What makes a garden really successful? Balance, harmony, great planting, a sense of hidden surprises waiting to be discovered …. somehow you know when a garden is satisfying, something that brings a smile, makes you want to linger, creates a sense of well-being.
But sometimes a garden, beautifully planted, lacks that special something, neither enticing nor exciting. The eye wanders but doesn’t alight anywhere, the garden lacks definition, a focal point.
A focal point might be a pot set amongst the plants, to pull disparate elements together or to give more substance to the planting. Here the warm terracotta colour of the pot creates a contrast to an almost all-green planting scheme.
Bird baths can have the same effect – creating interest amongst the planting, with the added advantage of encouraging birds to your garden. Choose with care, something that blends with your paving or other garden elements, whether contemporary or traditional. A visit to your garden centre should unearth the right one.
Below, a birdbath draws one down the pergola to explore further, leading on to a further focal point, the bench, thus directing the explorer through the garden.
Sundials, like birdbaths, can serve a double function – a focal point, but also to draw you through an area to check your watch against the sun’s rays. Here a traditional sundial draws you through the knot garden, the knot garden itself installed to create visual interest in an otherwise featureless lawn.
Of course, classical statues on plinths, often coupled with topiary, were the domain of the great 17th and 18th century gardens of Europe – Versailles, Villa d’Este, Hampton Court and my own favourite, Vaux le Vicomte. Happily there are many reproductions available today but don’t overdo it; one simple statue, partially clothed in the tendrils of a shrub or climber is usually quite enough. Stand back and look at scale- does it need to be set on a plinth perhaps? Does it suit your garden or is it perhaps a little incongruous? Classical statues look best in a traditional setting. Popping it in a damp shady corner for the winter can give it a more aged look.
Stone urns too can serve the same purpose.
Placing benches, where they are just visible in a large garden, entices the visitor to explore further.
On reaching the bench, a new area of the garden is discovered and perhaps another bench , just in view, beckons you on again.
Here the formal areas of the garden around the house give way to an orchard and wildlife pond and on to views of the fields beyond. The bench, as a focal point, encourages exploration and rewards it, with a place to sit and contemplate the reflections in the pond.
As you can see, the visitor is doubly rewarded by an appealing view of the house too.
Focal points come in many shapes and forms and you inject your own personality into the garden by seeking out interesting items in reclamation yards, car boot sales and the like. An old French porter’s barrow adds a touch of interest on a large terrace :
The two abiding principles should be : less is more, and choose items which harmonise with your house and style of planting.
Of course, focal points don’t have to be objects placed in the garden. Use the borrowed landscape and frame a view:
Ok, so we don’t all live with a lovely view like this ; perhaps you live in the city with an appalling outlook – Create enough interest within your space, a focal point to divert attention away from the outside world. (See : A tiny courtyard transformed).
A plant with striking foliage – a beautiful Acer in a pot, perhaps uplit at night, or some simple little pots clustered on a garden table, the repetition of blue creating a harmonious scene. I like things, pots and plants, grouped in odd numbers – 3, 5 or even eleven. Simple ways to create focal points.
It takes time and a good eye to achieve harmony and balance in your garden.
Stand back and be critical.
It may just be that your garden needs that critical focal point, that emphasis, to create a unified and satisfying atmosphere in your garden.
(All photography mine)