Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Garden Designers Roundtable: Points of Focus

This month's Roundtable topic, Focal Points in Garden Design, really got me thinking. The first images that came to mind were magnificent long views of some fabulous objet or specimen, perfectly framed by a structure or planting. But in 'real life' that kind of drama is less of a concern than what we want (and DON'T want) to look at in our gardens, and how those two wants can work together in a harmonious way.

This client didn't want to look out her patio doors and see a wood fence baking in the sun ten feet away, or the neighbor's house just beyond. She wanted a cool, lush tranquil oasis. An arbor took care of the harsh sun, and this simple fountain became the center of her small outdoor world. It is something one can gaze upon with satisfaction in all seasons.

This is more like my first concept of a focal point, an elegant narrow garden designed by John Black, for which I designed this blue water feature that can be seen and heard from the main living areas both inside and out. The simple yet elegant fence, made from covering the existing privacy fence with closely-set horizontal boards, sets it off perfectly, and everything else in the garden draws your eye there.

On this project my initial design had a smaller fountain (in this case a basalt Trinity) but the expansive patio made this a much more interesting option. It was my contractor's idea to use bluestone, which contrasts so nicely with the travertine pavers. The fountain was situated directly opposite the patio doors, framed by an arbor. This picture was taken immediately after planting over a year ago; the bamboo behind the fountain is giant clumping timber bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii) which will screen the fence and frame this focal point even more.

The fountain in my own front garden is the exact center of a design based on expanding circles; it can be viewed from many angles and is truly the heart and soul of the garden. When it is not running (which is rare) it is truly missed. It's not a distant visual, but something the whole garden swirls around.

My back garden fountain does much the same, in a subtler way. It quietly bubbles with a bamboo grove at its back and lush greenery all around. It is where my eye will go when sitting under my red umbrella, or when looking out from my office.

Water isn't the only element I put to work as a focal point; this windmill in my kitchen garden is one of my favorite things. There was one in my last garden that I missed so much I had to have another. I like knowing which way the wind is blowing!

Fire is another compelling element to focus on, especially when it comes out of sparkly blue glass; this simple fire pit is centered on one set of french doors and diagonally from another. The ability of fire to draw people together to focus on each other is much appreciated during our cool Northern California evenings.

A more traditional outdoor fireplace combined with cushy seating is conducive to serious outdoor coziness. The elegant lines of this pre-cast unit draw the eye without overwhelming the space.

Sometimes the functional components of a landscape become focal points, like this dramatic staircase that leads to a home set well below street level. It replaces a narrow wooden staircase ending nearly at the front door. This is much more elegant, and is the main visual element to anyone leaving the house.

And, of course, plants make some of the best focal points of all. Like this planted mound between a swimming pool and a fence that features a specimen Olive that can be seen from everywhere in this garden, and is especially dramatic when lit at night.

Plants turn this rather awkward fireplace punch-out into a dramatic centerpiece; turning a liability into an asset while keeping deck traffic areas clear.

Even something as simple as one purple poppy against a sea of orange makes a striking, if temporary focal point in the right light.

I think my favorite focal points involve the promise of some sort of destination; a spot that, once I arrive, will allow me to look back from where I came and enjoy the delights of the garden.

Even from the once little-used utility path along the side of the house becomes a colorful two-way view corridor.

Here a simple mulch path connects the teak bench not only to this home's front walk, but visually beyond to a simple, arching wood-and-copper gate that leads to a sunny rose garden. Sitting in one place and making the journey through a garden with one's eyes is another kind of focus; perhaps my favorite.

Thanks for joining me on this visual journey, but don't stop here! There are a lot more ideas about focal points to be had from my fellow Knights and Ladies of the Garden Designers Roundtable: check them out!

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA
Carolyn Choi : Sweet Home and Garden Chicago : Chicago, IL
Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK
Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX
Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In the Garden : Los Altos, CA
Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ
Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA
Susan Schlenger : Landscape Design Advice : Hampton, NJ
Tara Dillard : TaraDillard.com : Atlanta, GA


  1. Your post is up early, and it's a good one. I like your point about "making the journey through a garden with one's eyes." A good focal point leads the eye. And more likely than not, the feet will follow, led on irresistibly by the tempting view.

  2. Thanks Pam (oops, it was supposed to go up at 9am) but thanks! It's amazing the journeys one can take when sitting perfectly still...

  3. I really relate to your examples in this post. Like you, I'm more likely to be designing in smaller spaces where the focal points need to do more than draw the eye - they have to disguise unattractive views and corners, and delight the senses in multiple ways.

    Great post and I particularly like the blue fountain at the end of the slate path!

  4. Well OF COURSE you'd have a great post ...
    I am especially partial to the use of glazed ceramic pots as water elements - they are simple and elegant, and can be used to create a destination point that is at once both quiet and dramatic. I see that in all of your examples- a certain quiet elegance that really holds the space.

  5. love, love, love the off center cobalt water feature against the mahogany colored wall. Tour de force! Thanks.

  6. Lots of lovely ideas here, but I liked the windmill and that AMAZING staircase best.
    Robert, AKA an English Knight of the Round Table!

  7. Many, many wonderful examples here, Laura! I'm glad you included fire as a focal point; the structural as well as the elemental essence that we humans all relate to. Thanks!

  8. Laura,

    Lots of inspiring photos. I think I like the one of the comfy chair beckoning me to walk through the winding path and sit down and relax and take in the view for a while before exploring the garden even more.

  9. Wonderful post and illustrations, Laura. Your design for John Black looks almost identical to one that I did for a client. Oh well, great minds think along the same lines.. :-)

  10. Nicely done, girl! I love your idea of a simple staircase acting as a focal point - and you're absolutely right. Focal points don't have to be elaborate...sometimes a simple, well constructed element is all that's required. Love the Los Altos garden, too - just beautiful!

  11. Great post with so many good points! I think I'll have to read it again to catch them all!

  12. Thanks for the great comments, everyone!

    @SusanM, isn't it the truth, in suburban gardening we are often dealing just as much with what we don't want to see! Fortunately the ability to do so is satisfying for me! That blue fountain is killer; we sealed the top with plex so the water volume is low, and filled it with tumbled glass.

    @Ivette I love glazed pots too, and am fortunate to have some awesome resources for them. I feel badly for those in colder climes who can't have these beauties outdoors year-round!

    @SusanC I was so impressed with John's design for that fence; since it is a condo he couldn't replace the existing one, but it was transformed with those horizontal boards attached the the existing posts!

    @SirRobert Thanks! I designed that staircase a few years ago and on the plan included a rendering of how it would look from this position, but no other specs. I was so impressed when I saw it built and it looked exactly like my drawing! Good contractor, that.

    @Jocelyn My clients who add fire features to their gardens always love them! There is something about gathering about a fire at night that is so satisfying...

    @Debbie I love a comfy chair in the garden, and such things are much more widely available (and affordable) than they used to be! When a client says something's missing in their garden, it's usually a place to SIT!

    @Carolyn Thanks! The blue fountain was fun to do, and the sealed-top design keeps things really clean!

    @Rebecca I need to take you to see the Los Altos Garden one of these days; the owners are moving to Europe but thankfully won't be selling this house; I'll be keeping an eye on it!

    @Danger Feel free, my blog is always open!

  13. Hi Laura: This was a very interesting post. Thanks for all the great ideas. I really like the curvy pathway to that comfy chair. Teresa

  14. Love your point about focal point as destination, and LOVE the windmill! WHERE do I get a windmill like that?!? I feel now the world may come crashing down if I do not procure a windmill for myself right this very moment.

    (Can I afford a windmill? Do I have the space? Formalities, I say!)

  15. Love the destination "utility" path. Although it's so pretty, it's a shame to call it by that name!

  16. @Teresa thanks for visiting! I've loved comfy chairs in a garden ever since the outdoor sofas of my college days!

    @Andrew Glad you like the windmill! Mine came from Northern Tool, but the quality isn't the best. Google 'Garden Windmills' and see what you find; if you've got $100 bucks and a 3' x 3' spot you can have a windmill too!

    @Susan, well, it USED to be the utility path, now it's part of the garden!

  17. Laura, I am so taken with your idea of a focal point as a destination. I think of focal points in that way too, but never articulated it so well. Thanks for the beautiful photos and thought-provoking words. I loved seeing your unique take on this.

  18. I like so much beautiful photos.