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Through the looking glass--the magic of reflection in the garden

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10/13/2005
Through the looking glass--the magic of reflection in the garden

Although much of the writing I do in these pages could be characterized as 'reflections on the garden,' here it's reflections in the garden I want to talk about. That is to say, the use of reflective surfaces--such as water or mirrors--to add depth, movement, color, and, well--magic--to the garden.

The magic, of course, is due to the illusion provided by the reflection--the illusion of another world, where everything is of course in mirror image, in a way, backward from reality. Some small part of our child's mind still perceives that illusion as a truly existing realm, an idea which of course reached its pinnacle of fantasy in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass. Perhaps we could experience that realm if we could only figure out how to pierce the reflection, stretched like a skin between two worlds, without shattering it into a million pieces.

The operative word here, I believe, is illusion. A reflection is perhaps the ultimate visual illusion. And a garden is itself in many ways an exercise in illusion. A garden gives us an illusion of the natural world, in a large sense, that comprises many smaller illusions. A well-made garden can, for instance, give the illusion of isolation, which we call privacy. Or, the illusion of spaciousness, when in fact its area is small. A path winding though the garden can give us the illusion of suspense as we imagine what may be around the next bend. Reflections, as illusions, then fit right into the spirit of the garden.



Although we rarely think about it, water's reflective surface is responsible for a large part of its appeal in the garden. This reflective quality is of course what makes for our concept of 'blue' water--which is largely due to its reflecting a blue sky. While 'blue water' is beautiful in its own right, such a simple reflection can be doubly striking when artfully framed--whether by trees or manmade structures (photo right).




Some of the most interesting uses of reflection I have seen have been at the garden festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire. While most of us conceive of water in the garden as a pool deep enough to support at least some goldfish, for reflective purposes, a very thin film of water will do. In this checkerboard pool at Chaumont a couple of years ago, squares of water alternate with squares of mirror glass. Duckweed has been allowed to grow in the aqueous squares, which remain 'opaque,' while the glass squares mirror the sky and surrounding vegetation. The resulting effect is much more intriguing than just a simple open pool. One could imagine a further deconstruction by making the partitions more abstract in shape for a truly Cubist pattern.



The idea of creating partitions in the reflective surface of water is taken one step farther in the garden pool at right. Here, rectangular partitions are 'painted' with differently colored water plants, creating concentric panels of color. Meanwhile, patches of duckweed in the surrounding open water make for organic interruptions in the reflective surface which contrast with the stark geometry of the plant panels.

A truly breathtaking use of planted partitions on the surface of pool is shown in another Chaumont garden pictured at the head of this article. Concentric spiraling partitions are planted with floating plants or alternately filled with duckweed. This painted spiral is in dramatic juxtaposition to the mosaicked reflections of trees in the open water of the pool. The spiral, at once full of potential energy yet smoothly organic, is always a powerful form to use in the garden.



Reflective bodies of water can also be used to double the impact of visual elements, whether plants, sculptures, or other structures. The sloping banks of a pond planted with flowering azaleas will be twice as colorful as the same planting in open ground, for example. Likewise, the value of the blue enamel sculptural fountain (photo left) is heightened by its reflection in the water, while its stark geometric character is softened as its reflection is distorted by ripples.



Reflective surfaces in the garden don't always have to be parallel to the sky to be effective. In the photo at right, a mirror is imbedded in the wall surrounding a potager (vegetable garden), adding the unmistakeable whimsy and magic of the 'looking-glass' effect. I myself am keeping my eye out for old, partly desilvered mirrors, which I plan to frame in unusual ways and install here and there in our gardens. Mirrors used in this way can be used to create framed 'paintings' of the garden--itself an intriguing idea.



Reflective surfaces in the garden don't always serve to provide mirror images. In the humorous garden installation at Chaumont (photo left) showing the consequences of a picnic spoon dropped and left behind, thousands of spoons have been imbedded in a shallow pool to give the impression that they are multiplying in the primordial mud. The silvery reflective surfaces of the spoons serve to define our perception of the contours of this sculpture, at the same time that they provide intriguing interplay with the reflective surface of the water.

You don't have to have a large garden, or even a pool, to make the most of reflections in your garden. A small garden in fact is the perfect opportunity to use reflection much as a small restaurant will install a mirrored wall: to give the illusion of space. For example, imagine an antique mirror set into the privacy fence of a townhouse garden. Carefully placed in the line of sight from a patio abutting the house, the mirror will give an illusion of depth as well as providing a simultaneous and wholly different view of the garden.



Even a simple flowerpot can profit from reflection. In the photo above left, an arched hanger suspends a flowering container over a mirror, allowing us a vertiginous glimpse into the hearts of the overhanging blossoms. Mirrors can be used to disclose hidden aspects of plants. Vita Sackville-West claimed to have a special tiny vase fitted into a mirrored base which was designed to view the delicate interiors of pendulous snowdrop blossoms. I'm thinking of 'planting' a mirror under the downward-facing blossoms of my hellebores this coming winter, which will not only allow us to better appreciate the blossoms, but will provide a charming illusion of ice in the chilly landscape.



The one aspect of reflections that I've left untouched is the sense of calm and serenity they instill. I believe that part of the reason for this impression is that the physical reflection which our eyes perceive is a metaphor for our own turning inward, to think calmly and gain perspective on our situation in life, by gazing quietly at ourselves--in reflection, as it were.

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