Amy Chambers A CHAT WITH
Matthew Mead: What made you want to create a courtyard in your backyard?
Amy Chalmers: The first reason was that we had an unused space behind the house, and we had very little usable yard space for outdoor living, which I enjoy. So I thought about the best ways to create a space that we could all use, and I realized I needed to add a door onto the back of the house to access it, so in went the French doors! It could have been another green grassy space, but since I love European-style courtyards, and this was a narrow space, a pea gravel courtyard seemed a perfect fit.
MM: You’ve really constructed outdoor spaces, rooms and walls. Is decorating outside similar to decorating inside?
AC: You have to create your “walls” in an outdoor space, so it’s more of a challenge that way than decorating inside where the walls are already in place. My husband has heavy equipment so it came in handy for building the block granite walls that outlined the courtyard and gave the space its bones. Since our backyard was on a hill, we had created a terraced effect with more granite walls and granite steps. Once these spaces were created, it was like decorating the inside of a home, as we decided where to put our outdoor furniture and other elements. Umbrellas make outdoor spaces feel cozy, and the bigger the better.
MM: How do plants and flowers play into outdoor space and design?
AC: Adding plantings should be a thoughtful process. I come up with a color theme for anything that flowers, and in our case it was using pinks, purples and whites. We soften the edge of the courtyard next to the house with a rose border and plantings of lavender for a European feel. The arbor has a climbing rose that is newly planted and that should look wonderful when it starts growing and flowering in front of the evergreen hedge. Green plantings are very important to creating the structure in a garden, and the flowering plants make it look pretty. You need them both. Courtyard design often needs containers for plantings, and I have several urns that are filled with flowers to soften the hardscape.
MM: This transformation has been a full-on, hands-on DIY for you. What was your favorite part of the work?
AC: Well it really was my biggest DIY project that I can think of—my husband and I literally installed the French doors all by ourselves, which was a first for us both. Then the resurrection of a dilapidated shed into a worthy garden tool shed was really fun! It was slated for the scrap heap, as it was just a shell of old plywood panels, but I thought it was worth shoring up and then shingling. I found a skinny French door on Craigslist and my husband fitted it to the shed, using our newly learned skills of installing doors! It is the cutest little shed now, and it cost only a few hundred dollars to restore.
MM: What’s your favorite courtyard element?
AC: The pea gravel sets the tone, so without that it wouldn’t feel like a courtyard. Not sure I can pick one favorite thing, though, as I love the oversized white market umbrellas and the antique French daybed.
MM: Would you describe how you use your courtyard throughout a summer day?
AC: Luckily the sun shines on the courtyard in the morning and by afternoon it is in the shade. So in the daytime I am gardening, but by 5 o’clock the family starts rolling in from work and we all congregate in the courtyard for a glass of wine or a beer before dinner. It’s added a big punch of pleasure to our daily routines, all of us ending up in the courtyard. No one wants to leave!
The courtyard is styled for living and also a bit of luxury. Country surfaces mix with elements from inside Amy’s home. “I’m not ashamed of real contrast and love the look of a vintage trash can as a vase right next to a fancy French daybed mixed with toile fabric and a candelabra,” Amy says.
Black-and-white cabana stripes anchor cafe seating near the garden shed. Raised beds hold edible vegetables and herbs. A collection of old watering cans adds a utilitarian note that symbolizes an active gardener is in residence.
Amy doesn’t skimp on design details that make her garden a real living space. A stylish courtyard means a fancy stool for border edging work. Colby loves the daybed. Magazines are arranged in a tote to go in and out easily. The daybed has elegant lines. Pretty glasses trump plastic any day. A vintage trash can shows off a bundle of hydrangeas. Watering cans add a dash of utility gray. Plates serve food, drinks and style.
The shed morphed from a chicken coop on an adjacent property into a fully functional garden shed. Amy’s husband moved it into place with a crane and then she and her son shingled the sides and roof. Garden tools and supplies store nicely inside for easy access.
Amy sets items out for entertaining at a moment’s notice. Friends and family stop by for cool summer drinks and afternoon conversation.
Make your standard big-box patio table into a French farm table. Place planks on top of the table and affix with cross boards attached horizontally underneath. If the tabletop is too high for dining, simply sink the legs into the ground to adjust the height.
A fenced-in area creates a cottage appeal and a place for Amy’s dog Colby to hang out. White picket fences introduce clean and traditional outdoor architecture.