Garden Design Tips: Borrow a View!

I now own an acre of land! Kind of. I spent the other day in a frantic land grab, and have now claimed the woods behind the house as my own. By clearing out the weeds and seedlings in the undergrowth I've now claimed ownership of the woods and can now survey my vast and bountiful dominion, a bountiful landscape that was under my nose all along! It's amazing how a little planning in the garden can make it bigger.

Care to join me in this not-so-hostile takeover? Fortunately, you don't need a wooded tract near your garden to seize your own bounty. All you need is the ability to edit, deciding on which views to preserve and which eyesores to hide. Here are several ways to make your garden bigger by 'borrowing' a good view.

Mondo grass is a common element of many scenic old neighborhoods. Billbergia pyramidalis "striata" also pictured.

Link your landscape to the wider view. 

If your neighbors are all growing Agapanthus in their front yard, suck it up and incorporate their foundation plantings in your own garden. Some of the most scenic neighborhoods attain their beauty by lining up rows of royal palm trees or cherry trees along the roads. Many of the nicest old neighborhoods of the south have homes linked together by hedges of spring flowering azaleas or sweeping carpets of lush mondo grass. When you plant what your neighbors are growing, the boundaries of your garden become blurred.

I'm leaving this side of the yard open, so the neighbor's yard is linked with my own.

Preserve views of the neighboring yards.  

While good fences may make good neighbors, they can also ruin a good view. In my garden, we have one boundary that was fenced off when we moved in, but the other boundary will remain unfenced and unplanted so that the lawn appears to flow seamlessly next door. If a fence is a necessity, plant your beds in curving lines to distract from the dead end effect of the fence. If the neighbor has a pretty tree that you'd like to keep visible from your patio, remember this when planting trees that may later obstruct that view.

With the exception of this alocasia, the view is free and clear of any clutter.

Clear visual obstructions at eye level.

Your garden is usually viewed at eye level, so open that view up for all to see! Refrain from planting too many tall shrubs between your main vantage point and the view you'd like to preserve. I've planted an Alocasia "California" in an island bed as the garden's focal point, but rather than obstruct the sight line from the back door to the woods, it provides a sense of mystery. I've also taken the loppers to the forest and cleared out all of the saplings, suckers and weeds that would interfere with the scenery.

I've used curves and repeated plants to smoothly transition into the back of the property.

Lead the eye into the background.

It's not enough to leave the view to the background open; that wouldn't be any fun! Your eye should be able to stop at different points on the way to its destination. Use curves in your beds to lead the eye back and forth. I've repeated the use of certain plants like alocasia, bottlebrush and agapanthus to link together the garden view.

I've also carved out a path into the woods that terminates in a shady door-like opening. Beyond that opening you can see a glimmer of ferns lit up by the dappled sunlight. You could stay in one spot and still embark on a rewarding journey.

The weeping yaupon holly and tabebuia will soon reach toward the forest's canopy!

Use elements that blend seamlessly into the background.

If your garden opens up to a vista of chaparral and scrub, blur the boundaries of your garden with plants that match the natives beyond. If you're lucky enough to have a beachside home, use native dune plants, sand and shells throughout your garden to give the impression that the beach is your backyard.

In my own forest backed garden, I've used trees along the fence that will eventually work their way up towards the canopy, softening the sudden drop off from garden to forest. I use natives such as yellow anise, dahoon holly and weeping yaupon holly to retain a similar look to the trees in the forest.

This geranium in the foreground is just one point of interest along the way.

Bring the plants into the foreground and background.

Most people already do this with containers on their patio, but it bears mentioning again for the powerful effect it has in bringing your garden together. Now what about that background? If your neighboring view is dominated by a stand of bamboo or bananas, plant a smaller variety of those plants in a container on the patio.

Since the focal point of my 'borrowed' view is that opening in the woods, I hope to plant something small there to really bring the garden into the background. Or maybe a gazing ball would be the ticket! What do you think?


  1. Great points on how to "expand one's land"! The borrowed view is so important. On one design, I even "borrowed" a neighbors' over-irrigating his lawn uphill...solved my client's basement flooding issues and added a lush zone in front that needed no water of hers'!

    Great ideas on transitioning from others' property into yours', too.

  2. I really like that idea about 'borrowing' irrigation! You're a genius. :)

  3. Yes that is exactly what I do - I planted the same kinds of plants as my neighbour (red ginger) and once the fence was obscured you could not tell where my small yard ended and hers began. Grat idea to use repeating plants as borders as well

  4. Good tips, Steve. When we moved into our home the previous owner and one neighbor had combined to create a large flowerbed. The only indication of where the properties divide is a piece of pvc pipe in the middle of the bed. I like the idea and the look of the bed.

  5. Hey,
    That's looking fantastic. One suggestion; could you show a 'before and after' scenario? I'd like to see what it looked like before the nice changes.

  6. How nice to have those woods behind the garden. Hope they are protected and will stay. So many beautiful views are gobbled up by more houses.

  7. Great ideas, Steve. Too bad I can't apply most. We all have perimeter fences, or cement walls that are at least 6ft. tall. I don't even have a neighboring view to borrow. Should I move to Florida then? ;-)

  8. Africanaussie: I wish I could grow red ginger around here too! At least I can grow some gingers...

    Susan: That's a really neat idea! I've read that sharing projects between neighbors is a bad idea since structures, hardscaping, etc. can fall into disrepair, but I think that sharing a flowerbed is a wonderful idea! I wish that more people would do the same!

    David: You're right: I do need to find something along those lines... you always offer such great suggestions!

    Nanak: Those woods were a big selling point for my parents. They're just a small patch of abandoned planted pines, but I'm thrilled with what we can get!

    Bom: Hey, a neighboring view is pointless if you have your own fabulous view to enjoy!


Please feel free to share your questions, ideas and suggestions!