Through the looking glass: Three ways to use reflective illusions in your garden

Imagine an opening in a garden wall. You move closer, attempt to peer through it to glimpse the leaves, flowers, and branches moving gently in the breeze on the other side. But then a person comes into view. It’s you.

Startling? Perhaps. Magical? For certain. And therein lies the shimmering wonder of a garden mirror. It tricks, illuminates, and doubles the beauty.

Western gardeners are discovering the power of mirrors, using the reflective glass in creative ways in the garden; three examples are shown here. On a wall, a mirror seems to expand a garden beyond its boundaries. On the ground, a mirror is a surprisingly good substitute for a real pond, especially when you edge it with boulders and small weeping conifers or grasses. Small mirrors can look like windows on the outside world.

Outdoor mirrors are installed differently than those indoors; for one thing, you need to protect the glass from moisture damage. See Installation tips on the following pages. 

Reflected glory

Barbara and Jack Thomas put a mirror on the wall of their Seattle garden, behind a shallow pool (above). The 4- by 8-foot mirror looks like an opening in the wall that frames a garden beyond, making the pool and patio appear twice as large as they really are. A stone lion’s head, which seems to float above a potted plant, drips water into the pool. It was mounted through a hole in the mirror, drilled at a glass shop. Ivy obscures the mirror’s edges, adding to the illusion.

A glacial “pool”

Water can turn a tiny garden from ordinary to interesting. Here’s a way to bring the look of a small pool to a bed or border without disturbing existing roots: Build an illusory pool. In the alpine border pictured here, Sunset test garden coordinator Bud Stuckey used a mirror to create the look of a glacial lake. Among boulders and plants, he placed a 16-inch-square mirror. He masked the edges by adding a layer of smooth river rocks of varying sizes and colors to mimic a rocky beach. Low, mounding grasses such as blue fescue soften the look. The mirror reflects the sky and surrounding rocks and plants the way a mountain pool would, bouncing light throughout the space. 

Windows in the wall: Easy to make from mirror tiles

They look like deep, framed portholes in the fence, inviting you to peek through them. But each “porthole” pictured at right is really a foot-square mirror tile set into the back of a box frame made with 2-by-4s. The garden they reflect is your own.

COST: About $5 each

TIME: Less than 2 hours

MATERIALS (for one mirror)

• 6-foot length of rough-sawn 2-by-4
• Eight 2-inch galvanized finish nails or deck screws
• Wood stain (we used gray semitransparent)
• 1-foot-square mirror tile
• 1-foot-square piece of 1/8-inch hardboard or plywood (optional)
• Staples
• Two 1-inch eye screws
• Picture-hanging wire


To make a mirror frame, you’ll need a table saw, circular saw, or router to cut a rabbet (notch) in the edge of the 2-by-4. Use a hammer and nail set or an electric drill with countersink bit to join the frame pieces.


1. Cut a 5/8- by 5/8-inch rabbet along one edge of the 2-by-4.

2. Cut the 2-by-4 into four 14-inch-long pieces with mitered ends. Position the rabbets on the inside edge of the rear of the frame.

3. Assemble frame with nails or countersunk screws.

4. Stain wood.

5. Insert mirror (and optional backing). Hold in place with staples.

6. Add eye screws and wire. Hang on fence.

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