Spare No Expanse

Don't let the bare exterior wall of a garage or shed dominate your yard. Give it a job to do.

October 28, 2011

The blank expanse of a wall in a landscape can loom large. What is to be done with it? The easy thing is to do nothing, or resort to plopping a lone ornament there.

But a plain wall can be an exciting springboard for design opportunities, such as creating a backdrop for a garden room, injecting style and personality into a garden, or establishing mood.


"Consider it a great asset, not a liability," says John Staab, landscape architect for The Brickman Group in Long Grove, Illinois, on the outskirts of Chicago. Here are some ideas for making the most of a featureless wall.

Create a view.

Soften the vast space of a blank wall by decorating it with materials that blend with the home's architecture and the style of the garden. For instance, add a real or faux window, with or without shutters. An arrangement of thoughtfully chosen ornaments, similar to a grouping of pictures inside the home, cheers up a lifeless wall. Vine-clothed trellises, Victorian-era latticework, a row of vintage shutters, or a fruit tree pruned to hug the wall can also be used to break up the surface.

Trompe l'oeil—a technique for painting murals so realistic that they appear to be three-dimensional—introduces a note of whimsy. For example, an empty wall in a tiny Chicago back yard was painted with a scene of a door opening out into a fantasy garden, pulling visitors instinctively toward it.

New weather-tolerant outdoor fabrics provide even more design opportunities. They can be hung as draperies and pulled back with ties, or run entirely across a wall to soften it, as is done inside a home.

Decorating a wall in a garden introduces verticality, bringing the eye up from ground level. Columns, pergolas, and trellises against a wall add not just height but also depth, infusing more interest into the outdoor space.

Add function.

Build an overhead structure—a pergola or awning—adjacent to the wall to serve as a "ceiling" for an outdoor living space. Add a paved floor and furnish the space with colorful plants, lighting, and benches or other furniture. When set against the backdrop of a wall, a garden room gains a cozy sense of enclosure.

For a garden room that is as handy as it is beautiful, think of building an attractive potting table with shelves for storage. Equip it with a stylish array of tools and pots.

Scott Freres, landscape architect for The Lakota Group in Chicago, installed a French door on the bare wall of a garage that faced his clients' tiny downtown back yard. The homeowners fling open the doors during a party, installing a serving bar in the open garage where guests can mingle and enjoy refreshments.

Establish mood.

Staab hung a spectacular round mirror on the side wall of a shed at a client's home. Framed by an Asian-style trellis and awning, the mirrored wall sets the tone for the meditative, Zen-like space, which the homeowners can see from inside the house. "The mirror is like a mysterious portal," he says. "It reflects not only what is in front of it, but views from other spaces."

Color influences mood, as well. Bold, dramatic colors can be energizing and vibrant. Color schemes that emphasize green, on the other hand, are more subdued and restful, allowing architectural plant forms and textures to take center stage.

Fountains are perfect for building mood in a garden because the sound of running water is so soothing. A gurgling wall fountain beneath a pergola or a mossy statue in a reflecting pool captures the air of an old-world courtyard.

"View the wall as an extension of your indoor rooms," says Staab. "Just because it's outside, that doesn't make it any less important."