A Room with a View

Design garden scenes that look good from inside the house

Fine Gardening - Issue 112

Distant view: Making the most out of a long, sweeping vista helps you enjoy your garden when you aren’t even in it.
Photo/Illustration: Designed by Wesley Rouse for his garden in Southbury, Conn.

The large window in my home office looks out onto a deep backyard, where weeping willows and majestic sequoias in adjacent properties extend the view so that my back garden looks much bigger than its actual size. This panorama, unfortunately, is the exception. Many of the windows in my other rooms—the kitchen, living room, and dining room—face a busy road.

It happens quite often. Many of us are burdened with unfortunate views. Sometimes a window in a frequently used family room looks out on a garage next door, or a breakfast nook peers into the neighbor’s family room. But with some purposeful planning, it’s easy to transform a plain, or even unsightly, view into a beautiful picture and bring the garden into your home every day of the year.

Up-close view: A tree with interesting bark or a well-placed bird feeder are eye-catching.
Photo/Illustration: Michelle Gervais

A practical way to start planning is to spend time in front of a favorite window. Take your normal position, whether standing at the kitchen window while rinsing dishes or sitting at the table. What lies within your frame of view, and what else would you like to see there? What’s most important at this location? Would you like your view to be nearby and detailed or a vista? The amount of space you’re working with will influence your choices of color and texture. A vista is like an impressionistic watercolor, painted with broad brushstrokes, while a close-up view is more like a carefully drawn pen-and-ink sketch with fine definition.

Enjoy subtle elements up close

Up-close view: When your plants will be close at hand, take advantage of intricate foliage details and subtle colors.
Photo/Illustration: Designed by Wesley Rouse for his garden in Southbury, Conn.

Close-up views benefit most from intriguing details like intricate foliage patterns and darker, more saturated colors. I love the pattern of the glossy leaflets of Mexican orange blossom (Choisya ternata and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 8–10), which I can see right outside the dining-room window. Containers of annuals and small-flowered plants just beneath my office window are easy to appreciate from my desk, especially flowering maples (Abutilon spp. and cvs., Zones 8–11), which are just tall enough to give me a close-up look of their red and yellow lanterns. I’ve trained a clematis (Clematis spp. and cvs., Zones 4–11) across a pipe just outside the window so that I can look right down onto its big violet flowers. Outside my living-room window, I look up from my reading chair into the pendant white bells of Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonicus and cvs., Zones 6–8). If you were facing a bank, I can’t imagine anything lovelier than a sweep of pendant hellebores (Helleborus spp. and cvs., Zones 4–9). Dark flowers and leaves, fine-textured foliage, a small sculpture, or a water feature are also suited to tight inspection.

You can also add close-up interest to larger views. For example, the view from my office window includes the broad trunk of a sweet gum tree, nearby island beds, a faraway grape arbor, and a larger-than-life-size ceramic sculpture in the distance. To make the near views more interesting, I introduced ornamental details in the foreground—a rustic bird feeder is nailed to the stout sweet gum trunk, and a birdbath stands in the island bed closest to the window. I now enjoy watching the birds feeding, bathing, and swooping gracefully between these two destinations.


A distant view calls for masses and bright colors

When your space is deep and your view is far away, bright flowers and leaves send their light farthest and are invaluable for viewing from a distance. In my garden, brilliant roses in orange, bright pink, and apricot show up well even 50 feet away. The variegated leaves of ‘Hedgerows Gold’ redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Hedgerows Gold’, Zones 3–8) and ‘Silver and Gold’ yellow twig dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Silver and Gold’, Zones 3–8) make luminous spotlights a hundred feet from my office window. It’s the same with ‘Frosty Morn’ sedum (Sedum erythrostictum ‘Frosty Morn’, Zones 6–9), which edges an island bed down my garden path. Its creamy variegation glows from afar. Silver, blue-green, and golden leaves all similarly emanate light.

One can also use masses of a single plant to create bold brushstrokes for a landscape planting that is easy to discern from a distance. One of my island beds is filled with dahlias (Dahlia spp. and cvs., Zones 9–11), whose large flowers make big splashes of hot pink, peach, and creamy yellow that fill the space in summer and fall. My 12-foot-tall hedge of Florida grass (Miscanthus giganteus, Zones 6–9) makes a dramatic curtain with a vertical thrust that draws the eye down to the bottom of the garden. In October, it turns golden, becoming a compelling destination when it glows in the late-afternoon light.

Plan for seasonal views

Most of us spend more time indoors in winter, especially in the dining room and kitchen. It’s wise to emphasize seasonal interest in front of windows that you’re likely to be frequenting then— say, in a sunroom or family room. On a cold or gray winter day, it’s uplifting to catch a glimpse of flowering winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima, Zones 4–8), witch hazel (Hamamelis spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9), or ‘February Gold’ daffodils (Narcissus ‘February Gold’, Zones 3–9).

 Windows looking out onto a patio or pool that gets heavy summer use would naturally benefit from roses, hydrangeas, and other summer-blooming perennials and annuals. And near windows used year-round—a living room and home office, for example—good choices are broad-leaved evergreens and conifers with foliage and form that remain attractive in all seasons.

Plant for privacy when it counts

Privacy view: A hedge to block out the street can also create the perfect place for a seating area.

Place shrubs, trees, fencing, or trellises to screen a neighbor’s window or deck from your view. Where space is narrow, tall clumping bamboo (Fargesia spp. and cvs., Zones 5–9) makes a lacy curtain that separates areas. Or plant fastigiate yew (Taxus spp. and cvs., Zones 5–8) and columnar arborvitae (Thuja spp. and cvs., Zones 2–9) as hedges. Where there’s more room for a spreading canopy, incense cedars (Calocedrus spp. and cvs., Zones 5–8) or pines (Pinus spp. and cvs., Zones 3–10) make good screens. I prefer broad-leaved trees such as evergreen magnolia (Magnolia spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9) and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp. and cvs., Zones 8–10) because they reflect more light, a valuable quality in the often overcast Pacific Northwest climate.

 To thicken privacy screens, plant evergreen shrubs to fill in between the trunks and in front of the trees. I’m a big fan of Mexican orange blossom, especially the fine-textured ‘Aztec Pearl’ and golden-leaved ‘Sundance’. Using golden-, variegated-, or silver-leaved shrubs adds long-lasting color to the picture.

 With consideration for the ways you look out from your home, you can enjoy your garden from the inside almost as much as you do on the outside.


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