In the Garden: Staying Focused


By Charles Kidder

While studying design in a community college horticultural program, we visited the garden of a local horticulturist, an avid collector of Japanese maples. Our instructor was probing us to describe the garden’s aesthetic and prompted: “It begins with ‘c’,” hoping someone would say, “a collector’s garden.”  Unfortunately, one of the students came out with “chaos,” a term the instructor frequently used to describe overly busy gardens. Ouch. The garden owner never let him live it down.

I have to confess to being something of a plant collector myself. I haven’t focused on any particular genus, so I don’t have to possess every new daylily or hot-off-the-shelf hosta that comes along, for example. But I do appreciate the variety and diversity of the plant world, and my garden reflects that. Which translates to: For the purposes of this article, do as I say, not as I do.

A focal point—or “focal,” for short—is something our eye goes to, whether it be in the landscape, a room, etc. In a collector’s garden, with so many plants that grab your attention, your eye jumps around and you end up with no real focal point. For gardening purposes, a focal might be a plant, but it can just as well be any object. In fact, inanimate objects may arguably make the best focals in the garden. Amid a sea of plants, an object is pretty much guaranteed to stand out.

Another advantage to using an object—a sculpture or urn, for example—as a focal: it will immediately be at its final size. No waiting for it to grow to the appropriate dimensions. No watering required. Unfortunately, there’s no exact formula for figuring out what size you’ll need. Too big, and the focal will overwhelm your garden; too small, and it will look puny and get lost in the shuffle. It’s pretty much a matter of common sense and trial-and-error. But if you’re contemplating an object that’s approximately the size of a person, you could actually have a person stand in the chosen spot to see if those dimensions work.

Color is critical for focals. Red, the complementary color to green, will stand out the most in a garden. Some might say it would stand out too much; read the warning labels, but be guided by your own muse. Blue, which is a component of green, tends to work well in a garden, generally standing out just enough from the surrounding plants. And colors will work differently according to season. A brownish urn will stand out better in a matrix of tawny winter grasses, then recede into the background as summer arrives. Greyish rocks look good in most garden situations, whereas white ones can jump out too much.

It’s risky to give advice on colors—after all, we all have our favorites—but one color I would stay away from in garden objects is green. A green object among green plants is usually going to provide only an uncomfortable clash. (If you’ve ever bought either a green hose or watering can, you’ll know what I mean.) But if the green object is surrounded by plants with burgundy or yellow foliage, then it can work.

Of course, plants can also serve as focals. To do so, the number one thing to remember is contrast. This can be as simple as having a tree or a substantial shrub in the middle of your lawn. The size and form of the tree will immediately make it stand out. If you made a grouping of three of the same tree, it should still work as a focal, since it would be viewed as a unit.  But if you gave in to your collector instincts and planted three different trees in that grouping, things could go awry, particularly if they were all about the same size.  You’d be better served by having one tall, upright tree, surrounded by a couple of lower, spreading trees.

Tall, spiky trees, some conifers for example, act well as focals, especially if they’re placed in a bed with relatively low-growing plants, such as most perennials.  Depending on the size of the bed, you might even have two or three of the same tree spaced evenly.  At this point, they become less of a true focal; instead they just provide some overall structure to your planting.

And how many focals should your garden have? Of course, it depends on the size of your property, but even on a modest-sized lot, you could easily have one in both your front and back yards, and two or three wouldn’t be out of the question. If they were trees that flowered at different times, they might take turns being the focal.

And a focal doesn’t have to be a large object like a tree or sculpture. In a small space, an unusual bird bath would suffice. Among herbaceous plants, one perennial with a conspicuous flower stalk might serve as a temporary focal when it’s in bloom.  And don’t forget about different textures to make a plant stand out. Something like a hosta with large, bold leaves will become a “mini-focal” if it’s set among some fine-textured ferns.

Your focal doesn’t even have to be on your own property. Many of us enjoy mountain views in the distance, but you can make these vistas a more integral part of your landscape when you frame them, perhaps with an arbor or a pair of upright trees.

And like most principles of design, the rules on focals are made to be broken. You’re the only one who has to be pleased.