Courtyard garden ideas – 10 tips to transform a small or awkwardly shaped outdoor space

Get the most from your plot, patio or balcony with these smart solutions for making the most of a limited space

Courtyard ideas
(Image credit: Future / Mark Bolton)

If your garden is short on square footage, a courtyard garden can be a good solution, combining elegance with low maintenance. 

Even the smallest courtyard or terrace can make an enticing outdoor space with a little care and attention. Visual tricks, good lighting, interesting planting and comfortable seating will play to the strengths of the most awkward or compact of courtyard gardens.

To get you started, we've rounded up the best courtyard garden ideas to help you maximize space in your garden. And once you're feeling inspired, check out our favorite small garden ideas for more design advice and inspiration.

1. Don't overcomplicate your space

Courtyard garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Mark Bolton )

'Keep it simple – don’t get too carried away when planning for a small courtyard garden,' says Dan Bowyer, Fisher Tomlin & Bowyer. 'A carefully chosen palette of materials and plants is often the most satisfying. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t be adventurous and experimental, just be mindful that trying to squeeze everything into  a compact space will make it cluttered and decrease usability.'

It also pays to keep material in mind when designing a courtyard garden. For instance, gravel is not only and low-maintenance and affordable, the noise it makes underfoot can be a good burglar deterrent. 

Take a look at garden path ideas for more advice around materials underfoot

2. Introduce outdoor lighting

Courtyard garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Paul Raeside)

A clever garden lighting scheme is a brilliant way to add drama and interest to a small garden, allowing you to enjoy your garden way beyond dusk. 

No space is too small to light; even a window box can be given a nighttime makeover with a small spotlight or outdoor fairy lights woven through the planting. Alternatively, decorative candle holders and oil lamps cast a soft, romantic light, and are ideal for occasional use in a small courtyard garden.

3. Create interest with a water feature

Courtyard garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Davide Lovatti)

Consider the use of water. Standing water with a subtle ripple or movement evokes gentleness, calm and softness. It also reflects the  light helping to make the space feel bigger.

Correct positioning is important – some will be most successful as the design centrepiece while others are better tucked away within planting so that you aren’t fully aware of them until you enter the garden.

4. Bring the inside out

Courtyard garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Paul Raeside)

Create a visual link between inside and out: think about using similar flooring to your property’s interior. This immediately ensures that the eye moves seamlessly from space to space.  

Continuity of approach from the inside out will help make the garden feel part of your home. This can range from paint colors and materials to simply using plants whose flower color complements the interior. Be mindful that although some paving materials can be used both internally and externally, the stone outside will tend to weather over time.

5. Be mindful of your plant selection

Courtyard garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Mark Bolton)

The choice of planting is essential in smaller gardens. Use plants that won’t overcrowd the space, however you also need to ensure you are not always looking at fencing or boundary walls. 

A really useful plant is the evergreen climber Trachelospermum Jasminoides, commonly known as star jasmine. It will offer year-round interest with an abundance of white flower from mid to late summer.

6. Make the most of a small courtyard 

Courtyard garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Mark Bolton )

'It’s important to put generosity of space and a sense of place at the heart of your design,' advises Marcus Barnett, Marcus Barnett Landscape & Garden Design

'In urban areas particularly, an easily accessed space, which feels comfortable and generous in its proportions, allows for relaxation and calm. It’s the perfect antidote after a busy working week.' Use seating to your advantage and position garden furniture so that you can make the most of your surrounding – no matter the size or shape of your garden.

7. Do you want sun, shade or beautiful views?

Courtyard garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Mark Luscombe-Whyte)

'Think about the orientation of your space too as it can change the  overall feel immensely,' says Marcus Barnett. 'By altering it, you can turn a generous space into one that feels enclosed or intimate in a warm sunny spot or a cool shady area.' Equally, the view will be altered depending on the orientation of the courtyard – would you prefer to look back at the house or outwards to a prominent focal point in the distance for example?

Courtyard garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Jake Curtis)

Also, consider taking an element of ‘furniture’ from the interior of the house out into the courtyard. For example, a kitchen work surface can be run outside in the same alignment to add to a sense of linkage and visual pairing between the spaces. Color used inside your home can also be matched to elements of the courtyard serving as a visual reminder between inside and out. 

9. Learn the tricks of the trade

Courtyard garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Val Corbett)

In smaller or enclosed spaces, it’s important to draw the eye through simple,  enticing design. Many courtyard or urban gardens can be overlooked. Try obscuring any unwelcome views with considered planting that adds some height but not too much depth so as to avoid eating into a compact square footage. Long lasting plants such as Verbena Bonariensis add height and can be contained in small areas with flowers lasting from May through to the winter. 

10. Plant white flowers and hedges

Courtyard garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Camilla Reynolds)

Try using white flowering plants in small spaces as they can help create light. 'White flowers are also the last color that you see at night, so when planted in the right place they add depth,' says Sean Butler, Cube 1994 Ltd

'In shady areas, use Saracoccoa, commonly known as the Christmas Box, a very richly scented evergreen plant that  flowers early. A good all-round plant which crosses all boundaries is Buxus (clipped box). This can be used to create good structure to all garden themes.’ 

How do I make a courtyard garden look good?

Courtyard garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Damian Russell)

There are many ways to make a courtyard garden look good. Firstly, approach the furnishing of your outside space in a similar way to the treatment of the inside. Consider warmth under foot by using outdoor occasional rugs. Introduce punctuations of color and variations of texture in throws and cushions. 

The hard materials you use will also make a difference – panels of timber for some of the boundary treatment can be softer in appearance than stone or rendered walls and will also create a quieter space with less echo. 

Practicality is key to help the space to function well, but think about the look you’d like to create too, whether streamlined or relaxed and rustic. A timber table will create a very different feel to one made of steel or glass, or a vintage ‘found’ piece of furniture. 

When it comes to exterior flooring, using pebble mosaic, richly textured herringbone or basket weave brickwork can make the space feel larger. Similarly, a smooth terrazzo can create a clean, spacious feel. Natural sawn stone is an attractive solution, as it’s often rich in tone, smooth underfoot and can look very warm.

What can I plant in a courtyard garden?

Courtyard garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Mark Bolton )

The key to creating a successful courtyard garden is to choose the two main elements – planting and paving – carefully. The type of planting you choose will help to soften the look and feel of the terrace. Consider feathery grasses or velvety ferns, and if your space is small, try to create a sense of lightness using plants with soft foliage and small, delicate leaves.  

Color is important, too. Opting for light greens, silvers and greys will help create a sense of spaciousness, while highly reflective, shiny leaves can add light and shimmer providing a greater depth of field in the planting scheme. 

In larger spaces, fragrance is a good way of zoning: a variety of fragrances in different areas of  a terrace can suit different moods and help them come to life at different times of day. 

How do I make my courtyard garden look bigger? 

Courtyard garden ideas

(Image credit: Future / Matthew Williams)

In smaller or enclosed courtyard gardens, it’s best to draw the to simple design elements or standout features.

If your garden looks out onto a side return, consider painting the wall white to reflect the light and increase a sense of space. Another trick is to mix hard materials. Stone paving interspersed with narrow pebbled strips can look effective, as can juxtaposing angles, such as contrasting sleek decking with paved travertine. 

Length will draw the eye, so try to site a standout plant, sculpture or small water feature towards the end of your space. Consider incorporating fixed seating, such as a banquette running along an external wall, to instantly increase the useable space, making sure  the spot receives sunshine.