Catching the eye

Design: A well-planned focal point heightens interest in even the simplest landscape.

In The Garden

November 18, 2001|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,Universal Press Syndicate

The world of garden design really doesn't have a simpler concept than the focal point. "Everywhere you look in a garden, your eye needs something to create a picture," says Edwina vonGal, a garden designer in New York whose own gardens have the character and confidence that come with years of experience. "A focal point is where your eye zooms in and the energy is centered." VonGal often designs large gardens at fancy addresses, but the concepts she works with do not need acres to express themselves.

"Start with the view from your kitchen sink," she suggests. "That's where you spend a lot of time." VonGal's idea of a strong focal point is one that changes constantly. She recommends birdbaths and bird-feeding trays, "something that has activity," because it holds your interest year-round.

A wonderful tree, with handsome structure and attractive bark, beautiful flowers, bright foliage and abundant berries, also stands up to the attention it will receive as a focal point. Static objects like statues work fine if they are placed where light and shadows can play across them so they sparkle, vonGal says.

When you design a focal point, think like an artist, vonGal says.

"You know a painting has to have a focal point," she says. "It has balance, there is texture, there is proportion. Put all this in your picture." VonGal suggests taping a piece of tracing paper over a window and sketching the view you would like to see.

"You don't have to be able to draw," she says, making an imaginary sketch with words. "You have something tall and narrow on the left, and low and roundy on the right. Then you have a wonderful upward-arching tree, and under that arch is just the right spot for an object." Finding an appropriate object to place at a focal point is not as simple as buying a birdbath or a fountain, vonGal says. A focal point doesn't stand alone.

"It brings your attention to a place, and makes you aware of all the beautiful things around it," she says.

There should be layers of interest in the scene you create. A garden seating area can be a focal point, but it will pleasantly complicate your task.

"Focal points are about looking at, not being in," vonGal says. "If the focal point is a bench, then you have to go to that spot and create another focal point, looking away from the bench." Whether your focal point is a fine specimen tree, a perfectly trimmed topiary bush or a piece of art, it should be in character and in scale with the rest of your garden. A piece of classical statuary works nicely in a formal geometric garden, but it might look awkward in the exuberant flowerbeds around a Victorian house or posing among the azaleas around a ranch house.

"You really have to be careful with something that carries a lot of connotations," vonGal says.

And even the most successful focal point may eventually lose its charm, says Elvin McDonald, garden editor at Traditional Home magazine.

"After a while, you would stop seeing even the Mona Lisa if it were there all the time," McDonald says. He constantly rearranges the objects he uses as focal points in his garden according to the seasons and his whims.

"You have to edit," he says. "Think of your garden like a museum. Museums don't show everything all at once. What you don't see is just as important as what you do." There's no limit to how many focal points a garden can have, McDonald and vonGal say, but don't let focal points compete with each other. Segregate them so you see only one at a time.

"It's like jewelry and dressing," McDonald says. "You can overdo it." It's always hard to know when to put down the paintbrush, when to stop tinkering with the poem, and how to recognize that the right balance between art and nature in a garden has been achieved. But if you keep at it, you'll get it right.

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