5 Ways to Make a Garden Look Larger

A side-scan MRI of a human brain.
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­The human brain is a magnificent organ. It accepts raw information gathered by the senses, filters out the useless junk, identifies important data and compiles it into perceptions of the world around us. It's fairly amazing, if you think about it. Oh wait: You can't do that without your brain. How amazing is that?

­As refined as it is, the human brain can also be easily tricked. Take our spatial recognition processes, for example. The brain can be deceived in three dimensions through illu­sions that alter the pe­rception of space. More specifically, the brains of your friends and neighbors can be fooled into assuming your tiny yard is actually a large one. How can this happen? The brain uses cues like relative speed of motion and perspective to construct our perception of a three-dimensional space [source: Cal Tech]. Animators simulate these cues in two dimensions, for example, through the use of linear perspective, which uses a single focal point to simulate distance. Done even roughly, the brain will perceive a series of two dimensional lines as a transparent cube.


You can use this bit of trickery to your advantage. If you're saddled with a teeny backyard and size matters to you, we've got five good techniques for making your landscape appear larger than it really is. Let's begin.

5. Use Color Wisely

Warm-colored flowers
Warm-colored flowers.
Philip Dowell/Getty Images

­Have you ever wondered why we humans grow plants for recreation? The biggest reason may be for the color they provide. Used wisely, the colors found in your garden plants can help expand the appearance of your yard.

Warm colors (like red, yellow, brown and orange) have an exciting effect on the human brain. As a result, we are visually drawn toward them and they appear to advance toward us [source: Texas A&M]. Conversely, cool colors (like blue, green, pink and purple) appear to recede an­d visually blend in with the landscape.


By installing warm colored plants near the central focus of your yard -- usually the house -- you'll draw attention to it. Installing cool colored plants along the borders and edges of your yard will create the illusion of distance and your yard will appear larger as a result.

4. Texture is Your Friend

Rosemary, with its abundant, tiny leaves, is a fine-textured plant.
Bambu Productions/­Getty Images

­Like color, texture can also create the illusion of distance. Plants are divided texturally into three categories -- fine, medium and coarse [source: Cornell University]. These distinctions are based on the way a plant reflects light. A fine plant with lots of tiny leaves reflects lots of light and tends to form an airy whole. Coarse, large-leafed plants include lots of gaps where shadows can hide, creating a starker contrast between light and dark.

Like warm-colored plants, coarse-textured plants tend to catch the eye. Fine-textured plants, like plants with cool colors, demand less visual attention and therefore fade into the background and seem more distant. By creating a textured visual line away from your garden's focal point, with the coarsest plants nearest the center and fine-textured plants farthest away, you can create a false impression of distance. The eye of the beholder will be fooled.


3. Turn Japanese

Japanese garden
A Japanese garden in Kyoto.
Baerbel Schmidt/Getty Images

­Having been crammed onto a small island for the last few millennia, the Japanese have become masters at creating the illusion of additional space in small gardens. The Japanese have developed several techniques that use perspective to add perceived distance to actual distance.

One of those techniques is called altered perspective. The brain perceives small objects as farther away in relation to larger ones. By simply placing larger objects close to the viewer and smaller landscape elements beyond, you exaggerate the illusion of perspective. As ­a result, the perceived distance between the objects becomes larger (as does your yard). The Japanese also employ bonsai -- miniaturized plants -- to alter perspective as well [source: Young, et al].


Miegakure is another Japanese technique that extends the size of a yard beyond its actual borders. By adroitly cluttering the landscape so that elements are hidden by other elements, the landscape isn't revealed all at once [source: Young, et al]. A garden unfolds as the viewer ventures into it, obscuring its actual size.

2. Think Vertically

Leyland cypress
Illustration of a Leyland cypress, an evergreen with an upright growth habit.
Sue Oldfield/­Getty Images

­Making a landscape larger doesn't necessarily pertain exclusively to the surface area. The brain also deduces space size based on height. By adding visual cues that draw the eye upward, you can make a yard that's limited in square footage appear larger. Trees are an excellent addition for adding height to a garden.

Take care in choosing tall trees, however. Trees' growth habits can take different shapes, such oval, round, upright or conical. Some trees will grow outward as much as upward, a characteristic you'll want to avoid with a yard you're trying to make larger. When adding height in a small yard, you'll want upright and oval plants that will sacrifice the least amount of available space. Evergreens like Leyland cypress and deciduous trees like the Eastern redbud will both grow up, though not as far out. Plant carefully and you'll have the best of both worlds -- a garden that appears larger without giving up planting space.


1. Accept Your Limitations

Bird bath
To add the element of water to a small garden, try a bird bath.
Gay Bumgarner/­Getty Images

­So you've mastered the arts of bonsai and miegakure, you can actually distinguish between warm and cool colors using only your sense of smell and you have the tallest, narrowest trees on the block. Even with all of these perceptual tricks, you should face a stark reality: Your garden is small. Absorb that information, chew on it for a minute or two, and then accept it.

A small yard doesn't mean landscape elements have to be excluded; it just limits the size of those elements. Proportion is a big factor in the perception of size because large elements juxtaposed in a small yard cast a glaring light on the small size of that yard. Opting for smaller versions of landscape elements like plants, trees and rocks can make your garden less cluttered and expanding its perceived size.


If you're limited in yard size you might want to pass on a huge pond and waterfall that takes up most of the available space. Instead, try a bird bath on for size or install a small water feature. A landscape element that's proportionate to the size of your garden might not make it look larger, but it won't look awkward either [source: Duxbury].

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Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Duxbury, Paul P. "How to make the most out of a small garden or yard." Garden Décor Galore. 2006. http://www.gardendecorgalore.com/howtomakethemostofasmallgardenoryard
  • Klett, J.E. and Wilson, C. "Small deciduous trees." Colorado State University. February 2004.http://www.ext.colostate.edu/PUBS/garden/07418.html
  • Young, David et al. "The Art of the Japanese Garden." Tuttle Publishing. 2005. http://books.google.com/books?id=4Sop_sXavpMC&pg=PA20&lpg=PA20&dq=make+landscaping+appear+bigger&source=web&ots=leU-r3BwaA&sig=H8Gbnohh7uKksONJa1sgZ6tI994
  • "Elements and principles of landscape design." Texas A & M University. 2007. http://imsonline.tamu.edu/Courses/Samples/361Landscape/361docs/8912BST.pdf
  • "Flower borders make your landscape look larger." Alabama Cooperative Extension System. May 22, 1999. http://www.aces.edu/dept/extcomm/newspaper/borders.html
  • "Neuroscientists locate area of brain responsible for 3-D vision." Cal Tech. April 16, 1998. http://mr.caltech.edu/media/lead/041698PER.html
  • "Using texture in flower gardens." Cornell University. 2006. http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/homegardening/scene43bf.html