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Garden Design - Creating Focal Points in a Small Garden

Designing When Every Space Counts

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Focal points are used in garden design to draw and direct the eye. Think of a garden, large or small, that was just a swath of plants. Your eye sweeps along, not knowing where to land. A sense of flow is nice, but without a focus, your garden is not really taken in and studied. It is quickly passed over. Now think of a garden you saw with a wonderful water feature, a weeping tree or a dramatic ornament. The first thing you notice is this focal feature. Once your interested is concentrated there, you start to branch out and notice other plants and features in the garden. The garden is slowly discovered rather than swept through. You don’t have to have a focal point, but your garden will appear more intentional if you do.

Small gardens can pose difficulties for creating a focal point. Obviously you don’t want to sacrifice your entire garden space to one large plant or tree. But focal points can be scaled to the size of your garden. Even the smallest space could have one unique, flamboyant plant that calls attention to itself. Think of tall, orange leaved cannas or small weeping Japanese maples.


So what Constitutes a Focal Point?

Pretty much any striking feature in your garden:
  • An unusual specimen (Red twig Dogwood)
  • A large, architectural plant (Cimicifuga)
  • A group of plants (a cluster of astilbe, bleeding heart and ferns)
  • A vibrant color (orange canna)
  • A single white plant
  • An ornament (Bird bath, gazing globe, statue...)
  • Large boulders
  • A dwarf shrub or tree

You don’t have to start your garden design with a focal point, but you don’t want to throw one in as an after thought. Think about the style of garden you want and the plants you are considering using. Then list possible features that would complement, yet stand out from your basic design. Some designs lend themselves to the obvious focal point: a zen-like garden with a small water feature, a cottage garden with a cement statue, a formal garden with an obelisk.

If you have a preexisting large tree near your garden, that will become a focal point whether you mean to or not. You might want to enhance it with a bird house or a flowering vine, like climbing hydrangea.

Larger gardens often have more than one focal point, stopping the viewer has she surveys the whole scene. Small gardens generally only need one focal point, but it can make or break the garden. Don’t let that intimidate you. If you find you don’t like your first choice - welcome to the world of garden design. You can always try something else. One of the best ways to find out what you do like, is to discover what you don’t.


Positioning Your Focal Point

Resist the temptation to center your focal point and plant around it. Use the 1/3 -2/3 rule and place the focal feature just off center. If you have a small, circular garden, place it towards the rear of your viewing perspective.

The closer you will be when viewing your garden, the smaller your focal point can be. In a garden next to a seating area, you don’t need drama to catch the viewer’s attention. A view from the dining room window some 60 feet away will be lost unless it dramatically stands out.

I’ve never found a magic formula for how large to make a focal point. A lot depends on where you are viewing from, plant choices and color. It often helps to use a stand in for the focal point, a chair, ladder or your child.


Some Focal Point Tips

  • Choose a proven performer. A sickly looking plant or one that perpetually gets eaten or mildewy is not a good choice.

  • Make sure it has a long peak period. Don’t fall for a short bloomer or a plant that only has one season of interest., no matter how spectacular it my be. Plants in small gardens need to pull their weight.

  • It is possible to have seasonal focal points, in succession, but this requires planning and diligent maintenance. The idea behind a focal point is to attract the eye. If you spring focal point, say Bleeding heart, is going dormant or yellow before your next focal point, perhaps tall lilies, have come into their glory, the yellow foliage of the Bleeding Heart will be your current focal point.
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