In the middle of June I attended a conference in Pennsylvania on using native plants in the landscape. The conference was informative, but the highlight of the trip was getting to see Longwood Gardens, Chanticleer, and the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College, each for the third time in my life. The three gardens were full of beautiful plants, structures, and art; all designed to attract attention.
In my last blog we talked about repetition, the landscape design principle I consider the most important of all. This month we will take a look at dominance or the use of focal points in the landscape. This principle is the one most likely to be abused because it takes advantage of our human nature to be attracted to things that call attention to themselves.
So be warned. Landscaping is not about collecting as many flashy things as possible to look at. Landscaping your home is not about “decorating” it. It’s really more about making it fit in and belong to a place. And never forget, it doesn’t matter what it looks like now. When I used to teach landscape design, I always told my students, “Landscaping is not accepting what you see, but creating what you want to see.” Unfortunately, we like to see lots of stuff! The overwhelming natural tendency is to place far too many focal points in a landscape. The very same appeal that causes one to purchase or collect a plant or item is the very attribute that causes it to be a focal point when placed in the landscape.
My rule for focal points is to have only one per main view. When you are looking towards your home and garden from the street, you should have a single focal point that is dominant to all others around it. The same goes for looking out into your landscape or into any “room” in your landscape. This means you have to consciously decide what’s the most important and stick with it until you vote it out of office! There’s nothing at all wrong with making a change, but until you do, that item needs to be the king. This makes it much easier when you are shopping at the nursery or antique store to know whether your purchase or find will out-compete your existing dominant effect. Sometimes it’s hard to know until you place it in the landscape. This has happened to me many times in the past (particularly with specimen plants) only to have to remove competing elements or the very focal point I just added. Filling flower beds full of plants isn’t landscaping. It’s just planting. Anybody can do that.
So just what makes a focal point? Many traits can, actually. Hard materials in an otherwise soft green landscape tend to be focal points. This includes statues, furniture, yard art, and bird baths. Any contrasting change of texture often attracts the eye. Fine textured grasses against other broad foliage, spiked plants against prostrate ones, or succulents near non-succulents are generally points that attract the eye. Certainly color does the trick as well, particularly complementary colors– those opposite each other on the color wheel. These include purple next to yellow, blue near orange, or red beside anything green. Why do you think red berries attract so much attention on green hollies? This is how some make the red front door of their home the focal point of their otherwise green landscape. As a general rule, looking at your garden shouldn’t be like looking into a kaleidoscope. The goal should be to use color to control the eye not overwhelm it. This is why landscapes full of assorted collected plants often come across as garish and distracting. It’s what separates amateurs from artists.
Naturally, size and shape also attract attention. If everything in a bed is 3 feet tall and you place a 15 foot tall specimen tree in it, eyes will be drawn to it. And certainly if you place a weeping or fastigiate specimen in a landscape it will draw attention. These should be used sparingly and only where one wants attention. Water acts the same way in a garden. Whether it’s moving or not, it generally draws the eye because it’s different. Any pond, fountain, or bird bath is probably going to be a focal point too.
Though it seems I have given the impression that you are only allowed a single focal point in your landscape, that isn’t true. Theoretically, you could have ones looking both towards and out of the front and back of your home plus down each side and out designated windows. And if that isn’t enough, you could do as the English do and create separate rooms in your landscape, each with their own focal points.
Always remember that anything you can see from your landscape is considered a part of your landscape, whether you own it or not. It’s known as “the borrowed landscape.” Views can certainly be focal points. My parent’s house in East Texas is a prime example as it’s located on a 500 foot hill. For years I tried different landscapes and focal points in the backyard until I finally realized I couldn’t compete with the view. Every time something ended up in the way, it ultimately had to be removed.
If your focal point isn’t doing its job, just frame it. Placing like items on either side of an object or plant will help it become more of a focal point. The more frame you put, the more obvious it becomes.
Focal points don’t have to jump out and poke you in the eye, however. The wonderful power of design is the ability to control the eye. You can bring viewers to your focal point instantly or visually skip them along through a series of secondary focal points leading up to the main show.
I made the decision with my own landscape to let the dominant effect show instantly. After all, I live in an old dogtrot farmhouse with a gaping breezeway running through the middle of it. It’s kind of hard to hide an 8 foot hole in the middle of your house. So I decide to accentuate it, echo it, and frame it with an allée of tree sized crapemyrtles leading up to it. I also planted 8,000 pine trees in back to form a contrasting evergreen curtain behind my stark white house. In my case, the old house is clearly the focal point as I lead the eye straight to it.
Focal points can be very tricky and require either forethought to prevent making a mistake, or afterthought to admit (and correct the fact) that you made one. It’s a wonderful process however. Seeing is believing!
PS: It’s time to plant fall tomato transplants: the first two weeks of July in the northern half of Texas and the last two weeks of July in the southern half.