'We transformed an overlooked courtyard into a plant-filled entertaining space – and we love it!'

With its outdoor kitchen, secluded spots and spectacular mix of bold exotic plants, this courtyard entertaining space is packed with late summer color and clever ideas

A semi-sheltered courtyard is packed with Mediterranean plants and bold leafy perennials
(Image credit: Marianne Majerus)

Owning a small, urban and overlooked garden isn't without its challenges, and homeowner Dan Cooper wanted to make the most of his outdoor space to create a stunning setting for relaxing and entertaining. 

Dan, aka the Frustrated Gardener, lives with his partner John, and their two dogs Max and Millie, in The Watch House in Kent, England. The first and larger of their two outdoor spaces is essentially a roof garden with vaulted cellars underneath. The smaller courtyard or ‘Gin & Tonic Garden’ sits on solid chalk with no topsoil for planting. Semi-sheltered, both areas are exposed to strong, cold easterly winds.

Surrounded by eight neighbors, tall echoing buildings, and sitting next to a popular town cut through, both gardens were originally quite noisy. But it was noticeably quieter the minute the couple started adding trees. Their foliage helps to buffer the sound, as well as soften the view. 

'We have lost a few to the surrounding buildings effectively acting as wind tunnels during cold winter blasts. But rather than get sentimental I see it as making space for a newcomer,' says Dan.

Continually evolving and never perfect, Dan's stunning garden design ideas greet visitors to his home and provide a picture to enjoy daily outside his windows.

The plan for the garden makeover

Viewed from above a courtyard garden forming a rich and leafy tapestry.

Viewed from above the courtyard garden forms a rich and leafy tapestry

(Image credit: Marianne Majerus)

'When I bought The Watch House 16 years ago much of the tiny tropical garden was taken up by a substantial air raid shelter and two outdoor toilets,' says Dan. 

'Bought as a weekend home by the sea, I experimented for the first two years rescuing a large pink hydrangea, filling shady corners with potted hostas. And in the sunny spots tried landscaping with olive trees, lavender and geraniums.' 

Crazy paving covered the ground, while a dubious DIY hot tub sat on top of the bomb shelter. Dan constantly tried different ideas for incorporating the outbuildings into the space, however, nothing was working as he wanted.  

'I was introduced to garden designer Declan Buckley of Buckley Design Associates (opens in new tab) while working as a landscape architect and he persuaded me to take the outbuildings down. Work started in April 2008, and it took two weeks alone to demolish the air raid shelter,' he says.

Dan wanted to create a lush space, with plenty of garden privacy, to ensure he has a space for relaxing and entertaining. Working out how to plant without topsoil, incorporate bold foliage and color and design an outdoor kitchen were top of the list.

Shaping the space

The view from above of a foliage packed garden and the owner

The semi-sheltered courtyard is packed with Mediterranean plants and bold leafy perennials

(Image credit: Marianne Majerus)

Located above vaulted cellars, home to the cottage’s original fish prep and smoking ovens, a plan was hatched to make up for the garden’s lack of topsoil. Making sure this solution didn’t overload the roof with extra weight was also a big concern.

Building an ‘L’ shape raised garden bed around the edge of the plot proved the answer. Constructed from concrete blocks and faced with black slate it creates a generous planting area at 30in (75cm) high and nearly 6.5ft (2m wide). 

'I broke up the solid chalk base and filled the bed with topsoil mixed with organic matter, leaving space at the top for annual mulching,' says Dan.

Surrounded by numerous properties and gardens, it was important to get the boundaries right. The team ordered and fitted lengths of shiplap to work as a garden wall idea and act as cladding, to both cover the fence and tatty brick wall.

This was revealed when taking down the outbuildings, and was painted in Farrow & Ball ‘Vert de Terre’ exterior eggshell, available from Homebase (opens in new tab). 'I love this shade and it’s the perfect foil for any other shade of green,' says Dan.

Fitting the outdoor kitchen

An outdoor kitchen in a tucked away, foliage rich corner of an urban plot

'We love to use the outdoor kitchen, even in winter to cook a Sunday roast,' says Dan

(Image credit: Marianne Majerus)

A trip to Chicago and a visit to an electrical warehouse whetted Dan's appetite for an outdoor kitchen. 'Amazing outdoor appliances were a revelation and immediately appealed to my love of grilling and barbecuing,' says Dan.

'Also, the kitchen in The Watch House is located in the dark basement and down several flights of stairs, so was never that practical for entertaining. My ideal was to have a cooking space in the garden, where everyone can relax and socialize while the cooking takes place,' he says.

At that time not many people had built an outdoor kitchen in the UK, so Dan sought the advice of a carpenter, and together, they came up with a design. Wooden base units, sink, mains gas BBQ and fridge were all included, the only issue was the choice of work surface. They originally thought to use the same slate slabs as for covering the terrace and facing the raised beds, but water seeped through the joints. 

'Eventually we installed a black granite work surface and this has been a real success, not only protecting the units below but proving durable and easy-to-care for,' says Dan. 

'My partner John and I use the outdoor kitchen regularly all year round, even cooking roasts during the winter. It does need repairing occasionally but we wouldn’t be without it,' he says.

Planting the plot

rooftop jungle garden packed with showy exotics such as Musa sikkimensis 'Red Tiger', Canna 'Endeavour' and Begonia boliviensis 'Santa Cruz'.

The rooftop jungle garden is packed with showy exotics such as Musa sikkimensis 'Red Tiger', Canna 'Endeavour' and Begonia boliviensis 'Santa Cruz'

(Image credit: Marianne Majerus)

'My family come from Cornwall (in the south of the UK) and from a young age I was fascinated with the local gardens brimming with tender exotics and the best tropical plants such as bananas and tree ferns,' says Dan. 'My grandmother was also a keen gardener, and an early adopter of the latest planting trends, so would often be found growing something new and different.' 

This was a huge influence on Dan, so it was only natural that when presented with this semi-sheltered garden, that gets no frost and little rainfall, that he turned to these showy yet drought tolerant plants

The microclimate of Dan's coastal Kent home suits many plants from New Zealand, South Africa, California and the Canary Islands. And one magnificent success is giant herb Robert, with its vibrant early spring show of pink blossom. 

'I bought mature plants from a specialist local nursery and these included the towering Echium, Oleander, Japanese Green Olive and Indian Bean Trees. Our only casualty was a handsome Mexican Strawberry Tree which we lost to a pathogen in the soil. It was harder to remove than plant, but we replaced it with an equally unusual Chatham Island Lancewood,' says Dan. 

'I continue to add new favorites over the years, both in the raised bed and numerous pots too. My planting style is definitely ‘more is more’, packing them in and leaving them pretty much untamed. I also love sticking to mainly hot and spicy colored blooms and dramatic foliage. Shades of scarlet, orange, purple and gold ooze exotic, tropical vibes and really dazzle against green foliage,' says Dan.

Doubling the space of the garden

A small bistro set in a courtyard garden surrounded by foliage plants

Favourite hot colored blooms include Dahlia 'Ragged Robin' and Begonia 'Glowing Embers'

(Image credit: Marianne Majerus)

Ten years after moving in, Dan bought the cottage and garden next door. A sheltered 20ft x 20ft (6m x 6m) plot and facing south-west, it receives the sun from 11am until late in the day. It came with an ancient greenhouse and numerous outbuildings. 

Situated on solid chalk, there is next to no topsoil, so Dan and John mostly focussed on container gardening ideas, growing plants in terracotta pots. 'I initially planted it with a Mediterranean garden planting plan in mind, with lavender, salvias, olives and pelargoniums, but gradually that has become more tropical over time.'

Today coleus and begonias, both with their outlandishly patterned foliage, sit alongside showy dahlias, lilies and gingers. Now known fondly as the 'Gin & Tonic Garden' it’s where Dan loves to end his working day.

Favorite elements

vibrant Cordyline 'Pink Passion', Coleus ‘Pink Chaos’ and cerise Summer snapdragon

Dan loves spectacular plant combos such as this vibrant Cordyline 'Pink Passion', Coleus ‘Pink Chaos’ and cerise Summer snapdragon

(Image credit: Marianne Majerus)

Tweaking, trialling new plants and exploring new plant combinations all play a part in both gardens. Adding a seeper hose to provide moisture, as and when needed, in The Jungle Garden has been hugely valuable, particularly now the trees have reached a good size. 

The black slate paving ideas in this area, have also worked well. Combined with the white painted surrounding walls which reflect the sunlight, the darker stone retains the heat during the day and radiates it at night, something both the plants and people appreciate. In fact, the ground temperature is several degrees higher in the garden than on the street outside.

Jill Morgan
Freelance writer

Jill puts her love of plants and all things garden related down to the hours spent pottering around with her Nan and Grandad when she was little. Today she is lucky enough to have a garden of her own in Surrey, England, and spends much of her time writing about them too.