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Create a Focal Point in a Day
by Karen Atkins - posted 07/24/13


The color of the bridge heightens its value as an element of surprise and contrast.

Gardening is usually an exercise in patience. Everything takes time. But here are a few ways to get instant gratification by creating some ‘pop’ in the landscape with new focal points.

We gardeners revel in a pastime that is all about the long game. We are used to waiting and the sport truly does reward us for our patience. It is reassuringly democratic, too. Even Prince Charles has to wait for his topiary yews to settle in, branch out and get fat and happy. But creating a focal point is at least one way in which gardeners can achieve instant gratification. You don’t need to be a designer to do it. You can spend as much or as little as you like, and you can do it in a day. Do I have your attention? I thought so. Breaking a subject down always helps to demystify it, so let’s consider what establishes a focal point — what it is, what it does and where to put it.

What Is a Focal Point?

Think of it as a critical player among the other “bones” of the garden. Like the rest of the “bones,” a focal point is something that doesn’t go away in winter, because it is made up of something unyielding to the seasons — stone, wood, cast iron or something evergreen. Even a shape cut into existing turf with a sharp edger can serve as a focal point. Ideally, it is an object that harmonizes with the garden and sharply brings into relief some of what makes you and the garden unique.

Above: A circular flowerbed, made simply with an edging tool, punctuates a lawn.

Right: A wooden gate, painted vibrant red, draws the eye and visitors’ steps, towards a stretch of green living fence.

What It Does

Simply put, a focal point brings the eye to rest amid a sea of unrest. I enjoyed Deborah Needleman’s definition. As the editor of Domino Magazine, she was referring to interior accents. Nevertheless, the concept is the same. She says that “as our eyes flit around the room, they alight on and are delighted by those bright spots.” Additionally, she describes them as “bright points of punctuation breaking up the long run-on sentence that is your home.” In the landscape, a focal point provides contrast to the abundant, sprawling, continually changing bits of the garden. An outdoor version of a dining room centerpiece, it commands attention. It is there to fill you with delight. 

Where to Put It

In a formal garden, center it on a critical axis, or the window above your kitchen sink. Flank both sides of a door, pathway or bench. Center it on a large blank exterior wall, or at the end of a path. In a less formal garden, place it asymmetrically, amid the tallest of perennials. In either case, if it is especially cherished or beautiful, lift it up on a plinth. One fact is often ignored, even among designers: A properly placed focal point will not just direct the eye, but also a visitor’s actual steps. When you see a new guest turn and walk toward your focal point, you’ll know you placed it well.

Left: Stone statuary beckons from the end of a formal lawn, providing sharp contrast with the color of the yew hedge and the sprawling habit of the lady’s mantle.

Top, left: Ordinary terra-cotta flower pots anchor a bench, forming a focal point in a naturalized landscape.

Above: A small planter, strategically placed on a plain brick wall, adds interest.

I was visiting a dear friend, a cottage gardener, this winter and noticed she had an elegant crane sculpture, sitting low in the middle of a miscellaneous perennial bed. It was such a pretty piece, and getting lost there, so I decided to promote it from its lowly station. Spying a boxwood hedge along her front walk, I found her hedge trimmers and pruned the hedge until it looked like a giant pat of butter. Next, I poached a large flat stone from her pasture and gently worked it between two of the shrubs and set the crane on top. Voila! The crane was then 5 feet tall, and appeared as though it was floating on the boxwood. The entire operation took less than 15 minutes, which should either encourage you, or teach you never to leave your friends alone in your garden for too long. But she loved it.

From State-by-State Gardening May/June 2013. Photos courtesy dreamstime.com.

 


Karen Atkins owns Proper Gardens, a landscape design firm in the Pittsburgh area. Her clients have won the “Great Gardens Contest,” sponsored by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, three years running. She recently designed the Pioneer Entrance Garden for the Botanic Garden of Pittsburgh.