The Urban Courtyard

The Plant List: good structural plants ? How to Create A Courtyard

The courtyard garden is gaining ground. As we are inundated by aging trees, big buildings and battered by city noise, a courtyard with high walls and limited access to the outside world is becoming more and more desirable. It?s about privacy, cosseting and quiet.

When Toronto architect Shirley Blumberg and marketing/creative designer Scott Thornley bought their 1885 house, the former owner said: ?I don?t know what you can do with the back yard.? Though it was drenched in sun, had high walls smothered in ivy, grape and wisteria, a genuine coach house (with a hayloft above), it was mostly a cement parking pad jammed with weeds. The possibilities were endless.

A few years later, being the brilliant architect she is (partner in KPMB, The Gardiner Museum), Blumberg turned the coach house into an outdoor dining room and re-surfaced the ugly cement deck and parking pad with Wiarton stone. A landscaper added some choice shrubs and trees including a Goldenchain tree and a serviceberry, but it was nowhere near what these busy people needed as a courtyard sanctuary.

This brings us to April 2007 when she and Thornley decided they needed something more articulate.? They called me in as a plant consultant to do anything I wanted as long as the house and the outdoor dining room were connected in some visual way.? After a heavy duty cutting back of the vines, we got rid of about 70 per cent of the plants (they were sent off to the boulevard); and replaced most of the heavy clay soil with sand, compost and topsoil.

The Wiarton stone parking pad was ripped out and re-configured into a small patio and elegant steps from the huge gate to the outdoor dining room and the deck.? Every single plant added to this small (7M wide by 10M deep) space had to have at least three if not four seasons of pleasure, to read as well from the dining room as the house and to attract birds.

?I grew up in South Africa? Blumberg says ?and given the changes of the seasons in Canada, the connection between the inside and the garden is an even stronger here because of this changeability. I love the transformation; it?s so Canadian in a way. I wouldn?t have thought of doing a garden like this.? It?s not based on English or French or any kind of garden I know.? It relies completely on the textures and colours of the foliage.?? At this time of year the air is, however, redolent with the scent of lilies. But other than what the flowering shrubs offer, the only time there?s a hit of bloom is in spring with masses of scilla, Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), and tiny narcissus.

In all of gardening one thing leads to another. It was certainly true here:? the more intensely the courtyard was planted, the more demanding it became. ?I felt compelled to change the dining room in the house.? Blumberg says, ?Once we did that (with huge sliding Bauhaus Windows), Scott came up with the idea of transforming the top of our driveway into another garden.?

So once again the Wiarton stone tied things together and was extended halfway down the driveway with huge planting pockets left open. These were planted with small trees to give privacy as well as adding the sense that they are surrounded by garden.

So once again the Wiarton stone tied things together and was extended halfway down the driveway with huge planting pockets left open. These were planted with small trees to give privacy as well as adding the sense that they are surrounded by garden.

?What I like is the play of light and shade and the form of the plants, the flow of golds to greens to purples. It?s spectacular because every week it changes. It?s such a small intense place, and once you come through the gate, it?s a complete surprise.?

It?s also like all small gardens:? it needs grooming and tweaking all the time. To say it?s in your face is not an exaggeration.? As Blumberg points out, it relies on the definition of its plants??being able to see the structure of each one provides its character.

Creative lighting has added another level of magic otherwise it would just be a black hole out there. Pam Bingham designed the lighting to graze the sides of the courtyard, then has uplighting under three major trees and small LED lights placed subtly around. The effect is stunning summer and winter.

You don?t want to stuff a small space with too many plants or artifacts, but you do want it to have a profound emotive quality. Shirley Blumberg sums up her courtyard this way:
?I grew up near the ocean with all its movement and changes in light.? She says ?I see all that in the garden. It?s that connection with how things change in nature. And it?s important that it feels close to you.?

The Plant List

These are all good structural plants:

  • Serviceberry, Amelanchier canadensis
  • Viburnum ?Summer Snowflake?
  • Eastern redbud, Cercis canadensis ?Forest Pansy?
  • Golden chain tree, Laburnum spp
  • Golden dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides ?Goldrush?
  • Sumach, Rhus typhina ?Tiger Eyes?
  • Hellebore collection
  • Japanese maples and ornamental grasses, bamboos and euphorbias.

How to Create A Courtyard

  1. Make sure there are high enough walls (fences or screens)
  2. Address any problems of soil, this will be intensely planted and needs a soil with high humus content
  3. Plan a stroll through the plants
  4. Build in a seating area
  5. Make a focal point that reads well from the house
  6. Have a strong gate with a lock. Keep people out.