Designing for Drama; Reflections & Shadows

Serene beauty in Joanne White's garden in Redmond, WA. Photo credit; Ashley DeLatour

Serene beauty in Joanne White’s garden, Redmond, WA. Photo credit; Ashley DeLatour

What’s better than ONE luscious leaf? MORE luscious leaves!

Yet we can’t always add more plants, so what’s a foliage fancier to do? Try using the power of illusion – take advantage of reflections and shadows to amplify the beauty of foliage.


When designing a garden to take advantage of reflections there are two key factors to consider; the foliage you intend to reflect and the surface upon which to cast that reflection.

Foliage shapes and colors

Simple leaf shapes make for the clearest reflections. Stands of grasses or oversized bold leaves make a striking statements when reflected in a mirror like surface. The effect is to literally double the dramatic impact of the leaves.

Using a reflection to amplify brightly colored foliage is also a very effective design tool. In the opening photograph  the colorful display of a late summer garden is reflected in the tranquil pool. We have featured this stunning garden in our book Fine Foliage – see it on page 30. We called it ‘Masterpiece’ and you can see why.

The reflective surface

In garden design the two most commonly used reflective surfaces are  water  and mirrors.

The mighty Gunnera is even more magnificent when joined by its reflection

The mighty Gunnera is even more magnificent when reflected in water

A reflection distorted by ripples adds complexity to the scene. The Gunnera above arrests the eye by its sheer size and powerful form. The reflection does not give an accurate representation of the shape of the leaves yet the green hazy reflection adds a sense of mystery and enhances the scene.


Bellevue Botanical Gardens, WA

Still water has a glass-like surface resembling a true mirror. In the photograph above it is not the foliage adjacent to the stream which is reflected but rather the tall trees overhead. We see them as an impressionistic sweep of an artists brush yet they give us a sense of the greater picture beyond the boundaries of this lush vignette.

Reflections are not always on the ground plane. Mirrors can be hung on a vertical surface.


Avon Gardens, Indianapolis

This simple mirror hung on a fence reflects the leafy glade of trees opposite, bringing light, color and movement to an otherwise blank canvas.

Design by Alyson Ross-Markley

Design by Alyson Ross-Markley

The Japanese maple reflected in the mirror above is really quite the Charlie Brown of maple trees – rather thin and spindly. Yet seen within such an elegant frame its beauty is enhanced, the focus set on the attractive leaf shape and color rather than the tree as a whole.

This photograph also demonstrates another way to double your foliage fun – by using shadows. Notice the dappled shadows on the wall cast by larger trees – they add a new dimension to the leafy scene.


Whereas a reflection repeats the color, shape and size of a leaf  a shadow gives us the silhouette.

Remember making shadow puppets as a child on the canvas of a tent when you were supposed to be asleep? Successful leafy shadow puppets also need a smooth surface and as with reflections simple shapes are best; too many tiers of leaves or overly complex forms and the shadow loses definition. The following sequence of images taken at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden in San Francisco shows what I mean as I discovered interesting shadows cast on a beautiful rustic container.

Shadow puppets with a container

Here is what I first saw;

Can you see the potential?

Can you see the potential?

Lots of interesting shapes and a beautiful urn with great shadow potential but the overall composition is too busy. One leaf vies with another for shadow casting supremacy!

Getting closer

Getting closer

As we start to eliminate some of the foliage plants  we can get a better sense that the grass is the key shadow puppeteer. Re-frame the scene once again and we get to my final photo;

Final vignette

Final vignette

So now we see the shadows cast by the grass yet have the broader foliage to one side to add some weight but have lost most of the peripheral foliage fluff.  The take home message for your own garden then would be to select one key plant to be the shadow maker and set it to the side of your urn. Keep other plants simple, spaced and set back.

Using fabric

untitled-30Fabric can also be a perfect projector screen; don’t you just love the way this maple adds pattern to the shade canopy?  Sitting here on a summers day was delightful as I watched the shadows dance. This plain fabric of medium opacity is ideal. The foliage structure itself is open rather than dense which allows us to enjoy the shadows of individual palmate forms as well as clusters.

Using walls and fences


You want dramatic? These petite cacti have serious attitude thanks to the strong shadows cast by a late afternoon Arizona sun. The warm terracotta color of the wall works beautifully with the sandstone planters at sunset.

Taking advantage of the leaf architecture

IMG_0994Wicked! The deep clefts in this barrel cactus are cast into shadow while the spines appear even more menacing as shadows literally double their numbers. The cactus creates and projects its own shadows.

Using artificial lighting


Display garden at the San Francisco Flower and garden Show 2013

Shadows cast by  landscape lighting allow for greater artistic creativity since spotlights can be focused in strategic places.

These uplights cast an ethereal glow on the contemporary containers and small grasses seem much larger than life when projected in this way.

For another fun post on Summer Shadows enjoy this post by our friend Debra Lee Baldwin on Gardening Gone Wild

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1 thought on “Designing for Drama; Reflections & Shadows

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