7 small courtyards that are big on style and relaxation

How to make a small courtyard feel like a big retreat.

If you have a small courtyard, you may at first find its size, or lack thereof, a bit of a hindrance. It’s true, it doesn’t offer quite the same limitless potential as a large backyard, but take another look and you’ll find plenty to love. A courtyard’s petite and private nature make it the perfect venue for indulging in a slow-living moment, whether that involves read a book, catching up with a friend over a pitcher of iced tea or savouring a glass of vino alone at the end of a long day.

How can I make a small courtyard look nice?

Do you walk into your courtyard and feel less than inspired? It could be missing one of three things: light, greenery or privacy. These three elements are fundamental to a successful courtyard. 

Courtyard lighting

If there is a lack of light, consider: pruning back overgrown trees to let in sunlight, hanging wall mirrors to bounce light around, investing in a light-coloured outdoor rug to brighten up the space, putting up some fairy lights or even hiring an electrician to install additional outdoor lights.

Coastal outdoor fire pit with festoon lights
Once the sun sets, this garden, designed by Denise Staffa of Outside In by Denise, takes on a whole new ambience, with festoon lights and the firepit creating a party vibe. (Credit: Photography and styling: Louise Roche)

Courtyard plants

Does your courtyard feel more like a concrete cell than somewhere you’d like to spend time? Greenery is an easy, affordable and renter-friendly way to soften all of those harsh lines and surfaces. Think: oversized planters, fruit trees espaliered along an unattractive fence, fast-growing climbing plants like star-jasmine and even green walls. Some plants that are great for  a courtyard include:

  • Climbing plants such as star jasmine, bougainvillea, climbing roses
  • Clumping bamboo (great for adding height to a fence and creating privacy)
  • Little gem magnolia
  • Dwarf citrus trees such as Lemonicious Dwarf Patio Lemon or Dwarf Emporer Mandarin
  • Hardy herbs, including rosemary, thyme and mint
  • Neglect-tolerant succulents including jade plant, agave and aloe vera
French doors open wide
Succulents are excellent low-maintenance plants that work well either in the garden, or in planters. (Credit: Photography: Suzi Appel / Styling: Michelle Hart/Bask Interiors)

How to make a courtyard feel private

Finally, privacy is key to a courtyard that feels like a retreat from everyday life. A tall fence is the ideal, but not always a possibility, so consider outdoor screening panels, fast-growing screening plants, hedging plants or even outdoor blinds or awnings to keep out prying eyes.

 7 inspiring examples of amazing small courtyards

Bring the outdoors inside
French doors lead to a courtyard inspired by Provence at a home in Vancouver. (Credit: Ema Peter)


Portal to Provence

Stepping through French doors and into this courtyard is like being immediately transported to Provence. Large terracotta planters, textural outdoor rugs and weathered furniture give the space a lived-in look that belies this Vancouver home’s newly-built status.

A serene courtyard, complete with tropical plantings, greets guests as they enter this renovated coastal home in Noosa. (Photography: Louise Roche | Styling: Kylie Jackes).


Tropical entrance

When you enter this Mediterranean-inspired home in Noosa via a pair of custom timber doors, the first thing you’re greeted by is a serene courtyard, featuring lush tropical plantings. The area, set within a breezeway, sets the tone for the entire home. “I love the sense of arrival it creates,” says homeowner Amelia. The home’s exterior is painted in Dulux Vivid White, “It makes the surrounding greenery really pop,” says Amelia.

Courtyard with crazy pavers
Stairs covered in bougainvillea lead to a Mediterranean-inspired courtyard at a home on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. (Credit: Photography: Brigid Arnott | Styling: Lisa Hilton)


Mediterranean magic

This dreamy, Mediterranean-inspired courtyard seems to have a magic pull. “It’s where everyone congregates,” says homeowner Monique. The texture and imperfections of the crazy-pavers are emphasised by a fresh, all-white colour scheme. During renovations, the owners built planter beds and a banquette seat, perfect for enjoying homemade pizza fresh from the woodfire oven. 

outdoor fireplace cane chairs
An open fireplace makes this outdoor space cosy all year round. (Credit: Photography: Jacqui Turk / Styling: Alanna Smit)


Fireside vibes

Enjoy the courtyard all year round by installing outdoor heating. In this coastal bungalow on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, a large fireplace gives this outdoor living room a cosy ambience. Owner Darren says “I light the fire and sit at the back, even when it’s raining.” If installing a complete fireplace is out of the question, a fire pit or investing in overhead heating panels could be a great alternative.

Concrete walls and floors were lavished with Dulux Casper White Quarter, while the hanging rattan chair was customised with a lick of black paint. (Photographer: Louise Roche | Styling: Amber Keller).


Light and bright

This poolside courtyard was once dark and uninviting, painted mission brown and encircled by black aluminium fencing. During renovations, the owners of this updated coastal home in Noosa channelled their favourite coastal stays, including Halcyon House in Cabarita NSW, by building concrete walls and floors which they eventually painted in Dulux Casper White Quarter. The overall effect is a fresh, bright and private courtyard perfect for lounging around after a dip in the pool.

outdoor area with curved bench
Even the smallest courtyard can benefit from being divided into dedicated zones. (Credit: Photography: Simon Whitbread / Styling: Jamee Deaves)


Dual zones

By dividing this courtyard into two distinct zones, one for dining alfresco and another for sitting around the firepit with family and friends, every corner is made to feel purposeful and inviting. Fast-growing bamboo contained to a built-in planter softens the space while adding privacy from neighbours.

Don’t forget to take advantage of wall space. Wall-hung planter boxes are a chic option in this courtyard. (Credit: Photography: Alana Landsberry | aremediasyndication.com.au)


Wonder wall

One thing a courtyard will have in abundance is vertical space. Hanging wall mirrors will amp up the available natural light, while a blank wall offers plenty of extra gardening space for climbing plants or mounted planter boxes.

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