Blue sky, puffy white clouds and autumn colour are reflected in the Skating Pond at Glen Villa.

Reflecting on Reflections

Who could walk past this scene without pausing to admire the clouds reflected in the water below?

Blue sky, puffy white clouds and autumn colour are reflected in the Skating Pond at Glen Villa.
Blue sky, puffy white clouds and autumn colour are reflected in the Skating Pond at Glen Villa.

 

Reflections show the world around us. They can reveal aspects of a scene we might otherwise miss. They are — or can be — great additions to any garden. But using them well requires thought and planning.

Water is one of the easiest reflecting surfaces to include in a garden. But before proceeding willy-nilly, consider the effect you want to achieve. Do you want the water to reflect the sky alone, or to say something about the setting of the garden, as the tiny pool in this English garden does?

A square pool surrounded by boxwood reflects the sky above, at Gothick House, the garden of photographer Andrew Lawson.
A square pool surrounded by boxwood at Gothick House, the garden of photographer Andrew Lawson, reflects the sky and the surrounding rooftops.

 

You may want to avoid reflecting some views: telephone poles, power lines, garbage. Or you may choose to include them deliberately, to make a statement about your garden and its position in the world.

Garbage is reflected in the waters of the Nile River.
Garbage is reflected in the waters of the Nile in Egypt. I doubt this reflection was chosen deliberately. But it does make a statement.

 

What you choose to reflect is one question. What you want the reflection to accomplish is another. Do you want to show a mirror image? Depending on the angle of the view and the angle of the light, still water reflects what is around it quite accurately. Or it can.  Sometimes the reflection is clearer and more striking than the thing itself.  In the photo below, the sky appears bluer in reflection than it is in reality.

Trees by the Skating Pond are reflected in the still water.
The intensity of colour is affected by the angle of light. Here the actual sky appears washed out in comparison to its reflection. The trees also look greener in the water.

 

Still water can play tricks with colour; moving water can do even more.  Trees and autumn foliage become as abstracted as a painting — not in oil or acrylic but in coloured water.

An abstract watercolour
Water moved by the wind and a light current produces swirling colours:  an abstract watercolour.

 

Turbulent water reflects motion alone.

Water pours through the glen that gave Glen Villa its name.
Water pours through the glen that gave Glen Villa its name.

 

But even still water doesn’t always offer a good reflecting surface.  At certain times of the day or in certain seasons, this canal at Broughton Grange in England may mirror the sky, the trees or the plantings around it. But when I was there, it was a flat pewter surface that reflected greyness and dampened my appreciation of the garden, designed by the Chelsea Gold Medal winner, Tom Stuart-Smith.

A canal moves through dense plantings at Broughton Grange in England.
A canal moves through dense plantings on one level of the Walled Garden at Broughton Grange in England.

 

The clarity of the water matters — the clearer the surface, the sharper the reflection — and clarity can be a function of water temperature. I took the photo below at the end of an October day, when the water temperature in the Skating Pond at Glen Villa had dropped enough to kill off the vegetation that grows in warmer months.

 

Nothing is growing in this cold water. That enhances the clarity of the reflection.
Nothing is growing in this cold water, so the reflection is particularly vivid..

 

Muddy water or pools where the surface is mostly covered with vegetation are not good reflectors. Water that sparkles in sunlight isn’t either — unless you want to send a message about light alone. Dark water is different. When dark water is still and calm, it captures reflections superbly and can add an air of mystery to any garden tableau. From straight on, the undulating hedges at Veddw, a garden in Wales, suggest a labyrinthine path leading into the woods beyond. Reflected, they suggest a watery road to a dark and hidden world.

The reflecting pond at Veddw, Wales, a garden created by Anne Wareham and Charles Hawes.
This reflecting pond is at Veddw, Wales, a garden created by Anne Wareham and Charles Hawes.

 

Using water to reflect the surroundings can do more than enhance a garden and double the viewing pleasure. This Chinese-style bridge that forms a perfect circle when reflected in the water alludes to other gardens in other places, built in other times. The allusion connects the North American garden to an historic Chinese garden tradition and, in doing so, adds richness to the experience of being there.

A Chinese-style moon bridge forms a perfect circle when reflected in the water.
The moon bridge is at Les Quatre Vents, a garden in Quebec designed by the late Frank Cabot, founder of The Garden Conservancy.

 

Reflections in water can offer views of the world we might otherwise miss.  I took the photo below on a clear day. Was I looking up or looking down?  It’s not easy to say. That uncertainty is slightly disorienting — a good thing, in my books. Being disoriented makes us look harder, as we try to make sense of what we see.

An upside down picture helps us see the world with new eyes.
Is the blue a piece of sky or water?

 

Water isn’t the only reflecting surface — there are many other materials we can use — but it is one of the easiest. Next week I plan to look at other types of reflecting surfaces and consider the effects they create in a garden.

But before then, take a minute to share your thoughts. Have you included something in your garden that reflects what surrounds it? If you have, what did you want to achieve? I’d love to know.

  • Gabe

    I used to have an amazing pond in my backyard, it was great to just sit there and contemplate!

    • siteandinsight

      Sitting in a garden is a rare treat. Glad you could do it.

  • annewareham

    You know, it’s not easy to work out in advance of making a reflecting pool, just what will be reflected from where…Refraction is a mysterious business to some of us. I had to build the reflecting pool and wait to find out, though it seems obvious now. What do you do? Giant mirror?

    And maybe beware of reflecting nothing – so, as you say, the grey sky is all. In the UK that will be all a lot of the time…

    XXXX

    • siteandinsight

      You were lucky that your pond reflects the hedges so beautifully on one side and the bench (splendid shape and colour) on the other. Big ponds are easier — more surface = better chances of reflecting something interesting. Love the idea of tilting a giant mirror to get just the right reflection, then trying to design a tilted pond. Yeah, good luck with that.

      • Anne Wareham

        Great! That made me laugh..I hadn’t thought of a tilt, just the location (flat..). Yes we were lucky but I didn’t anticipate that the seat would look like, and remind people, of a fish.

        • siteandinsight

          Unexpected consequences are sometimes the best.

          • Anne Wareham

            Can be. By the way – looks like Andrew Lawson has box blight on your pic…

          • siteandinsight

            afraid so. hoping you wouldn’t notice.

          • Anne Wareham

            Miserable business..