Wear nude-colored shoes to make your legs look longer. Hang a mirror on a wall to make a room look larger. Tricking the eye to create the illusion that something is not quite what it seems is everywhere, including garden design. Small-space gardeners often seek to create the impression of more space, but illusion can take many forms.
Sun and Shadow
In March I enjoyed a much-needed vacation in Cancun. You may recall that the brilliant colors of Quintana Roo inspired me, but I was equally intrigued by how cultural and religious references were incorporated into the built environment, oftentimes for the purpose of creating illusions meant to evoke awe, reverence or fear.
In the ancient Mayan ruin of Chichen Itza, the Temple of Castillo is probably the most famous structure. Built to honor the serpent god Kukulcan, his presence is represented by the two stone serpents that flank either side of the staircase.
A true marvel of astronomy and mathematics, on the spring and autumn equinoxes, afternoon sunshine lights up a bright zigzag pattern made by the steps, creating the illusion that a giant serpent is slithering down the stairs.
This type of softly dispersed light more closely mimics the effect of moonlight in a way that can’t be achieved by a focused beam, helping to feed the illusion that the light source is natural.
The Illusion of Movement
On a day trip to Isla Mujeres, Kukulcan in serpent shape appeared again, this time embedded in a concrete staircase. Easily one of the most artful staircases I’ve ever seen, the slithering serpent outlined in carefully chosen stones adds a subtle sense of movement to the landscape. Creating the illusion of movement makes a garden feel alive, and is a no-fail strategy for turning an ordinary space into something extraordinary.
If a hardscape upgrade isn't in the cards, an easier way to do this is with plants. With their delicate foliage that sparkles in the light and sways with the slightest breeze, finely-textured ornamental grasses are the go-to solution for many gardeners.
But even in small gardens, one or two carefully placed grasses can achieve a similar effect. My favorite small-space grass for this particular design strategy is Pennisetum orientale (pictured here), but other grasses will work as well.
My time in Cancun reminded me that it is always worthwhile to look beyond obvious upgrades like hardscape and plants when rethinking your garden. In this instance, a few small illusions are all you need to bring the play of light, shadow and movement into your garden.