For many urbanites, privacy and solace are vital commodities, but how do you find either in the middle of the city?
One solution: the courtyard garden, which is fast gaining ground across North America. When we are overwhelmed by big buildings and battered by city noise, a courtyard with high walls and limited access to the outside world can be very desirable. It's all about privacy, cosseting and quiet.
And it's what architect Shirley Blumberg and marketer/designer Scott Thornley of Toronto ended up installing after they bought their 1885 house in the city's downtown.
At the time of the purchase, the former owner told them: "I don't know what you can do with the backyard," which was drenched in sun, had high walls smothered in ivy, grape and wisteria and contained a vintage coach house (with hay loft above). In those days, though, it was mostly a concrete parking pad jammed with weeds. The possibilities were endless.
A few years later, the imaginative Blumberg turned the coach house into an outdoor dining room and resurfaced the ugly concrete deck and parking pad with Wiarton stone. A landscaper then added some choice shrubs and trees to the space, but it was nowhere near the courtyard sanctuary that the busy couple needed and envisioned.
Fast-forward to April of last year, when Blumberg and Thornley decided that they needed something more articulate and called me in as a plant consultant to do anything I wanted as long as the house and outdoor dining room were connected visually. After a heavy cutting back of the vines, we got rid of about 70 per cent of the existing plants and replaced most of the heavy clay soil with sand, compost and topsoil.
The Wiarton-stone parking pad was ripped out and reconfigured into a small patio and elegant steps from the huge gate to the outdoor dining room and deck. Every single plant added to the small, seven-metre-wide-by-10-metre-deep space had to have at least three if not four seasons of pleasure - to read as well from the dining area as from the house and to attract birds.
"I wouldn't have thought of doing a garden like this," Blumberg says. "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 except for what the flowering shrubs offer, the only other time there's a hit of bloom is in spring, when masses of scilla, Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) and tiny narcissus appear.
In gardening, one thing always leads to another. And this 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 [by installing huge sliding windows] Scott came up with the idea of transforming the top of our driveway into another garden."
So once again the Wiarton stone 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 from golds to greens to purples," the architect says. "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."
Creative lighting has added another level of magic. Pam Bingham, who designed the lighting to graze the sides of the courtyard, also introduced uplighting under three major trees and subtly placed small LED lights everywhere else. The effect is stunning in both summer and winter.
In such small, high-walled spaces, you don't want to stuff in too many plants or elements, but you do want them to have a profound emotive quality. Blumberg, who was born in South Africa, sums up her courtyard this way: "I grew up near the ocean with all its movement and changes in light. I see all that in the garden. It's that connection with how things change in nature that inspires me. And it's important that it feels close to you."
How to create
If your space lacks high walls, create a cocooning periphery via fences or screens.
Address any problems of soil, as the space will be intensely planted and needs a soil with high humus content.
Plan a path for strolling through the plants.
Build in some kind of seating area.
Create a focal point that reads well from the house.
Install a strong gate with a lock to keep the rest of the world at bay.
for courtyard gardens
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')
Japanese maples, ornamental grasses, bamboos and euphorbias