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2012 - Spring Issue
Casas Bonitas
Outdoor Living
Article: Jackye Meinecke
Photos: Bill Faulkner
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Southwest courtyards entice visitors inside with a promise of shelter from heat and sun. Once inside, visitors discover a space filled with bright plants to delight the senses. Some courtyards have fountains or ponds to provide the soothing sound of water. These secret, hidden areas hint at the personality of the gardener who lives behind the walls.


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A courtyard offers many gardening advantages, as well as a charming spot to relax. Courtyards shelter plants and visitors from our hot, dry winds. This outdoor space usually is warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. The space is limited, so it is easy to maintain.

Accents in the courtyard can represent a theme, color scheme, collection of the gardener or particular style. Formal or informal, traditional or contemporary, a courtyard may display a specific style or eclectic combination of styles. Since courtyards generally are smaller spaces, it takes little effort or investment to reinvent the space with each season — or just because it's fun to create something new.

Since courtyards are small, sheltered and controlled environments, gardeners have a wide range of plant and decor choices. Some basic design principles still apply. The courtyard will need to have a coherent style, a unifying color scheme, and a variety of heights and textures of plants for interest.

Plants thrive in this sheltered environment. Most plants will be in raised beds or containers where the gardener can control soil, sun exposure and water. Such environments require very little weeding or heavy digging. A plant may be selected on the gardener's whim for color, flower, scent or interest, rather than on its longevity or structure in the landscape. The gardener's flower choices may reflect the colors of the decor, such as a bright red lantana in a colorful Mexican pot.

In our summer environment -- where it's hot and dry even in the shade, our plant choices will be limited to plants that thrive in heat. However, in raised beds and containers with good soil and water systems, the gardener still has many choices ranging from succulents to colorful annuals to perennials treated as annuals.

To add height in a courtyard, gardeners can choose blooming trees, such as vitex, desert willow, New Mexico olive, Mexican redbud or crape myrtle. If an evergreen is desired, Texas mountain laurel or ornamental olive have excellent form. Training colorful vines such as bougainvillea or trumpet vine or any number of tropical vines up posts or decorative structures also creates height in a courtyard garden.

Coleus has gained in popularity with dozens of introductions of new plants with exciting textures and colors. These plants range from less than a foot tall to several feet tall. The leaf texture may be wide and smooth or frilled on the edges or ridged throughout. Colors range from red to orange to lime green to black, often with a kaleidoscope of colors in one plant. A gardener has dozens of choices of this lush plant to provide color and texture in flower beds and containers.

For color all summer despite the heat, a courtyard garden may feature cherry sage, Russian sage, Mexican pink primrose, zinnia and lantana. These plants also invite hummingbirds and butterflies into the courtyard for a close view. Cherry sage, Russian sage, Mexican pink primrose and some lantanas are perennials that may be cut back through the winter to return in the spring, or removed like annuals to make room for the next inspired plant choices.

In contrast to the many leafy textures of blooming plants, succulents provide a smooth texture and geometric form. Whether they are used as a trailing groundcover, tumbling over the edge of a colorful pot or falling from a hanging basket, succulents offer interest in the garden. String of beads and burro tail easily trail from hanging baskets. Ice plant and sedums add texture, contrast and form to pots and flower beds.

Since almost anything goes in a courtyard garden, creative gardeners also may add pots of vegetables such as red patio tomatoes, a rainbow of peppers or dramatic dark purple eggplant. In the cool months, pots of greens such as kale, lettuce, spinach and Swiss chard add drama and flavor in a pot or raised bed.

Don't forget the houseplants. They grow beautifully when moved outdoors into the shelter of a courtyard for the summer. Asparagus fern is just one example of an indoor tropical that enjoys the move to the summer patio. Let your imagination take flight when planning and planting a courtyard. You can create a relaxing oasis of color and texture that reflects your personality. ///
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