Ideas for Courtyard Gardens and Basement Gardens
For the Ground Covering
You will often find a flooring made from concrete in older properties which have gloomy basement gardens or simple neglected courtyard gardens.
A covering of gravel goes down very well over concrete, so long as you remember those drain covers. Decking is another pleasant solution and so is Astro-turf, as this is one more area where it is permissible. You could lay some bricks, tiles or slabs, but you must be careful to lay them below the airbricks and the damp-proof course.
You can make your own slabs, of course, quite simply, by making some hinged wooden moulds, either square, oblong or in assorted sizes, from odds and ends of rescued wood. The slabs could be of any dimension that you choose, but smaller ones will be lighter to handle, of course: slabs of 30cm or 45cm (12″ or 18″) are quite manageable. Lay a sheet of polythene on a level surface and place the hinged timber frame on this. Make up a strong, stiff sand-and-cement or concrete mixture. You can colour the mixture if you wish, but do be restrained about this. Pour some of the concrete mixture into the mould and pull a piece of straight timber across the top to level it off. Unhinge the frame carefully and move it a few centimetres away, still on the polythene sheeting, before repeating the process. Obviously, you will need a bit of space for this, as the slabs will have to be left where they are until they have ‘gone off’. These home-made slabs can also be joined together with a little more sand-and-cement to make containers and the sides of, which can then be painted white to match the walls.
Another way to pave the floor would be to make a grid of timber battens or bricks over the base and pour the concrete into the grid. The bricks or timber would stay in position and could look rather smart, but you would have to treat the wood with a suitable preservative. Your builder’s merchant would advise you on the correct mixes for your purposes.
There are sure to be some man-holes just where they are most inconvenient, and you will have to disguise them as best you can, either by fitting them with a recessed cover into which you can fit whatever you are using to cover the rest of the area, or by painting them to match, if they are sitting where you cannot mask them with a slab, or a plant in a container.
For the Walls of Courtyard Gardens
The gloomier the basement, the more light you will want to introduce. You have made a good start by painting the walls and brightening the floor. A piece of mirror-glass will reflect and make the most of any light there is.
The smallest courtyard can be doubled in size by one or two mirrors, cleverly placed and disguised. Relatively small sized mirrors can be fitted to replicate window panes into a false window frame or door, which would then appear to open out on to yet another garden beyond, whilst larger pieces of mirror, perhaps originally from wardrobe doors or cut to size by the glazier, can be used to create an illusion by backing an archway or a wrought-iron gate. The glazier will cut them to shape if you prefer, but you could simply create your arch from plywood off-cuts and secure these over the glass, together with any wooden ‘glazing bars’ stuck on with suitable strong adhesive.
Simple design ideas are generally the most effective, and you could paint your archway, door, grille, window, or whatever, straight onto the glass instead. Remember though that mirrors should be set at a very slight angle so that they reflect, another part of the courtyard or garden or even another mirror, and not the onlooker. In this instance, the illusion of space will be limitless.
A piece of mirror could also be the centre-piece to an arched panel of trellis which might have a planted urn on a pedestal placed in front of it. You would get double the light and double the plant this way. Artificial lighting will help, of course, at night, or on particularly gloomy days. If you cannot afford electrical fittings, go for all the oil lamps and candles that you can fit in.
Courtyard Garden Furniture
It might be a waste to buy special furniture for such a small area, as you can always move the indoor furniture out quite easily, but old kitchen chairs and tables would look right, painted to match your other paintwork, or stripped and sealed. If there is a flight of stairs down to your basement, your garden tools could be kept under them, or you could keep them in a box seat or cushion-topped container, as I suggested for roof gardens. Granular and liquid fertilisers will obviously take less room than sacks of manure, and be less obtrusive in every way.
A pool will be a charming addition to basements or courtyard gardens. Because of the limited space, a wall pool would be ideal. Without much light, Water-would be unlikely to flower, but various foliage plants would be happy enough, and you could place container-grown plants around the pool so that they could lean over to admire their reflections in the still water. A wall fountain would make things even more entrancing, as just the sound of flowing water is greatly soothing. When it comes to planting out in the basement, there are two basic approaches and many options between the two. The first is rely on just one or two really striking plants, suitably framed by a false arch or trellis.
The opposite school of thought believes in throwing in as many plants as can be assembled and letting them get on with it, more on less. If you give the plants a reasonable quantity and quality of, they will do you proud, even in the shadiest of places. Several will flower bravely with never a glimpse of the sun. ‘Mermaid’ grows well in the shade and ‘New Dawn’, ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’ and ‘Danse du Feu’ are amongst those that will put up a good struggle against all odds. I have never seen ‘Bantry Bay’ recommended for shade, but I have two, each in a 45cm (18″) pot, by a north-facing doorway, which flower their heads off all summer long. The Japanese Maples and the Rhododendron family, which includes the Azaleas, are all happiest in light shade. Fatsias, Choisyas, Aucubas, Skimmias, Viburnum tinus and the , all grow well in shade or dappled shade, as do a great many others.
In fact a number of plants, which you will see described as needing to be grown on a south-facing wall, will do amazingly well on a shaded north wall in courtyard gardens. Clematis armandii and kolomitka have done splendidly for me in deep shade, as well as those things which are supposed to like it: the climbing Hydrangea, Winter Jasmine and all sorts of Ivies, for instance, plus many Clematis.
Because space in a basement garden or courtyard gardens is generally limited, I would certainly provide hanging flower baskets and wall planters a place here. In the shade, they will not dry out at such a speed as they do elsewhere. Old wicker bicycle baskets, lined with plastic, make good wall containers and you will be able to think of others. Ivies will grow happily in them, and so will Busy Lizzies, Tobacco plants and fibrous-rooted Begonias in the summer, while in the winter you could try small Aucubas, winter-flowing Pansies, and perhaps some Primulas.
Creating a ‘Roof’
You may wish to ‘roof-in’ part or whole of your courtyard gardens or basement, to make a green room. It should be simplicity itself to place some timber beams across the area and grow climbers over these. More elaborate, arched roofs can be made by bending slender slats over to a central beam, or by cutting half-hoops from plywood and nailing straight slats up and round these.
Simplest of all could be to place a couple of panels of trellis across the area, supported on horizontal bearers, screwed to the walls. Panels of glass or clear plastic fitted at a gentle slope over a part of this roofing would give added protection, and it would be charming to sit out there as the rain pattered down overhead.
Children and Courtyard Gardens
If you have young children and the courtyard or basement is their only play area, you would do well, for the sake of your sanity, to rig it out for their exclusive use. String a strong beam across the area, and from this hang old tyres, a home-made swing, trapeze, rope-ladder, climbing rope and rings. They are all easily made from oddments of timber and rope and, depending on the size of the beam, can be hung up in groups or in succession, onto strong hooks. The floor could be painted into a hopscotch grid and some kind of climbing-frame-come-play-house could be placed in a corner.
If there is no room for the climbing frame, you could certainly make a wig-wam of bamboo and remnants. It might not be the most beautiful area in the world, but at least you should be on speaking terms with your children at the end of the day. The smallest could have a sandpit, paddling pool and tray for water play, all of which would take up very little space, but give an enormous amount of joy, for a minimum outlay, and your interiors would be spared.