Gossip in the Garden

Harmony in the Garden's Chattier Side


Jewel Box Courtyard

JudyI’d like to introduce you all to my friend and client, Judy Minium.   Three years ago our local newspaper ran a story on our (then) new book, Garden Up! Smart Vertical Gardening for Small and Large Spaces.  Within 24 hours I received a phone call from Judy, who was in desperate need of transforming her tiny, overgrown courtyard into one that appeared spacious, bright, lush and tranquil.

Judy had always loved gardening, but didn’t quite know how to tackle one that was quite this small (27’x 21′) and brimming with so many challenges.

‘Years ago, I had a fabulous, well established garden at my cottage home in Montclair section of Oakland, and was heartbroken to leave it when I was divorced.  Just to show you life works in mysterious ways – the home, gardens, and the whole neighborhood was destroyed in the Oakland hills fire just a few years later.  As interest rates were at 17%, there was no way I could buy a home.  I moved into an apartment in Los Gatos and purchased the condo 7 years later in 1988.  At the time I moved in, I knew the patio was the main feature of the home.  It was the first thing I wanted to tackle, but Mark pleasantly noted that the peeling imitation wood grain kitchen cabinets might be the priority.  With the rest of the condo remodeling completed, money left to me by my parents and the time provided by retirement, I started looking into the landscaping seriously.  I looked at book after book on small gardens, and nothing was ever as small as my space.  People’s definition of small and mine did not match up!’ 

And, as if the tiny dimensions weren’t daunting enough, Judy’s courtyard had a handful of other challenges that needed to be met, as well.

I thought it might be fun to share this special garden with you using before-and-after photos.  Enjoy! 

1.  Wheelchair Friendly



The courtyard was both inconvenient and inhospitable for Mark, her longtime companion, who is wheelchair-bound due to Multiple Sclerosis.  This area also happened to be the only private garden space for her condo, so for convenience’s sake she needed Mark to be able to easily access it from both the garage side door as well as from inside the home.

Connecticut BluestoneAfter

Once through the side door, the patio’s surface needed to provide a firm and solid footing, with no sand or gravel that would become lodged in the wheelchair’s tires and tracked inside the house.  The courtyard also needed to have enough space for a dining table large enough for his wheelchair to pull up to, while simultaneously providing other seating options for larger group gatherings.

We used full-range Connecticut Bluestone pavers for the patio and built an L-shaped, stacked stone wall to help break up the potentially boring dimensions of the courtyard, as well as provide additional seating when necessary.

2.  Privacy Please!



Looming 2-story condos surround this courtyard making privacy a top concern.  Strict HOA regulations, however, prohibit adding a taller trellis-type fence, tall screening trees or even an overhead arbor.  Heck, she wasn’t even allowed to paint the fence a difference color!

Our solution was two-fold.  First, we planted three tall, narrow and evergreen Carolina Cherry trees (which you can see in the photo above) that would grow quickly and provide year-round screening.Long viewTrellis Corner

Abutilon and CercisNext, we built two free-standing trellises in an L-shaped pattern
in the far corner (remember, we weren’t allowed to attach anything to the existing fence.) 

Scrambling up one side of the trellis is a fast-growing Akebia vine and on the other a climbing Iceberg rose.  In the corner, where the two trellises meet, we left space for a ‘Forest Pansy’ Redbud tree to gracefully wind its way through.

3.  A Place for Personal Touches



It was also imperative that I find a place within this garden for a few cherished antiques Judy had inherited from her family.

‘My grandmother lived in a magical brown shingle Craftsman home in Alameda, with stunning gardens.  They collected Asian antiques and purchased many at Gumps in the early 1900’s.  My parents then incorporated these antiques into their beautiful garden in San Jose, and they came to me on their passing. They are very important to me…speaks to who I am and those that came before me.  My great grandmother was a botanist and one of the first women graduates of Northwestern University!’ BuddhaAntique pot
The last item on Judy’s wish-list was to include a water feature to add the calming sound of water, as well as provide a refreshing respite for the little birds who visit.fountain view

4.  Inside-Out Views



One of the chapters in our book discusses the importance of using the windows in your home to ‘frame’ the view outside, tying it in with the rest of your home – a concept designers call ‘inside-out design’.

This was particularly important to Judy as she has stunning, oversized floor to ceiling windows and doors along an entire wall that directly faces the entire patio area.  Her goal was to make the inside of her condo seem much larger and brighter than it was by incorporating her new patio and garden within her home.  She wanted the courtyard to be a natural extension of her dining and living rooms.Inside Out design

HeliotropeSarcococca rustifoliaAkebia shirobana

It’s always such a treat to go back and visit gardens after they’ve been installed – to see what has flourished (or what hasn’t) and to discover the homeowner’s loving touches dotted throughout.

I hope this tiny treasure of a garden gives you as much joy and creative inspiration as it’s given me!


20 Responses to Jewel Box Courtyard

  1. Hello dear Rebecca,

    What a masterpiece. Great design, textures, solutions, and PRIVACY. It feels more like an estate than a tiny patio. You really created something wonderful and people and bird friendly.

    Lovely, lovely,

    Sharon (I may be able to put weight on my foot next week! Thinking of you. XXX)

    • Oh, hooray Sharon! I’m so happy that you can finally get out of that wheelchair!! I know just where you’ll be, too – in the garden from dawn til dusk, no doubt!

  2. What a delight to see, read and hear your thoughts as you told us the story of your vision for this space, Rebecca. Gardens aren’t just about the amount of ground space, they are also about the human’s that have their own visions for what they need to have surrounding them. You are a thoughtful interpreter.

    • Thank you, Sheila, but honestly I’ve got to give Judy the credit. She had lived with this space for so many years and had given so much thought to her ‘wish list’ that by the time I got there she knew exactly what she wanted!

  3. Rebecca, this garden looks so inviting and spacious! You are so good at listening to and executing your clients needs and wants. Just beautiful.

  4. What a lovely transformation! This gives me heart that transitioning to a smaller space in the future might actually not be such a bad thing. And thanks for posting–hope you are coping.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this garden, Jo. When I returned home from visiting it I was actually wishing my own garden was much smaller than it is – there’s something wonderful about intimate, small spaces like Judy’s.

    • Sometimes I think the smaller the garden, the greater the opportunity. This was no exception and I love how every element of hers shines. Glad you like it, Karen. 🙂

  5. It’s a beautiful space! My former garden, the backyard of a townhome, was of a similar size and I know how difficult it can be to make effective use of the space. You’ve done a great job.

  6. This is a beautiful space. It may be small but it looks like it makes the condo live large. Thanks for the lovely tour.