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 look beyond the borders of the space. And if I see something great, I borrow the view.


The Asian concept of shakkei, or incorporating a distant landscape into a garden composition, has been practiced for centuries. Also known as ‘borrowed scenery’, it can include anything that is not actually on-site. In the case of my work, this often means using surrounding woodlands, neighboring fields, or even a lone tree. These natural features help pull the eye towards the horizon. At the same time, they expand the view.


View across fields bordering the Jardin d’Eyrignac


The best thing about a borrowed view is that it makes a garden appear much larger than it actually is. It also plays with perspective. According to the Chinese garden manual Yuanye, 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 encompasses sky and clouds.

And Downward borrowing draws on ponds, rocks, sand, gravel, fish, even reflection.


A glance around will immediately acquaint you with how your garden fits in this framework. The first question to ask yourself is: What is the distinguishing feature in the broader landscape?

In the case of my work, distant borrowing often involves capitalizing on a view across a meadow, a peek into the woods or a unique element in the surrounding countryside.


Adjacent borrowing is more intimate in scale and particularly benefits the small garden. When designing a tight space, I’ll look to see what the neighbors have planted. Then I’ll repeat drifts of the same species for my client, tying the groups together and visually enlarging the garden. 

Other times, I’ll borrow a view from an interesting architectural feature that borders the property. For instance, the stone wall (below) is actually the exterior wall of a neighbor’s garage. We incorporated it into the design by adding a sculpture (the neighbor said it was OK). Then, we repeated drifts of their same plantings to form a unified 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 of us have access to clouds and sky. Long views across meadows, far-off mountains or woodlands also incorporate these natural features. In some cases, one or the other may even be the dominant element.

On a smaller scale, clouds and sky can highlight certain aspects of particular plant species. For example, the long, undulating stems of cosmos or wandflower are best appreciated when viewed against the sky. 


Cosmos flowers and sky

And sky provides an essential backdrop to plants of all sizes including trees with interesting branch structure.


Upward borrowing from trees in autumn

Sometimes there are great landscape or architectural features located below your garden that you can borrow. Below is an example of downward borrowing. The lake’s mirrored surface serves to complement and visually expand the area around the Japanese pagoda. And, the sound of 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. A common device in garden design, it involves deciding on what element you want to feature, then blocking the surrounding scenery to focus on just that view.


Example of framing at James Madison’s Montpelier Estate

Framing creates the illusion of depth by obscuring those elements that would normally indicate distance. This brings the borrowed view forward and makes it appear part of the composition.

Due to their dense foliage, trees, shrubs and in particular hedges are a natural way to frame a view. But don’t overlook the value of a simple pair of trees, columns or even urns which also serve to direct the eye towards a focal element. 


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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About carole funger

I'm a landscape designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?