Inspiration for a Courtyard Herb Garden

galium odoratum - the herbal bed


Throughout history urban living has given most city dwellers only a small garden; a courtyard garden, possibly only a balcony with a pot plant or two.


Modern living and pressure on building land has meant many suburban housing developments also have small courtyard gardens rather than an expanse of lawn and flower borders.


Space, the outdoor space that is your garden, suddenly becomes very precious.

More than most garden plants, herbs deserve a place in our gardens for the benefits they bring. The aromatic foliage of evergreen herbs, although less pungent during the winter months, still stimulates our olfactory sense of smell. The enclosed space of a courtyard herb garden increases the pungency of the herbal aroma, helping us to benefit even more from these useful plants.

Herbs have always been valued plants. They offer us the pleasure of aromatic foliage, with leaf shapes that vary from narrow rosemary leaves to furry sage foliage to add visual interest and texture to flower borders and vegetable gardens. Colourful herb flowers brighten up dull corners and provide nectar for pollinating insects.

ginger rosemary flowers aromatic culinary herb

And we can eat them – most of them anyway. We can make of use their medicinal qualities even at the domestic level, perhaps by making fresh peppermint tea to soothe a queasy stomach.

Courtyard herb gardens can be a very adaptable garden design. If you were my client and as part of your design brief asked for a combination of –

  • Year round interest in your garden
  • An easy maintenance garden
  • A child friendly garden
  • A wildlife friendly garden
  • A pet friendly garden – cats, dogs, rabbits
  • An edible garden, or ‘grow your own’
  • A courtyard garden to relax in
  • An entertaining space, with a BBQ, lights and a party atmosphere
  • A tidy garden
  • A formal garden
  • An informal garden
  • A cottage garden
  • An exotic garden

I could design and create a courtyard herb garden to meet your needs and requirements.

And where would I get my inspiration for your courtyard garden? It isn’t always the obvious things that help me formulate your garden design, although there may be elements in obviously inspiring gardens that spark ideas.

bay tree in snow, frost, winter garden, herbs, evergreen shrub, laurelis nobilis

For example, think of the courtyard gardens that were discovered in Pompeii during the excavations. The formal rectangular central pool with a clipped bay tree at each corner and a central fountain is an image many of us will be able to bring to mind when asked to think of such a courtyard garden. Bay trees, Laurelis nobilis, are of course an edible herb, bay leaves are added to rice puddings and the ‘bouquet garni’ French herb mix. Laurel was also an important symbolic plant for the Romans – they were worn on ceremonial occasions and they can be seen adorning emperors’ heads on Roman coins.

Now, depending on your design brief, I have various ideas sparking away. Let’s say you have asked for

  • Year round interest in your garden
  • An easy maintenance garden
  • An informal garden
  • A courtyard garden to relax in

The inspiration for your courtyard herb garden is now coming together. Year round interest and easy maintenance suggest that mainly evergreen herbs would be best. The spheres of the clipped laurels in the Pompeii garden have given me the idea of using circles to add the informality you would like to your formal shaped square courtyard.

We’ll have a group of herbs in large pots near your kitchen door – a bay tree, rosemary and sage. These are all culinary herbs you’ve told me you would use for cooking as you like strongly flavoured foods. This group of mature evergreen herbs will also provide a focal point near the house which will make your courtyard garden seem larger as it will not all be visible at once.

Santolina chamaecyparissus, evergreen silver leaved shrub, aromatic foliage

Repeating the pattern of three circles, three more circular reflective black pots will be used next to the black circular table with adjoining two chairs. These pots will be filled with silver leaved Santolina surrounded by creeping woolly Thyme to soften and overhang the edges. These aromatic herbs have relaxing properties and both Thyme and Santolina are evergreen. The woolly Thyme, Thymus pseudolanuginosus, provides colourful flowers during the summer months and can be used in cooking, however it is chosen more for its soft silver foliage which both compliments and contrasts with the Santolina.

Using plants with the same colour foliage within each group of black pots gives unity to the design, as does the repeat of the three pots itself. Changing the foliage colour between the groups adds the informality required. As the pots are large ones, the herbs will need less maintenance.

Hyssop, purple flowers, herb

There is room in this courtyard herb garden for more planting, so I’ve also designed a curved flower border, situated opposite your seating area so that you can enjoy the view as well as the scent. Edged with the compact Lavender ‘Hidcote’ the planting design includes other evergreen herbs, marjoram, chives and hyssop.

We’ve extended the definition of herb for this planting design and have included plants which have traditionally been used for perfume – Dianthus, cottage garden pinks with their rich clove scent.

The hard surface in the courtyard is slate chippings. I am still with our Roman courtyard inspiration; as purple slate harks back to the imperial purple toga.

Slate chippings are arguably an environmentally friendly surface to use in the garden, as they are a waste product of the slate industry. The chippings are laid on a permeable or semi permeable base, so surface water will drain through. This can be particularly important in city gardens, when so much of the surface is non permeable.

slate chippings, lavender edged flower and herb border

On a practical note, the slate chippings are easy to install, especially when the only access to the courtyard garden is through the house.

A courtyard makes an excellent situation to appreciate an herb garden. The enclosed space allows for the scent to fill the air, creating a restful, relaxing ambience if the right herbs are chosen. Other herbs can give a more exhilarating aroma, appropriate for that entertaining space, with a BBQ, lights and a party atmosphere.

And as for further design inspiration for a courtyard herb garden in general, or for your courtyard garden in particular, why not ask us? I haven’t even begun to describe where the bay leaf, rice pudding and nutmeg trio led me…

Related Herb Gardening blogs you may enjoy

5 Evergreen Herbs to edge your Flower Borders
Herb Garden Ideas
City Gardens

Garden Design Portfolio

The Herbal Bed – a stage set in Beckenham

tabby cat with herbs in pots, Marie Shallcross

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