Gardening: What’s the (focal) point?

Universal UclickMarch 6, 2014 

To bring your garden into focus, find a place where your eyes can rest. Focal points are a garden’s visual resting spots. In the flashy riot and exuberance of a summer garden, they lead the eye through it all, gently imposing order on a view.

At every season, a tall, carefully placed urn, a sparkling birdbath or a handsome specimen shrub doesn’t steal the glory from the rest of the garden – it enhances the scene by giving it direction.

“The most common mistake people make is they try all these different varieties of plants, and their backyard ends up looking like a tossed salad,” said Mike Miller, a landscape architect in Longwood, Fla. “We use a broad, simple palette and create focal points.”

Finding a focal point and settling on an appropriate plant or architectural element to achieve the desired effect may take some thought and effort. Some designers actually give their clients a large, empty picture frame and ask them to walk around with it, defining the important views.

If a picture frame makes you self-conscious, pick up a camera instead: Taking pictures of your garden will reveal the places that naturally attract your eye; it might also reveal spots that need to be screened from view. You’ll be able to forget about an annoying utility pole out there in your view if you plant a screen of evergreens and place an arbor strategically in your line of sight.

Peggy Krapf, a garden designer in Toano, Va., works hard on the details in her clients’ gardens. One suburban garden seemed to have all the right elements but simply did not feel welcoming.

“There were all these little bits,” she recalled. “They had nice plants and paths and a fountain, but they were like separate thoughts.”

Visitors were not sure where the garden began or how to approach it, and the existing paths hurried them along without encouraging them to enjoy the experience of the plants along the way.

Krapf needed to unify the garden. She first suggested a proper garden gate. The 4-foot-high gate, flanked by evergreen shrubs, makes visitors pause a little before entering the garden, allowing them to take in the scene. Krapf then placed a bench at the end of the path, creating a destination, and moved a few shrubs to make the fountain the focus of the view from the porch.

In another client’s garden, she designed a curving stone bench to put in one corner: The bench draws visitors out to enjoy the flower beds up close and takes the sharp edge off the corner of the property.

In her own large country garden, Krapf put a garden bench at the end of an axis, about 50 feet from her front door. The bench occupies a space with raised flower beds on either side and invites her to sit there and admire her blooms. From the bench, looking back toward the house, she created a sort of focal point in reverse, framing the view of her own front porch between an oversized urn and a columnar boxwood.

“We often use containers as focal points around a door or on a patio,” said Molly Moriarty, a Minneapolis garden designer. “We’re shooting color where we need it.”

Containers can be a challenge through the winter, but Moriarty uses combinations of twigs, evergreen branches, dried vines and seed heads in her winter pots: They bristle with texture and look pretty in the snow.

Focal points – like Moriarty’s pots – can have even more impact if they change through the seasons. Shifting light and shadows will affect the way you experience an arbor. You can enjoy the blooms and perfume of roses or other climbing plants in summer and the tracery of vines in the winter. A birdbath will attract different complements of avian visitors at various times of year. A specimen tree planted as a focal point will change through the seasons, too: A crab apple, redbud or another hardy flowering tree might be covered with blooms in spring and with berries or decorative seedpods in the fall and winter.

Even small gardens have room for more than one focal point, but it is best not to let them compete with each other; if you can see three focal points at once, then the garden is already out of focus. And make sure the focal points you choose are in scale and in character with your garden.

In general, sculpture, flowerpots or plants used as focal points should be large enough to command attention. Bold strokes are more effective than subtle touches. An armillary sphere or sundial on a plinth should sit well above the flowers around it, or stand all by itself.

When your focal point stands out proudly, the rest of the garden seems to come to attention, too.

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