Planning a courtyard garden

Do a high-use area proud by planting for flair and function.

By Lee Ann Bramwell

My niece has just opened a children’s clothing shop in a little courtyard in our small town.

We had huge fun dressing up the shop – you can be a lot more zany in a retail space than you can at home, and even more so in a kids’ retail space. So it’s painted white, jade, violet and pink (the jury’s still out on the orange) and as soon as you walk in, you’re reminded that colours don’t have to tone to look good.

Now we’ve turned our attention to the courtyard, which has a few mature deciduous trees, a robust climber with small purple flowers, another with orange flowers, a shell garden harbouring a sad collection of exhausted mother-in-laws’ tongues, and more agaves than you ever want to see in one space in your entire life.

No maintenance was obviously what the person who planted this space had in mind. But as I am always telling people – no maintenance gardening is an oxymoron, and if you want no maintenance just concrete the bloody place and be done with it.

 A lemon tree adds instant appeal to a public space with fragrance, flowers and brightly coloured fruit.
A lemon tree adds instant appeal to a public space with fragrance, flowers and brightly coloured fruit.

It has now fallen to the Partner, with his superior landscaping skills and generosity of spirit, to turn the various neglected beds in the courtyard into delightful gardens. Quite a big ask.

Despite the disparaging remarks I’ve made about no maintenance gardens, I concede that this one has to be as low maintenance as a growing garden can be. But it also has to reflect the character of the courtyard, and the sub-tropical environment of the area. Since the courtyard is having an identity crisis (faux olde English architecture, faux mullioned doors and windows, cobblestones and the aforementioned desert plants), it’s another big ask.

We could go with the English look and plant a cottage-style garden, but who would look after it and how would it look mid-winter?

So I’m agitating for an edible courtyard where mandarins, tangelos and lemons will provide colour in the winter and give people something to pick when they walk through. I’d like swathes of bright green Aussie grasses at their bases, and Coprosma “Green Rocks” to provide a textural contrast, cover up the soil and disguise the rather ugly edges of the cobblestone gardens. Oh, and tubs or planter boxes of parsley and chives – another nice foliage contrast and tasty to boot.

There’s going to be a café-bar in this courtyard in a few weeks so the chef will love us to bits, and the four-legged visitors will possibly provide urine that’s a favourite feed for citrus because of the nitrogen.

A win-win, then.

Take a look at how to start a community garden here.

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