Lots of lush plants and the sound of trickling water invite you to relax and stay awhile.
Charlie Thigpen

We all have areas around our homes that have untapped potential. Walking through them every day, we know they could become much better. Senior Writer Julia Hamilton was reminded of that fact when a huge elm tree fell on her courtyard. After the brick walls were repaired and the crushed plantings were removed, I volunteered to help her fix up the area and turn it into a place she could enjoy. Here’s how we did it.

Julia’s courtyard sits right below the end of the driveway, next to her home’s sunroom. French doors open up to this highly visible space. Clearly, the area called for a focal point, new plants, and other cosmetic changes.

Julia and I drew a simple sketch of our plans. She opted for a water feature to anchor the area and provide interest.

In addition to a fountain composed of a lion’s head and a large urn, she also chose several other concrete planters to set around the courtyard. We blended them in with old statuary, containers, and finials that were already on hand. I selected a few low-maintenance plants that would fit into her busy lifestyle.

Landscaper David Hicks and I implemented the design. After cleaning the area, we pulled off some of the ivy from the walls to expose the attractive old brick. Then we tackled the fun stuff.

Making a Splash
We mounted the lion’s head on the wall. It emits a small stream of water into an oval urn, which is tipped slightly away from the wall so water spills over the front edge. A catch basin below the urn collects the overflow and pumps the water up a tube, behind the wall, and back to the lion’s head. We connected the tubing to a piece of copper pipe in the lion’s mouth and positioned the pipe so it would pour into the center of the urn. The recirculating fountain is visually pleasing and also creates sound and movement to draw birds and keep the water from becoming stagnant and attracting mosquitoes.

Walking on Stone
The white pea gravel that covered the ground was replaced with flagstones, which create a more solid walking surface. Pieces of moss tucked in between the stones give the new materials an aged look. Water from the fountain splashes on small, black, polished pebbles we placed between the flagstones, making them glisten.

Putting in Plants
Because the courtyard is located in a shaded area, we used plants that would thrive in low light. Two camellias frame the water feature. Holly ferns, cast-iron plants (Aspidistra sp.), and hostas are scattered around the bases of the walls, adding an interesting assortment of textures to the space.

Containers for Color
We strategically placed pots around the courtyard. Many types of plants would have struggled to bloom in the area because it’s so shady. Instead of relying on flowers for color, we used foliage such as sweet flag (Acorus sp.), caladium, coleus, and creeping Jenny to brighten the space. Four planters positioned on top of the back wall’s brick piers are filled with variegated sedge (Carex morrowii). The basket-weave containers full of greenery look like living finials.

Furniture Fix-up
We threw away the old table that had been destroyed by the falling tree and purchased a new one. To salvage the old white metal chairs, we simply painted them black and added comfortable new cushions. The result? In just a few months, we turned a needy courtyard into a cozy destination that is now a beautiful extension of Julia’s home.


"Shady Makeover" is from the August 2006 issue of Southern Living.