Focal points are a key concept in virtually every field of design. By manipulating individual elements in a design, the designer can focus the eye to one area of the design while drawing it away from another. When it comes to garden design, focal points are a favorite mantra of designers and homeowners alike. Focal points can be very grand and striking or simple and unpretentious. They can be a permanent fixture like a pool or patio or something that is easily moved from place to place such as a collection of containers or a birdbath.
Figuring out what kind of focal point works best for your garden can be a very personal process involving a different set of variables and priorities for each gardener. I thought I’d share the thought process I recently went through to figure out what kind of focal point to propose to use in a front entry garden that would compliment the style of the existing garden while meeting the inevitable design constraints that are present on every garden design project.
Let’s begin with the particulars of the site. As you can clearly see, this is woodland garden. It is informal in style and is located in zone 6. The space for the front entry garden is quite narrow, ranging from 15′ in some spots to 25′ in others. (For now, ignore some of the other issues like the too narrow existing walkway and focus solely on the focal point.) It is on the eastern side of the house so it gets full morning sun and some afternoon sun. There are mature oak trees ringing much of the space. The deer are a constant presence in the garden so if a living focal point is used, it must be deer-resistant. There are utility lines that come into the far upper corner of the house from the street and run directly over the area where a focal point will be placed – basically the edge of the lighter brown mulch. The right side of this garden is edged by a grove of mature rhododendrons, so between the rhodis and the house, this section of the garden is sheltered from winds. The focal point will be visible from several rooms of the house – the living room and two of the upstairs bedrooms. The area is also clearly visible from the back garden, a place the family spends much of their outdoor time. Here’s a view of this same ‘focal point location’ as seen from the back garden.
Now a bit about the homeowners. They are a middle-aged couple with two kids who enjoy puttering around in the garden but are looking to make the garden as low-maintenance as possible. They would like to incorporate a focal point that primarily looks best when viewed from the perspective of walking up the walkway to the front door. They are somewhat less concerned about the view from the back garden but of course they want the focal point to look good from that perspective too. They would also like to screen the view of their neighbor’s driveway. They would prefer a living focal point and want to incorporate as much native plant material as possible in their garden. They are interested in bringing more birds into their garden. They already have several dogwoods (Cornus florida) and redbuds (Cercis canadensis) on the property so, if a deciduous understory tree is used, they would prefer to use a different tree all together.
Now, it’s time for a look into my thought process as I considered what type of focal point to propose to my clients.
- I would like the focal point to be subtle and blend into the informal, woodland garden – something pleasing to look at while walking to the front door but not a destination in and of itself.
- Even though the homeowners would like to screen the view of their neighbor’s driveway, I didn’t think that should be the primary goal of the focal point. The screening can be achieved in another way – possibly a grouping of woodland shrubs with berries (great for enticing birds to visit). The focal point can add to the overall screening effect but should not be the primary source of screening.
- Since the wall of rhododendrons is already evergreen, a deciduous tree would be interesting on a variety of levels. When looking at the focal point from the back garden, the rhodis will make a great backdrop. In case you’re wondering, the rhodis bloom in mid-July with a pale pink flower.
- The tree needs to be fairly short – remember the utility lines – and for aesthetic purposes, I want it to be wider than it is tall. It should be multi-stemmed, deer-resistant, able to thrive in partial shade and ideally flower in late spring or early summer so it doesn’t compete with the existing dogwoods and redbuds.
- I decided to limit my options for a tree to those that are native to New England since limiting it to CT natives would probably be too restrictive given all the other factors I needed to consider.
- The tree needs to be interesting all year long since it can easily been seen from inside the home.
After some research and talking to local nurseries about the deer-resistance of a few different trees, I decided to present the homeowners with two different options. The first is a Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus). It fits some of the design parameters well but falls short in other areas. It blooms in the late spring after the redbud and dogwoods have finished their show but before the rhodis begin to bloom. Fringe tree is native to most of the New England states, although not specifically CT. It is considered reliably deer-resistant and should bloom well in the partial shade. While the white flowers do not last as long as I would have prefered, the bluish-black fruit in the late summer will make for it. The fruit will help entice birds into the garden. At maturity, the tree should nicely fill the space since it should get to be about 20′ wide but it will still be shorter than the overhead wires. After its initial bloom, it is still attractive but not quite a multi-season stunner.
The other option is a Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). Pagoda dogwood is native to CT and has white flowers and berries just like the fringe tree. It is not as considered reliably deer-resistant but with its strongly horizontal branching structure it should be interesting all year round. Pagoda dogwood is becoming more popular and there are several cultivars to choose from with variegated leaves which will add another layer of interest to the tree.
Which option would you choose if this were your garden? It’s not easy, since neither option is perfect. What you gain in one area, you give up in another. When designing a garden from scratch, the options are much more varied. But when working in an existing garden, the choices are narrowed dramatically. But, I’m confident that either choice will be a good one for the garden and the homeowner, and of course, the birds.
Don’t forget to visit my fellow Roundtablers to read about their posts on the topic of focal points…
Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA »
Carolyn Choi : Sweet Home and Garden Chicago : Chicago, IL »
Laura Livengood Schaub : Interleafings : San Jose, CA »
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 »