My Cousin’s Courtyard Garden Tips to Create the Perfect Southern Courtyard Garden
Story and Photos by Bonnie Helander

My cousin, Susan Binns, has the gift of creating a beautiful and inviting home and garden wherever she lives. The quintessential Southern woman, she is strong in her values, her opinions and her design aesthetic. Presently living in a lovely white brick ranch home that she extensively renovated in the Overlook community of Columbus, GA, Susan was captivated by the home’s brick courtyard and immediately saw its potential. The walled space was a blank canvas, devoid of plants, except for two misshaped trees and the remnants of a few climbing vines. It wasn’t long before Susan created an enchanted, secluded space for entertaining, outdoor dining and relaxation!

Susan first became enthralled with courtyard gardens during frequent trips to visit her daughter, Mary Railey, a student who graduated from the College of Charleston. She was further inspired after reading Mrs. Waley and her Charleston Garden, highlighting Emily Waley’s garden on Church Street in Charleston, considered the most visited private garden in the country.

A courtyard garden is defined as “a flat space with walls around it.” Focusing on just a few good design principles, you can develop your own outside secluded sanctuary for your family and friends. Here are Susan’s five tips to creating the perfect courtyard garden.

Keep it simple – In a small, enclosed space keep your plant selections restrained. Use only a few different plants and repeat them throughout the space. Susan’s color palette for her courtyard is green and white. She doesn’t want a lot of fussy flowers or profuse color. Her foundation plants are boxwoods, hostas, and Macho and Kimberly Queen ferns, planted in the ground and in containers. Creeping fig climbs vertically on the brick walls and lends softness to the hardscape. Confederate jasmine vines sprawl across her garden swing structure, the small white flowers adding some contrast, fragrance and brightness. Pots of white impatiens are intermingled with the evergreens. For restrained splash of color, pots of pink impatiens and pink geraniums are placed strategically throughout.

Make sure you have some shade – You can’t enjoy a courtyard patio in the summer in the South without some shade! Of course large, established trees will provide a wonderful canopy of shade, but if you don’t have this option, Susan suggests adding an awning, canopy, patio umbrellas and smaller patio trees.  Small trees, like some varieties of Japanese maples, can easily be grown in large pots and placed in areas where you need some shade

Select comfortable seating – To entice people outside into your courtyard garden, you need comfortable places to sit and relax. Years ago, Susan purchased some pool furniture (chairs and lounges), which can withstand the rain. When the furniture shows wear, she has the chair webbings refurbished and the furniture painted. For added comfort, Susan includes lush pillows, cushions, and rugs. Her color scheme for her furniture and accessories is classic black and white with a punch of green. She groups furniture pieces together to invite socializing and conversations.

Add interest and charm with focal points – A focal point is something of interest you and your guests can enjoy and savor. It can be statuary, a fountain, artwork or something unexpected, like a mirror that reflects the garden space and makes it appear larger. Susan suggests adding a focal point on each courtyard wall. She has formal concrete statues – one of an angel, and one of St. Francis, a popular garden statue known as the patron saint of animals and ecology.

According to Susan, every courtyard needs a water feature as a key focal point. The sound of water, not only is soothing, but masks noise from the street. And to maintain the Southern courtyard feel, every courtyard needs an iconic iron gate! The gate on Susan’s courtyard was much too small to make the proper impact, so Susan commissioned Harry Averett, a metal artist from Charleston, to add an extension to her gate. Now it is a beautiful and welcoming focal point.

Don’t forget the essentials – lighting, electricity and water source – A courtyard can be magical in the evening with the proper lighting. There are so many options today for any budget. Solar lights are inexpensive and easy to install. Strings of bulb lights or fairy lights can liven up the space. Don’t’ forget to include some electrical outlets for lighting and outdoor cooking. Make sure there is access to a water source nearby so you can easily water your courtyard plants.

Susan loves her courtyard, and often you will find her there with a good book, some music, and a glass of wine! She has hosted book club meetings, Sunday School parties and special events in her courtyard garden. She enjoys the private space as her personal sanctuary while being able to watch the goings on in the neighborhood through the garden gate.