This month’s Garden Designers Roundtable subject is focal points. If you’re a gardener with a serious plant habit, you might be asking yourself why designers get all worked up about this topic –after all, how riveting really are focal points compared to the heady excitement of a discovering a beautiful heirloom seed or realizing the new salvia you planted truly is deer resistant? Well put down that plant catalog and listen up! Not only are they a wonderful way to inject a shot of personality into your garden, but focal points can make the difference between a good garden and a great one.
Focal points are generally defined as something in the garden – a fountain, bench or stand out plant – that draws the eye. As far as explanations go that’s all well and good, but draw the eye to where, exactly? And why? Here are three ways I use focal points to help pull a design together.
Lead the eye
A beautiful garden is like a composition, and well placed focal points help you navigate. One of my favorite clients is not only a voracious propagator and collector of plants, but she also never met a piece of garden art she didn’t like. When she asked for help redesigning her garden, I realized that the basic “bones” of the garden were good, with many interesting individual elements. But with so many things happening, the garden had become chaotic. Here are some before pictures of her garden:
When I designed the new garden, I did it with several of her larger pieces in mind. After photos:
Scattered throughout the garden, not only do the pieces no longer compete with one another, but they are now an invitation to visitors to pause for a moment at each piece before moving on. In essence, each defines is own little piece of garden. And don’t assume focal points must always be viewed from a distance. Even though there was already a lot going on in this garden, I added a small fountain to help anchor the patio and connect the space to the rest of the garden.
Unify a space
During field trips on my first class in planting design, we often asked the instructor to point out various "real life" examples of design principles. Whenever someone asked what the unifying element in a specific garden was, his inevitable response was “the lawn.” BORING! I wasn’t quite sure I agreed with him at the time, and nowadays when more than ½ of my projects eliminate the lawn altogether, focal point placement has become a key way for me to connect two or more spaces together.
For example, in this garden, an L-shaped patio creates two connected but separate areas for conversation and dining. The fountain located between them creates a focal point that unifies the two spaces.
And another example using a water feature to unify a small garden:
Define a View
Creating a view is what comes to mind for most of us when we think of focal points. In my part of California, I deal with small suburban gardens much more often than with estates featuring panoramic views, but I consider views even more important because, let’s face it, there’s just less stuff going on in a small garden! Instead of sweeping vistas, I’m usually trying to transform a little used side yard or corner of the garden into a view corridor so that the primary living space is more interesting to be in. In this design we’ll start installing next month, I added a pony wall and made a small side yard even smaller so that I could create a tiny patio and bench. While this space is usable, its primary reason for being is to create an interesting view from the main patio.
And here’s one area where I DO practice what I preach – I wrote this post on my laptop in my garden while enjoying the view of – what else? My own focal point wall.
Interested in reading more about focal points? Here's what some other Garden Designers Roundtable bloggers have to say on the topic:
Andrew Keys, Garden Smackdown, Boston, MA
Carolyn Gail Choi, Sweet Home and Garden Chicago
Debbie Roberts, A Garden of Possibilities, Stamford, CT
Laura Livingood Schaub, Interleafings, San Jose, CA
Lesley Hagerty and Robert Webber, The Hagerty Webber Partnership Blog, Bristol, Avon, UK
Pam Penick, Digging, Austin TX
Rebecca Sweet, Gossip in the Garden, Los Altos, CA
Susan Cohan, Miss Rumphius' Rules, Chatham, NJ
Tara Dillard, Atlanta, GA