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Creating a grand illusion

Physical boundaries are no obstacle for landscape designers when it comes to enlarging a small yard. Wide-ranging visual and spatial ploys fool the eye, turning urban plots into distinctive havens.

November 03, 2005|Lili Singer | Special to The Times

KATHLEEN IRVINE moves carefully past tufts of New Zealand hair sedge that flank the skinny path, ducks under the silver-leafed willow wattle and unlatches the tall gate. Then it's a few paces to an elegant, raised redwood deck with extra-large steps that double as seating, overlooking a Lilliputian landscape of dwarf trees and grasses, thread-leaf nandina, mossy rocks and a "Stickman" sculpture cooling his heels in a burbling stream.

A curtain of gold and green 'Alphonse Karr' bamboo encloses the restful tableau, a serene mountain landscape that seems hollowed out of forest. Of course, it isn't. Not here in Venice, not in a backyard with less than 1,200 square feet of usable space. The magnitude of the garden is only an illusion, a collection of visual and spatial tricks employed to make a small lot seem larger.

"It's all people versus space with these tiny little yards," she says.

Irvine, owner of Blue Gecko Landscape Design, created the landscape for independent film producer Dan Abrams, who wanted a casual backyard retreat with room for company. The design needed to include a Larry Bell sculpture he admired, but his principle goal was to "make the space bigger."

How do designers accomplish that mission, especially when faced with backyards with so little ground to work with? Think simple and small, Irvine says. The solution lies in manipulating scale and proportion, in color and form. The garden design often doesn't need to fool the eye; it just needs to distract it.

In Abrams' garden, Irvine removed a pepper tree growing in the center. She also took out a huge 'Cecile Brunner' rose and masses of bronze Phormium, opening the view and maximizing deck space -- and leaving a smidgen of ground for pavers and plants.

She scaled down all elements of the Asian-inspired landscape. Like carefully wrought bonsai, Abrams' plants, stones and sculpture captivate and deceive the eye. With a terra-cotta chiminea, a table and chairs at one end, the 10-by-25-foot flagstone patio is barely large enough for slow dancing, but the brain perceives something larger.

Garden designers use other ploys to manipulate space and alter perception. Most are based on principles of linear perspective devised by 15th century Italian artists. A wide path can foreshorten a view, whereas a narrow one can create the perception of distance. An undulating walkway that disappears behind a curve connotes the existence of more garden, even when there is none.

"Gardens by Design," a new book by Noel Kingsbury (Timber Press, $34.95), compiles wisdom from more than two dozen great designers, including John Brookes of England and Isabelle Greene of California. A Brit named George Carter recommends using gray or blue gravel to make paths seem longer -- a color trick that Carter says also applies to plants. Another ruse: Change the size of gravel on paths and surfaces, so that the larger size is near the main viewpoint and the smaller is at the far end.

To block utility poles or other unsightly structures, designer Irvine will forgo a tall, claustrophobic hedge and instead use interesting plants in the foreground to distract the eye. Between the alley gate and garage in Abrams' backyard, a V-shaped purple-leafed banana gets attention, rather than the phone pole behind it. "You don't look any further because you are so fascinated by what you see," she says.

Of course, gardens are almost by definition a collection of illusions -- compacted, contrived and embellished by their makers and caretakers. They're unnatural natural spaces, created for reflection and delight. Westside Realtor Tony Yollin lives only two doors from Abrams, but his garden is a world away, a cozy slice of the tropics entered through a high gate and over a wide, raised deck. The view is so unexpected and arresting, so pleasant a rush. It's primeval jungle, dark and mysterious, and seemingly without end. The sound of water dominates.

A shaft of sun illuminates a berm of opalescent succulents. Spanish moss drips from jacaranda boughs hanging over a deep, koi-filled pond and rushing waterfall. Flowering vines, maidenhair ferns and plants with large shiny leaves -- gingers, begonias, ligularia, alocasia (elephant's ear) -- thrive in the constant mist. Two resident frogs, Jasper and Jaspette, hang out on the rocks and snag insects. Rare fuchsias and heliconias sustain the hummingbirds.

Though tranquil, the garden is full of movement. "Simplicity, repetition and many focal points provide harmony and ease the eyes," says Irvine, who designed this space too.

A different illusion is at play in John and Susan Zinners' Santa Monica garden, the creation of landscape designer Stephanie Wilson Blanc and architect Bobby Rees of Robert S. Rees Studio. Their goal: to transform a 7-by-67-foot-long passageway beside the house into a tree-shaded strolling garden with elevated patio, bench and water element.

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