Gardening with illusions Design: Don't believe everything you see in some landscapes. A gardener could be playing a trick.


Deception is at the root of gardening. Gardeners strive to make small spaces appear larger and large areas feel more inviting and cozy. The views have to appear grander than they really are, or must at least hint at impressive vistas.

It's not that we can't be satisfied with what we have, but we can't help trying to improve on nature and our own place in it.

There is long precedent for this tinkering. Gardeners have been painting landscapes on garden walls, borrowing views from the neighbors and using reflections and illusion to fool the eye for centuries.

One of the most famous practitioners of the art of garden deception was Lancelot "Capability" Brown, an 18th-century British landscape designer who dammed rivers, redirected streams and altered the contours of the land for his noble clients. His fearlessly extravagant plans for enormous estates inspire more awe than imitation today, but who wouldn't admit to wishing, at one time or another, that a peaceful scene could somehow be created in the back yard? Perhaps something with a river in the distance, or a quiet little summer house in a corner of the garden rather than that garage.

Property lines impose pretty strict limitations on what we can do, but they needn't inhibit imagination. The simplest way to deceive yourself about your surroundings is to

Now you see it: A cleverly painted garden shed fools the eye and delights the imagination. put up a fence. Your whole world changes the day you put it up. A patio creates the illusion of an outdoor room. Garden paths don't simply lead from one place to another. They lead the eye into different perspectives. Some paths simply disappear around a bend, suggesting a secret garden beyond. Planting trees or shrubs can hide a bland view or frame an attractive one. These are just the beginning.

In a small yard, paths should usually be widest where they begin, narrowing slightly along their length, making the end of the path appear farther away than it really is. Plants can enhance the effect if you use large, bold ones at the head of the path, and smaller ones, with small leaves, toward the end of it. The same trick also works in reverse, making a remote corner feel a bit closer. A bench, a pretty urn on a pedestal or a fountain at the end of the path completes the effect, like a period at the end of a sentence.

Any effect that deceives can properly be called trompe l'oeil, a French term meaning, literally, fool the eye. Usually, trompe l'oeil involves the masterful control of perspective to make painted flat surfaces appear to have depth. A deft and daring hand can produce amazing results with a paintbrush, transforming a garden shed into a Chinese tea house, or creating a quick and handsome evergreen hedge, perfectly and permanently clipped, with perhaps a few topiary flourishes. Classical figures painted on plywood and set up in the dappled light under trees are one-dimensional statues, posing as stone.

Trelliswork trompe l'oeil is another way to create a false perspective. Intricate illusionary trelliswork on a wall suggests depth and distance, making small spaces seem larger. The most elaborate forms of this art demand first-rate carpenter's skills, but simple illusionary arches can be purchased and mounted on a wall by anyone who can hang a picture.

Reflections also manipulate space in the garden. A window frame fitted with tempered mirrors instead of glass and hung on the side of the garage seems to open on another quiet garden, and makes your own seem larger and lusher. Gazing balls gather the whole garden into themselves and reflect it back at you, a little world of bloom and greenery. The water in a birdbath picks up light, too, but if you paint the basin midnight blue with swimming-pool paint, it becomes a water mirror, reflecting the sun, clouds and trees.

Trompe l'oeil can get tiresome, like a good joke told too often, but the best examples remain a pleasure through the seasons. The test is not whether you can fool your friends, but whether you really like what you see.

! Pub date: 8/23/98

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