courtyard garden with wood panelled walls and large garden mirror

(Image credit: Future PLC)

Hang an oversized outdoor mirror to reflect your courtyard garden, increasing the sense of space. There are plenty of garden mirror ideas to choose from, but going as big as you can will really help to visually increase the space and even the amount of planting that exists in the area, too.

15. Add a classic bench

courtyard garden with laundry press and conifer trees

(Image credit: Future PLC)

Be inspired by courtyard gardens of country homes, where gravel and brick-laid paths are home to an eclectic mix of planting and collectables. When choosing plants opt for a mix of evergreen and showstoppers that thrive in partially shade areas.

'The Ilex Dome is great for adding evergreen structure to your outside space. It has small, dark green glossy leaves and produces small white flowers in the summer. The domes are evergreen meaning they are always green. The domes like full sun but can do well in partially shade areas,' recommends Will Williams, co-founder and creative director at Soto Gardens.

‘The Dwarf Mountain Pine, also known as Pinus mugo 'Mops', offers colour, structure and texture to your outside space throughout the year. This pine is almost indestructible and doesn't require much pruning.’

Will also suggests including Astrantia Shaggy is an absolute showstopper. 'It has small jewel like white flowers reminiscent of pin cushions, surrounded by long greenish-white ruff. It is a perennial, meaning it flowers every year.’

Arrange your plants between crates, terracotta pots and galvanised tubs. Even an old washing mangle add interest to this shady corner, while climbers, herbs, box and mini conifers provide year-round green.

16. Treat as an outdoor living room

courtyard garden with blue fireplace and outdoor sofa

(Image credit: Future PLC)

Plan a courtyard like a living room, adding an outdoor fireplace and sofa. Choose a rendered fireplace wall design that can be painted a feature colour, even adding niches for display. For flooring, use paving to create a pattern, mimicking a rug, while planting provides the ‘fourth’ wall to this newly created cosy outdoor room.

17. Go all-out tropical

Side return garden area filled with tropical planting

(Image credit: Future PLC)

If you’ve extended at the back and are now left with a side return courtyard, create a visual foliage feast with some shade-loving ferns – you’ll love seeing the splash of green through sliding doors or French windows. Add downlighters to illuminate at night – planting will feel much more dramatic thanks to the shadows they create.

Lead the eye further away from the house with a palm or fern planted against your back wall or fence.


What do you put in a courtyard?

This depends on the size, but furniture will create an instant outdoor room vibe. ‘It needs to invite you into the space,’ says stylist Selina Lake. ‘I love an outdoor sofa, which you can style with cushions and throws.’

No space for a table, then Selina says to go for a bistro set. ‘You can create a romantic alfresco dining setting adding a few candles, lanterns and vases of freshly picked scented flowers.’

Pots and planters will also help soften the harsh edges from the walls of your courtyard; try varying the height to add depth to a corner, while climbers can create a beautiful feature wall. ‘I use plants with beautiful flowers and lovely scents, along those that can be trained to grow up the walls, freeing up ground space for furniture and living. My favourites would be roses, jasmine, and wisteria,’ says Selina.

The trick is to think of your courtyard as a room, decorating its walls and floor, before adding plants, furniture, and accessories.

How do you brighten a courtyard garden?

‘Paint new walls white,’ says stylist Selina. ‘It’s a classic trick but that works so well. Remember to use exterior masonry paint. If you’re lucky to have aged brick or stone walls celebrate their heritage and instead choose white flowering plants to grow across them.’

You can also use lighting, creating a mini outdoor room come dusk. ‘Just string-up festoon lighting or attached hooks to the walls to hang lanterns from for ambient evening light,’ says Selina.

So stop looking at your courtyard garden as a challenge and start to see it as an exciting opportunity for creativity. Have fun!

Jennifer Morgan

Jennifer Morgan is an award-winning editor, writer and stylist, with over 25 years’ experience writing, styling and editing home interest magazines. Jennifer was the deputy editor of Ideal Home from 2008-2010, before launching Ideal Home’s sister title, Style at Home in 2010. Jennifer went on to launch several craft magazines and websites, before going freelance in 2016, with a client list that includes John Lewis, Dunlem and Nordic House. Today, she writes for Ideal Home, Real Homes, Waitrose, Woman & Home, Sainsbury’s Magazine and Homes & Gardens. But it was during lockdown that Jennifer realised her dream of publishing her own magazine – Simply Scandi.