How To Use A Borrowed View To Expand Your Garden

Who doesn’t love a great view? Unfortunately they’re not always easy to come by. That’s why, when designing a garden, I always look beyond the fixed borders of the space and if I see something great, I borrow the view.

The Asian concept of shakkei, or integrating a distant landscape into a garden composition, has been practiced for centuries. Also known as ‘borrowed scenery’, it can include virtually anything that is not physically located on-site. In my work, this often means taking advantage of surrounding woodlands and fields, or even a solitary tree, to naturally pull the eye towards the horizon and expand the view.


View across fields bordering the Jardin d’Eyrignac


The best thing about a borrowed view is that it can make a garden appear larger than it actually is. It can also play with perspective. According to the 17th century Chinese garden manual Yuanye (a guidebook that has formed the basis of East Asian garden design for centuries), there are four main categories of borrowed scenery.

Distant borrowing focuses on large-scale landscapes such as mountains and lakes

Adjacent borrowing involves neighboring buildings and landscape features

Upward borrowing includes sky and clouds

Downward borrowing draws on ponds, rocks, sand, gravel, fish and even reflections


A quick look around your property will immediately acquaint you with how your garden is situated in relation to the above four dynamics. The first question you should always ask yourself is: What is the distinguishing feature in the wider landscape?

In my work, distant borrowing often involves capitalizing on a borrowed view across a meadow, a peek into a woods or a large distinguishing tree in the landscape.


Adjacent borrowing is more intimate in scale and particularly benefits the smaller garden. When designing a space, I’ll look to the neighbors’ yards to see what trees and shrubs they’ve planted. Then, I’ll repeat similar drifts of same species in my client’s gardens. This visually unites the groupings and makes the garden appear larger.

Other times, adjacent borrowing can involve a distinctive architectural feature that borders on the property. The stone wall in the photo below is actually the exterior wall of my client’s neighbor’s garage. We incorporated it into the garden design (asking the neighbors if it was OK to mount the sculpture.) Then, we repeated drifts of the same skip laurels that the neighbor had planted in their yard to form a seamless composition.


Incorporating a neighbor’s stone wall and trees into the garden composition

Of course, we can all take advantage of upward borrowing, since most all of us have access to the sky and clouds. Long views across meadows and pastures incorporate not only distant landscapes, but also sky, which in many cases becomes the dominant feature.

But, I also like to think of sky as embodied in particular plant species (or the enjoyment of them). For instance, tall, wispy cosmos or Gaura ‘Whirling Butterflies’ use sky as a backdrop to showcase their unique undulating nature.


Cosmos flowers and sky

And sky is an essential backdrop to trees with interesting branch structure.


Upward borrowing from trees in autumn

Sometimes there are great landscape or architectural features located below your garden that can serve as a borrowed view. The lake at the base of this garden pagoda is an example of downward borrowing. Its mirrored surface serves to complement and expand the Japanese garden planted along the edges of the pagoda. And the sound of its moving water adds to the overall enjoyment of the garden.


Japanese garden at Maryland’s Brookside Gardens


One of the best ways to capitalize on a borrowed view is called framing. Framing involves deciding on what view you want to feature and then blocking the surrounding scenery to focus on only that view.


Example of framing at James Madison’s Montpelier Estate

Framing helps create the illusion of depth by obscuring those elements that would normally indicate the distance between the observer and the distant landscape. This helps bring the borrowed view forward and make it part of the composition.

Hedges and other shrubbery are a great way to frame a view. Dense foliage does a great job of obscuring the broader landscape, while a simple window or door cut through the hedge provides an inviting borrowed view.


Borrowed view at Jardin d’Eyrignac


Borrowing takes careful observation of the surrounding landscape.  When done effectively, it can strengthen the relationship between a garden and its surrounding environment. Winter is a great time to take stock of the many distant, adjacent and downward landscape features that are available. Try borrowing a few and watch as your garden expands exponentially.


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