Magic Illusions

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Magic Illusions

Jim Fogarty says creating illusions is one of the great trade secrets used by garden designers. Here, he explains how he goes about to create your own little bit of design magic.

There are many tricks that professional designers use to make the most of garden space. Illusion is one of the great secrets in design, and if you can understand and master the tricks of the trade, you will have the power to transform your garden into a designer’s showpiece.


This is all about making your garden feel larger than it really is. For example, laying a lawn right out to the edge of your garden boundary will give you a nice, large area of grass, but doing this actually makes your garden feel smaller, as your boundary fences enclose the space. By including deep garden beds, you can plant a variety of large and small shrubs, as well as having space to plant trees. Plan your lawn shape so that rather than having the whole thing spread out in front of you like a rug, create areas that are slightly hidden.

Curvaceous lawns can often give the feeling of more space and they have the benefit of creating tucked-away areas slightly hidden from the main view. Having depth in foliage also creates the sense that you are looking at a nice large garden, and as it helps to hide the fences it gives the illusion the garden goes on forever.

A garden that can be seen in its entirety from the back of the house will always appear smaller than one which has several usage zones and areas that are not seen at first glance.


I envy those who live in areas without fences, as the ideal is for every garden to borrow from the next. Ideally, I’d like to create illusion that a back garden continues forever. However in city areas this is not possible and boundary fences are a practical necessity.

To make the most of garden space the trick is to hide your fences as best as possible. Paint them or stain them a dark colour so they do not dominate the view. Avoid painting them bright colours unless you want to make a feature out of them. Use climbing plants wisely to conceal them with foliage. Trees can help shield fences and also cast shade so the sun doesn’t highlight them. If space permits, an ideal garden bed width is between 1-2m, allowing for large shrubs and trees. A garden without a visible fenceline is an ultimate aim in garden design.


The knee-jerk reaction to the drought has been to replace lawns with fake grass or with more paving materials and fewer plants. To help cool your garden in the heat of summer and to make your garden feel bigger, consider turning problem lawn areas into garden beds to help provide more shade from the summer heat. Choose suitable trees that will not grow too big and consider deciduous varieties which let in winter sun.

A little forest at home is a great way to create a sanctuary from the outside world, but it also creates the illusion that your house is surrounded by foliage and not by neighbouring houses.

The long view

One good way to make your garden look longer is to utilise a distant view or incorporate a piece of sculpture, an urn, or even a garden seat down the back of the garden. This becomes the focal point. It does not need to be centred, and sometimes it can be more interesting to set your focal point off-centre.

You could also allow an area at the back of the garden to segregate as a hidden service area where you can plant some distant foliage so that the back of your property is blurred by foliage. Try to bring in the sides of the garden by increasing garden bed sizes, and use paving to create a straight, long path, which adds to the illusion that your garden is longer.

Rather than running paving across the view, lay a pattern that runs to the back fence so that the paving looks like it runs along the view, making the garden look longer. Use darker paint colours in the background, and lighter shades in the foreground to exaggerate the depth of the garden.

Running wide

If your back garden is long and thin, you may want to make it feel wider to balance the feel of the space. Using horizontal elements in elevation is the key. Screens with horizontal timber bands, or even horizontal bands of stacked stone, can be very useful. Paving should run across the view with no continuous grout lines running to the back of the garden. Use a brighter or lighter-coloured paint at the back to reduce the length of the garden and use darker shades on the sides to make the garden feel wider. Lawn areas should also run across the main view to exaggerate the width of the garden.

Clever steps

One thing that people forget about in a small space is that you can sometimes step a garden down or up to make the space feel bigger. Digging down is a great way to add more air space to the area, and by looking down into a garden you can give the illusion that there is a lot more space.

Terracing in a small space also allows more green life by way of pots on steps and plants spilling down walls. Changing levels needs careful consideration from a drainage point of view and it is best to seek professional advice to avoid serious and potentially expensive problems. Green walls and hanging baskets are also great ways of utilising space to bring more green life into a small area.

Using colour

Colour can be the success story of a great garden if done well but if you get it wrong, it can become a tale of disaster.

If in doubt, use only two colours for the garden’s structural elements. A good combo is a darker colour, which might be drawn from the external house trims, plus a lighter colour, which might tie in with your choice of paver.

Use the same principle when it comes to selecting plants and flower colours. A simple colour palette will always be more successful in a garden if you are not confident of using multiple colours.