Focal points are landscape features that grab your attention, such as these statues that add interest to a green planting at the New Jersey Botanical Garden.
© George Weigel
Just for fun, take a walk around your yard. Look at the front from the street. Look at the back from the patio or deck. Go back inside and look out of windows that you use often. Did anything catch your eye? Did anything make you stop and take notice? Or did your eyes wander boringly and aimlessly?
If nothing to remember stands out, the problem could be that your landscape is lacking a focal point, or even several in different areas on a large property. Many landscapes are like that—fizzless and flat, lacking pizzazz, yet actually only just one (or maybe two) missing ingredients short of distinction.
Focal points are features in the landscape designed to catch your eye and make you pay attention. The test is what grabs your eye. As since this is your garden, you get to decide. They can range from elaborate statuary to showy specimen plants to quirky yard sale finds aimed at eliciting a smile. Sometimes even professional landscape designers and landscape architects will tell you that adding focal points in key spots will elevate your property as much as a more extensive and expensive makeover. There’s more to this than just buying an expensive sculpture and sticking it next to the front door. Skillful placement and fitting choices are what count.
A sentimental object or yard-sale find can serve as a focal point that also personalizes your landscape.
© George Weigel
A good focal point doesn’t have to be elaborate or costly, but it can reflect the personality of the homeowner in a special way. If you are a potter or have a potter friend it could be something you or they have made, it could be a souvenir brought back from a trip that reminds you of that place, or it might be something meaningful that you’ve scavenged from Dad’s garage or a flea market. If country is your style, for example, rig up an old hand-cranked water pump as a rustic water feature in the middle of a native plant bed. If you’re more contemplative, think about a statue or gazing globe opposite a bench nestled under a shade tree underplanted with ground cover. A crafty person might paint an old screen door that rises up from a flowerbed and doubles as a vine support.
The style of a garden helps dictate an appropriate focal point. A trio of stone pillars or a bamboo waterspout would complement a Japanese garden. A bee skep or sundial would be a natural in a Williamsburg-style garden or as the centerpiece of a four square vegetable garden. An elegant fountain would look dramatic in a formal setting of trimmed boxwoods and flowering annuals. But focal points are not limited to decorations. Even functional objects such as arbors, pergolas, gazebos, and ornate or rustic gates can double as focal points. Focal points aren’t limited to “things” either. A carefully placed specimen plant can be just as memorable as any piece of art. Good examples of plants for specimens include Japanese maples (Acer palmatum cultivars), clipped topiary evergreens (boxwood, junipers and yew are good), small trees with weeping habits such as crabapple 'Red Jade' and Young’s weeping birch, umbrella-form flowering “standards” such as "Pee-Gee"-type hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata 'Grandiflora') and roses, and almost any shrub with variegated or colorful foliage (try Cornus controversa 'Variegata', Weigela florida 'Java Red', or Philadelphus coronaria 'Aurea'). You could even beef up your landscaping by adding a group of potted plants in interesting containers. And if an urn or over-sized pot has enough star-power, it alone can anchor a garden with or without plants.
Focal points make good sense at the end of paths.
© George Weigel
Since focal points by nature are things that direct your eye, they work really well at destination points or other spots where you want traffic to flow through your gardens. Some suggestions might include a potted tropical plant (perhaps elephant ears or cannas) between a couple of painted chairs in a sitting area at the back of the yard; specimen weepers flanking a doorway, or a piece of art at a bend in a path or at the end of a straight walkway. One other benefit of a focal point is that it can distract attention from things you really don’t want to see. If you can divert attention by adding a focal-pointed garden to the left, your neighbor’s antique outhouse collection off to the right will be less noticeable until your new screen plantings mature.
Some other focal-point placement possibilities:
Dead center out a favorite window. Place the focal point first and then build a complementary garden around it.
At the juncture where two different plant masses meet (think perhaps hosta ground cover and a drift of blooming impatiens).
As the centerpiece of any garden.
Under a low-hanging tree where a branch seems to point at your object.
At the end of a plant-lined path.
You must pay attention to the size of your focal point in relation to the size of the area. Be sure to stay in scale. In other words, too small an object will get lost in a large space just as a huge piece would overpower a small flower garden.
Don’t overlook existing focal points that might not even be on your property. A great view of the mountain or a glistening lake is something you can “borrow” by framing that view with trees, shrubs, or hedges. Instead of screening out something ugly, you’re intentionally focusing on beauty elsewhere. For that matter, you may even have a focal point on your own property that’s been overlooked. A wooden shed in the back corner might be an eyesore if it’s out there all by itself. But give it a fresh coat of paint, nestle it with a small flowering tree, plant colorful weepers on the corners, and voila! a beautiful focal point! To gild the lily, add window boxes overflowing with color. Ditto, dress up lonely utilitarian arbors and pergolas with vines and climbers. Bring out old, but nice pieces that have been overlooked hidden in out of the way spots. Try moving or planting round existing pieces until they become an attraction. Just don’t overdo it. There’s a name for too many focal points. It’s called “clutter.”