Transform your garden with shades of grey

A pale palette lifts and lightens a tiny, walled Clapham courtyard, creating an outside room for entertaining.
When designing a courtyard that is to be treated as another room, it is logical to follow the style of the rooms inside the house. That’s what garden designer Claire Mee did, with great success, in a courtyard in Clapham that measures a scant six yards square.
The French country look of white-washed walls and furniture, faded linens and cool shades of grey, green and white, translates beautifully to courtyard, terrace or patio, and is a dream to decorate when the basics are in place.
“A pale palette of limited colours is ideal for lifting and lightening the gloom in a dark space — and this courtyard, which is accessed directly from the kitchen’s double doors, gets little sunlight,” explains Mee, who pulled the whole look together within eight weeks.
“The client is Italian, and she also wanted a Mediterranean atmosphere to remind her of home, which is why I bought in several olive trees, rosemary and a fig.”
The courtyard was originally fenced all the way round, had raised brick beds containing overgrown shrubs and an uneven floor of fake terracotta tiles. Mee replaced the floor tiles with large slabs of pale Indian sandstone that reflects light, and is very hard-wearing.
“The temptation in a small space like this is to scale down on size,” she says, “but scaling up with large paving stones shows confidence in the space, making it appear larger.”
Instead of adopting the usual device of “knocking back the walls” so they are a dark backdrop that you don’t notice, Mee made a feature of them, giving them a relaxed clapboard effect with pressure-treated wood and painting them a tonal white with Dulux exterior paint in Chalky Downs 3, a gentle grey-white.
“It’s important not to use a pure bright white because it would be too harsh,” says Mee. “We did, however, use pure white on the rendered walls of the raised beds around the three sides, to make them stand out, and because using different shades of white adds depth to the space.”
Keeping to the limited palette of grey, white and green, Mee used evergreens of box, silver-grey senecio, rosemary and myrtle. She added two Viburnum tinus standards in the right-hand bed because, as well as being evergreen, they produce a mass of berries in winter and early white flower sprays that last for months.
The client likes structure and symmetry, so Mee planted five olive trees at intervals along the back wall, interspersing them with box balls to contrast with the silvery leaves, and adding bedding of white cyclamen, to be replaced in spring with white violas, and white geraniums in summer.
In the far corners, classic mophead hydrangeas Madame Emile Mouilliere will hold their large blooms after they have faded. Deep basket planters, lined with plastic liners, can be easily moved around, and hold seasonal flowers that can be lifted and replaced with ease. 
The dining table and chairs, Breeze from Outer Eden (, are weatherproof, and the glass top on the table makes a smart finish. The table seats six, but two seating areas set into the raised beds, plus perching places on their broad York stone edges, brings the seating tally to a substantial 15-plus, making it a great space for entertaining.
A nice touch is leaving a square of floor uncovered to make space for permanent planting — a fig tree growing from a base of cloud-pruned box. Although the fig tree loses its leaves in winter, they are few and large, so are not a headache to clear away. And a free-standing fig has a great bare silhouette that takes well to a string of fairy lights or, as the owner does, to decking the branches with numerous small lanterns.
  • Claire Mee can be commissioned at

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