Garden designers have a trick for making the most of the views in your garden: They borrow scenery from the neighbors -- or from the nature and architecture around you.
Borrowing a view means taking full advantage of the backdrops outside the boundaries of your own property and making them yours by framing them in your landscape design. The idea isn't new -- it comes from old Chinese and Japanese design principles. European and American garden designers adopted the idea eagerly; prospects in the great garden at Versailles, designed by Le Notre in the 18th century, embrace the countryside beyond the fabulous estate outside Paris.
Modern garden designers rely on borrowed views to this day. "Absolutely. Borrowed views are everything," says Matthew Cunningham, a landscape architect and principle of Matthew Cunningham Landscape Design in the Boston area. "For us," he says, "looking at the context of the site means looking outside the property lines, to see what elements or features we can pull in as part of the garden."
Cunningham has done this most spectacularly at a garden on the coast of Maine, where a small stone patio at the edge of a property on Mount Desert Island provides a contemplative spot for taking in the dramatic water view. The patio unites the garden and the view. But you don't have to live next to the ocean -- or mountains, woods, meadows or marshes -- to grab a dazzling bit of scenery. In another client's garden, the master bathroom skylight was placed to give the owners a view of the graceful branches of a large oak tree near the house. "You never think of the sky as being a vista," Cunningham says, "but it is."
Trying to discover the potential of borrowed views is "one of the first things we do when we first start working on a project with a client," Cunningham says. The good views, and the bad views (which can be screened), are taken into consideration all through the planning process.
It often takes a practiced eye to discover the untapped potential of neighborhood scenes. Colleen Hamilton, a garden designer and owner of Bloomin' Landscape Designs in Carmichael, California, says a client she worked with disliked the Italian cypresses her neighbors had planted and wanted to screen them out. Instead, Hamilton framed the view of the stately stand of cypresses, developing her client's garden with an Italian theme that was reinforced by the borrowed view.
"We added a statue and an arbor, and with the cypress in the background, it was a fantastic view," she says. "Without that, it wouldn't be the same." The client was thrilled.
Water, trees and architectural elements can all be part of dramatic and beautiful borrowed views, Hamilton says. A mature tree not on your property but shading it gracefully gives even a new garden instant aristocracy. In areas where shared green space is part of a suburban landscape, wrought iron fences instead of board fences allow you to visually extend the perspectives from your property, making even a small garden seem larger. "Use every possible view, and make it something special," Hamilton says.
Susan Cohan, a garden designer and owner of Susan Cohan Gardens in Chatham Township, New Jersey, says she uses borrowed views to give her clients "more than they expected." Borrowing views "is the first thing they teach design students," she says. "You want to look for the views you can use, whether it is to steal them, create them or augment them." Study your property from every angle, she suggests, so you don't miss a chance. Walk around, of course, but sit down, too, in the spot where you are considering placing a patio, a fire pit or even just a garden bench. Study garden views from inside the house, too.
"It doesn't have to be something grand or long," Cohan says. One of her clients made the most of the wall of a neighbor's garage, painting it to complement her own garden. "Borrow that," Cohan says, "but ask permission, of course."
Cohan also suggests using mirrors to create unexpected new views of your own pretty garden. A mirror mounted in an old window frame and hung on a fence will appear to show a landscape beyond your garden, even though it actually reflects the beauty within.
Cohan admits that her own fantasy view, "a castle on a hill in the south of France," may be unrealistic, but it helps remind her to keep her eyes open for opportunities. If you let your property lines also mark the boundaries of your imagination, you might miss something great.
-- Matthew Cunningham, Matthew Cunningham Landscape Design, matthew-cunningham.com
-- Colleen Hamilton, Bloomin' Landscape Designs, bloominlandscapedesigns.com
-- Susan Cohan, Susan Cohan Gardens, susancohangardens.com
-- To find a garden designer in your area, check the web site of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, apld.org
(For editorial questions, please contact Clint Hooker at firstname.lastname@example.org.)