Garden focal point ideas


Creating A Focal Point: What To Add For A Focal Point In The Garden

You have a fire engine red front door and your neighbor has a compost garden visible from everywhere on your side of the property line. Both of these are occasions in which creating a focal point in the garden may maximize the impact of the former and minimize the latter. Learning how to use focal points in the garden is useful to draw the eye towards the area one wishes to emphasize; conversely, using focal point design may also aid in camouflaging those more unsightly areas.

Because focal points in gardens draw the eye to something, it is important to decide what to use when creating focal points. When creating a focal point, one will want to consider what to add for a focal point and placement in the landscape.

Learning How to Use Focal Points

Learning how to use focal points is all about one golden rule: Less is more. Avoid the temptation to overuse and crowd an area with objects you have decided are the “cat’s meow.”

Remember, the object of focal points in the garden is to lead the eye to an item of particular interest. Too many focal points in the garden create a confused space wherein the eye is not allowed to rest on any one item effectively, eliminating the value of creating a focal point in the first place.

When learning how to use focal points, it may be a good idea to test out the layout of the proposed focal point design. Place all the points of interest you wish to utilize in their assigned locations and then walk away. Return after an hour or so and reassess. Note where your eyes are drawn when viewing the garden. Are they focusing on a particular area, or are they wandering from spot to spot?

Rearrange focal points in gardens when it appears there is conflict, or remove extra items to achieve the desired result of capturing attention and holding it there for a moment.

What to Add for a Focal Point: Objects vs. Plants as Focal Points

Creating a focal point may mean including an object (such as bench, statue, boulder or water feature) or by utilizing a specimen plant or grouping of plants.

  • Objects – Often, an object such as a statue attracts more attention than a plant specimen, which naturally tends to blend into the garden surroundings, especially when the object is man-made. For this reason, special care must be made when selecting objects in your focal point design. Objects should be displayed properly and with regard to balance and harmony, blending with the scale of the garden — a bit of Feng Shui, if you will. Combining objects with plants, such as annuals planted in an old sewing machine or bicycle, is a sure way to create not only whimsy but eye appealing focal point design.
  • Plants – Focal point design using plants is a little simpler, as plants naturally flow with the garden landscape. When using plants as focal points in gardens, they should look great throughout the season, or even better, all year long. Perennials or annual plants grouped together can create seasonal focal points, but for a more permanent focal point, it may be advisable to plant a larger, specimen plant. Red leaf Japanese maple will continue to provide visual interest throughout the year. Other more prominent plants such as Harry Lauder’s walking stick or a Burr oak tree would look terrific in focal areas. A little research for hardy specimens in your region will result in a truly magnificent focal point.

Where to Place Focal Points in Gardens

The eye naturally follows lines. Therefore, to create a strong focal point, visual lines within the garden should intersect. Some obvious places where lines intersect are the sidewalk to porch or at the beginning or end of a path. The front door of your house screams “focal point” and even if it’s not painted fire engine red, it is a logical place for a focal point. Appreciating the concept of a garden axis or line of sight will act as a guide when placing a focal point in gardens.

Once the garden axis has been determined, visually divide the garden into sections and decide which areas you will want to emphasize with an eye to what will be seen not only from the windows of your home but from other areas, such as the street in front of the house.

Use focal points to dress up or emphasize architectural detail unique to your home. Have fun. Be creative. Focal points in the garden should be a reflection of your unique personality.

Thinking of creating a new landscape in your front yard? Check out our gallery featuring 15 unique ideas that will help improve your curb appeal.

When you own a house, you want to have a beautiful landscape in front of your home that your neighbors will envy. Having a drab front yard that is lacking grass and character will create an uninviting walkway for your visitors as well as lower the curb appeal of your home in general. This article will help you determine how to create an amazing landscape in your front yard as well as introduce you to several landscaping Ideas for front yards in gallery form so that you can see some brilliant creations and mold your front yard to the style that you like the most.

Walkway and Structures

The first aspect of your front yard that you should consider is the path or walkway that leads up to your front door. This pathway can be created using stones, bricks, or concrete, but it is the base to your landscaping idea and one of the focal points of the yard so keep this in mind when adding unnecessary curves. A front yard that is steep can have a path that incorporates steps into the design to ensure that the walkway on a hill idea is not too steep for your guests. If you want more of a garden feel in your front yard, using mulch or tan bark to create a path is appropriate as well, though oftentimes these paths are accompanied by stepping stones to make sure that the ground is even.

If the yard is large, you can give it a cozier feel by adding fountains or statues that match the walkway. Be careful with the structures that you add to your front lawn because adding too many could create an unbalance that pulls the focus away from the rest of the yard. If you want a lot of structure to your front yard, then try creating raised areas where you can plant your flowers instead of going overboard with the lawn ornaments.

Plants and Flowers

The next aspect of your front lawn landscaping that you need to consider is the lawn itself. Is the grass covering the lawn, or are there bare spots where the dirt shows through? If your grass is not fully covering your front yard, you can either plant new grass seed or cover it with mulch and plant shrubs and flowers in that location. You can choose any flowers that you like for your garden, but make sure that every season is represented. You do not want to have a beautiful lawn in the spring of the year and a bare space in the fall.

Trees are perfect for framing your house. Small bushes can create perfect accents that add to the overall look of the yard. One way to utilize small bushes or plants is to create an edging design that incorporates the plants you love into a lovely edge to the pathway. This idea of a border will help create symmetry in your garden, but don’t forget that the plants and the edging in your front yard will need to be maintained. If you need some tools to prune you plants and keep them beautiful, then this garden tool set is perfect for your gardening needs.

Let’s take a look at some landscaping ideas to get your creative energy flowing into your front yard.

This idea is one that incorporates a lot of circular flower plots into the design. They are all lined with flower edgings, larger plants in the middle, and the grass is trimmed to perfection.

2. Brick Pathway Front Yard

This house has an angled roof that is accented by the perfectly straight walkway. Each side of the path is complete with bright pink flowers, accent bushes, and small trees.

3. Poppin’ Pink Posies

This idea is a simple one that brings stepping stones into play. Most of the shrubbery is green here, but the bright pink blooming plants add a lovely splash of color.

4. Evergreen Haven

Edging is great for a front yard, and this idea utilizes edging that is made from small stones. The garden is located in a hilly area, and it is filled with red and purple accent bushes, shrubs, and rocks.

5. Edging of Pink

This next idea features a garden of red roses and other flowers, but there is a fascinating row of pink posies nearing the edge of the sidewalk that adds a unique flavor to the curb.

6. Tropical Paradise

This idea is reminiscent of a tropical atmosphere. The house is a pastel color; there is a large palm tree on one side, a smaller one on the other side of the doorway, and several small plants lining the walkway.

7. Garden Hideaway

This idea has a cozy woodland feel. The farther from the driveway you get, the larger the plants and shrubbery becomes. It also provides a natural amount of privacy from your neighbors.

8. Alpine Perfection

The walkway of this idea is lined with small shrubs that lead straight to the front door. There are a few colorful plants on the side of the house, but the most eye-catching aspect is the two tall trees that are behind the house.

9. Welcoming Shrubbery

If you like a lot of greenery, then this idea is perfect. It has a lot of small bushes that grow right up to the edge of the walk, and the plant next to the banister is filled with welcoming pink and purple blooms.

10. Perfectly Pruned Symmetry

The bushes are pruned perfectly in this idea, the grass is well-kept and there are small pine trees to welcome you into the entrance of the house. The way the hedges step up towards the door is charming.

11. Palm Tree Paradise

There is not much to this idea except for planting palm trees in the perfect locations. Once they are planted, surround them with mulch and small shrubs that accent your home.

12. Raised L-Shaped Garden

The next idea is perfect for separating your driveway from your front yard. A raised area with a lot of shrubs and accent plants will give you a vibrant garden that adds privacy to your home.

13. Hedge Wall of Protection

Since this home is positioned on a hill, the landscaping idea is unique. The trees are pruned into perfect square shapes and are positioned on three raised stone walls. The steeper side features tall trees, while accent bushes invite you into the driveway.

14. Floral Hillscape

Hills create exquisite landscaping opportunities. The walkway has stairs at two locations on the way to the door, and the majority of the area is covered in mulch and green plants and bushes. The patch of grass creates a horseshoe effect in the garden that looks amazing.

15. Rock Garden of Tranquility

This rock garden serves as a focal point in this front yard. It has a stunning tree in the middle of the garden that is accented with small plants and bushes that are beautifully trimmed.


Popular Garden Ideas

Popular Garden Ideas

Creating a Focal Point in Your Garden

Even just the words “focal point” sound artsy-fartsy and for the practical gardener may seem silly or impractical, but in addition to adding aesthetic value a focal point can also have purpose.

What is a Focal Point and Why Do I Need One?

The idea of a focal point is derived from art and design principals, used in photography, and is also a science term in physics. In optics, a focal point is created by using a lens to direct light rays to a certain point. In design, something creative is used as that lens to lead an observer’s eyes through a work of art, a room, a landscape or… a garden!

Focal points help create visual order in what can appear as chaos. Think of your garden as a map, and focal points as the larger cities on the map that your eyes see first because they are the largest.

Because focal points are often larger or structural in nature, they can also perform a function in the garden as well as just “looking pretty.”

Another especially appealing thing about a focal point is the opportunity to give your garden or landscape character. The process of choosing something that reflects your sense of humor or style can simply be fun and enjoyable.

Simply put, a focal point can take your garden to the next level.

How do I start?

  • Consider the view and engage your imagination.

    Stand where the primary viewing space is and survey what you see. Is there a bland space that could benefit from the contrast of a unique pop of color? Is everything the same height and needs something tall or short to add interest? Would you like to add something funny or beautiful to make a statement? Perhaps a path or walkway would enhance the view. Visualize in your mind what might work there, or if that is difficult for you then look at pictures for inspiration. Check out our Pinterest page for ideas, too.

  • Start dreaming and shopping.
    Be patient with the process. Sometimes it takes looking around for the idea to hit you. Visit flea markets, garage sales, florists, nurseries and home stores. Look at magazines and websites. You’ll know when you find the perfect item, see the structure or identify a flower or foliage you want to incorporate.
  • Expand your thinking.
    If there is a practical need in your garden, say for a place for a plant to climb, or to hide an ugly air conditioning unit or electrical box, don’t just think about the utilitarian need, ask yourself how you could make that a beautiful, eye-catching element.

Brainstorming Ideas

Determine your style – Is your garden a casual one or formal? Eclectic or traditional? Do you like an English garden filled with wildflowers and whimsy or prefer a more rustic setting with lots of natural elements. Decide what appeals to you and design around that.

Be clever – A beautiful old iron bed sitting amongst a wildflower garden says, “flower bed,” in a whole new way. Find an item that interests you and use it uniquely in your space. Nothing personalizes your garden as well.

Go natural – The focal point can be a tree, a grouping of bushes or flowers, a unique plant. Striking colors and textures are also elements to consider. Weaving willow branches to create an arch or trellis incorporates nature and structure.

Use color – You can control the color by painting an item: An array of tall green or golden ornamental grasses would be stunning with a bench or chair painted in a pop of Chinese red or teal blue. Or you can work with nature by choosing bright colored foliage to do the same thing: Plant a group of red holly hocks in the center of that grass.

Create beauty – You can keep things simple, or you can construct walkways, water features, a gazebo or add lighting.

Find furniture – Garden furnishings are an easy way to quickly create a conversation area that can definitely become a focal point. Be intentional about where you place it and the colors you incorporate.

Introduce an entrance – A gate or trellis arch as an entry into a space make a wonderful focal point.

When you put your focus on creating a focal point for your garden, you’re bound to end up with something special. We’d love to see what you come up with!

Tags : back yard, flower garden, Focal point, garden how-to, gardening focal point, landscape, visual interestThis is the sixth in a series of articles on the Ten “Must-Have’s” in your Landscape. Ahh, focal points. As a designer, we are always creating focal points. Just what does the eye see when it follows a line of sight? Hopefully something interesting, intriguing, or something that says “wow, look at that!” Several things can be used as focal points such as benches, plants, birdhouses, fountains, statuary, planted containers, and pathways. There are a lot of hardscape items such as outdoor patios, dry creek beds, and boulders that also serve as focal points, but these will be covered in another blog all about hardscaping. So how do we use focal points effectively?

1. Don’t overdo

I love the photo to the right. There are several focal points in this picture, but it all works together. First your eye sees the bridge in the foreground, then the chartreuse of the Japanese Maple, then the texture of the Weeping Willow, and finally the burgundy leaves of the background tree. I took this photo in a Japanese themed garden overseas. Most of us don’t have a yard this big, so multiple major focal points probably wouldn’t work too well. Think about one main focal point, the one that you want the eye to see first. This photo inspired me for my yard. The chartreuse leaves of the Japanese Maple stood out to me so I made a Coral Bark Japanese Maple my main focal point in my back yard.

2. Major and Minor Focal Points

You can have several focal points in your yard, just not a lot of major focal points in close proximity to one another. Our eyes can get overwhelmed when there are too many things going on and they can’t focus on just one thing. You want your eyes to go to one area of the yard, then move easily to other areas that have minor focal points.

3. Main Lines of Sight

There are some obvious lines of sight that should be thought about. Firstly, the walk up to the front door. See the blog on Welcoming Front Entries. There should be minor focal points along the pathway, but a major focal point at the end of your line of sight when you look along the pathway. This may be your front door, a fountain, annual beds, planted containers etc. I had to include this picture of a pathway with a focal point at the end. Pretty amazing! Another line of sight is when you look out from your house into your yard. What do you see? What do you want to see? For me, my main line of sight is from my breakfast room which has the view of my back yard. My major focal point is the Coral Bark Maple, but I also have several other Japanese Maples, some in containers, that serve as minor focal points in other areas of the yard.

4. Focal Point Plants

There are some pretty amazing plants out there. For instance, Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick. Wow! This is definitely a focal point plant especially when it flowers. When you use a plant as a focal point, make sure there is nothing else around it that will compete for first prize. You want to make your specimen plant look its best, so keep other things around it very simple. Weeping Japanese Maples are great specimen plants and can be grown quite well in containers. I use them in containers under large trees when it becomes impossible to plant anything because of the tree roots. Some other great focal point plants are topiaries, weeping cherries or redbuds or weeping anything for that matter, palms, yuccas, or any other plant that has a little drama.

5. Benches

Benches are great focal points. Not only are they visually appealing, they convey the message to come sit and stay a while. This bench is in Regina’s yard (another one of our designers). The bench is the main focal point, but when you look closer, you can see there are other minor focal points such as the containers to the left, and the bold foliage behind the bench. Note the color tones of the containers and how it ties in with the bench color.

6. Containers

I always tell people to take time choosing containers. Often we get too busy to plant anything in our containers, but if you have attractive containers, they should be able to stand on their own, even if we haven’t adorned them with plants. Hopefully you will find time to plant seasonal color in your containers. The designers at the Family Tree can give you lots of wonderful ideas on container gardening. Place the containers wherever you want attention in your landscape.

7. Birdhouses, Bird Baths, and Fountains

I recently added a bird feeder to my yard and it has become one of my favorite focal points. You will see from the photo that there is also a bench tucked away in the background and I love to sit there and watch the birds come and go. Bird baths are also great focal points as a lot of these come in very bright colors and will definitely stand out in your landscape. Fountains add a visual element as well as a sound element. There is something about the sound of water by a front entry, or a back patio, so if you don’t already have one, add this to your list of “must-haves” for the future.

8. A little bit of Whimsy!

It is nice to see the unexpected, or something that just makes us smile. Take a look at this cute bicycle (also in Regina’s yard). Who would think about putting a bicycle on the wall underplanted with grasses! Regina would. Not only is it a focal point, but it is also a conversation piece.

If you are still not sure where to begin, come in and see us at the Family Tree. We also offer a free Quick Sketch or a full Landscape Design Service that will help you get started.

Happy Gardening!
Tracy Davis

Check out the rest of Tracy’s list of the top 10 ‘must-haves’ for your landscape!

#1 Foundation Plants
#2 Trees
#3 Screening
#4 A Welcoming Front Entry
#5 Pops of Color
#6 Focal Points
#7 Nooks
#8 Hardscaping
#9 Entertaining Areas
#10 Animal Friends

Design a Garden Focal Point

Design a garden focal point that reveals your personality and communicates effectively to your visitors!

Every garden benefits from a little dramatic finesse!

Dramatic placement of plants and decorative touches added to the garden help create a strong personal message.

This strong, personal message is what makes a garden truly memorable.

Our eyes need the information provided by the well-chosen placement of these decorative touches and specimen plantings to enhance the visual organization of the garden. These pieces of information help us “see” the garden. Without these points of reference, the garden can be less than fully satisfying. 

Here are a few great examples of the strength of an exciting focal point!

Oh, and did I tell you it is fun!

There is so much opportunity to express yourself when you design a garden focal point. You can drag your mother’s neglected but oh so cool old sewing machine into the garden and it suddenly takes on new life!

Recycle just about anything into the garden as an exciting garden ornament.

If you love plants more than junk, (some of us really DO!!), then you can use impressive specimen plantings, groups of containers, or drifts of like plantings to draw the eye. When you design a garden focal point, anything goes, as long as it is well placed!

Why design a garden focal point?

As if you even needed to ask!

There are so many valuable reasons to design a garden focal point that it seems to me that anyone who doesn’t take the time is missing a few marbles…up there, you know?

  • Garden focal points help to add emphasis to important areas of the garden. They help to guide our eyes toward the important visual clues that help us to fully appreciate the design and enable us to easily move around the garden.
  • When you design a garden focal point you put a stamp on your garden, creating a personality that is wholly yours and no one else’s!
  • Focal points help to turn an ordinary garden into an exceptionally memorable one.
  • By creating a cleverly placed focal point, you can camouflage those ugly or hugely uninteresting functional areas that are necessary in every garden, things like those garbage cans, air conditioners, and utility areas.
  • There is no easier way to create unity in a garden than to use thoughtfully placed focal points to visually tie garden areas together.
  • Garden ornament placed as points of emphasis throughout the garden can add structure to the garden, as they do not change with the seasons.

Need I go on? There are so many reasons to design a garden focal point that make sense!
Don’t you agree that a gardener who doesn’t create these areas of emphasis has lost a marble or two?

The major purpose of the garden focal point is to help set the mood for your garden, and to add that theoretical ‘period’ to the design. Garden ornaments and specimen plants are what create a fully finished, highly desirable effect in a garden.

The areas of emphasis that you create when you design a garden focal point help to establish the uniqueness of a garden space and to conjure in the minds of your garden visitor allusions that help to conjure up an exciting garden atmosphere. They create references to pictures and emotions in our minds that evoke a human response.

Garden focal points can be used to help control the movement of a visitor.

Do you want your visitor to slowly meander through the garden while they take in the individual beauty of each plant?

Maybe you want to allure a visitor to your front door quickly, or stop entirely in the garden to take in the minute detail of a delightful garden ornament.

Pairs of objects placed anywhere along an access path create a sense of moving from one garden area to another and set the expectation of new garden delights just around the corner.

Shaping the progression of your visitor through your garden, both visually and kinetically, can be easily managed through the placement and arrangement of objects and plants as you design a garden focal point.

Understanding how the line of sight affects our absorption of the garden space allows us to visually tie our home to the grounds around them and fashion unity among all garden elements, even if our visual choices are quite diverse.

You see, what matters most is the overall placement of the visual elements of the entire garden.

When there is unity throughout the garden in regard to placement of the objects and plants that make up the garden, the variety you introduce within that overall pattern can be quite diverse, and still hang together. Garden axes are one of the secrets of placement that separate a professionally designed garden from the majority of residential gardens.

Garden Axes and Line of Sight

Here I would like to introduce a concept that is very useful as you design a garden focal point and determine its placement.

Appreciating the concept of a garden axes, or line of sight, has an astounding effect upon your ability to draw the eye and get the most out of your garden.

These garden axes help provide a guide to where to place your focal points in the garden. There can be one, or many, and there are several key principles to keep in mind as you lay these out in your own garden.

How to Design a Focal Point

Focal points are among the first things you may want to plan for in the garden, as they can provide help in placement of the major elements of your garden design, including paths, patios and water features.

By identifying the garden axes up front, you can be on the lookout for those unique and wonderful objects, plants and features that will make your garden yours.

  1. To discover the garden axes for your own property, start by looking out of the windows and doors of your home. When you look out of the window, the line between your eye and the furthest point you can see in your garden is a garden axes. You need to decide which of these garden axes you are going to develop into your focal point.
  2. Using your functional plan, you can divide up the areas of your garden in to the desired spaces, and then within each isolate the point you would like to emphasize by adding focal features. Decide what you think is the most important view from your home.
  3. One point of emphasis, or focal point, can be used to provide interest to several windows from which you may be able to see it. These views that extend from your windows and doors, even patios where you plan to spend significant time, are the most important garden axes to furnish properly.
  4. Now you will want to think about the view from the identified focal point TOWARD the house, doors, or patios. The view from these points of emphasis should be equally as delightful as the view from the home. Thinking this way ensures that from all points in the garden you will have an exquisite or exciting view.
  5. Dress up windows, doors, or patios to create their own sense of drama by adding focal features, or maximizing existing architectural features indoors or out. When you address this, you are addressing the “double axis” or “reverse axis”. This simply highlights the fact that both ends of the garden axis have been considered and the view maximized.
  6. Be sure to address early those difficult places in your garden such as air conditioners, utility posts and meters, garbage and service areas. These are prime areas to design a focal point in order to distract the viewer’s eye from those more mundane or unsightly areas.
  7. Under most conditions, you will not want to be able to see other focal points within the garden, unless they are obscured by plantings and are providing a “peek a boo view”. You will always be able to see the reverse axis, but other garden focal points should not be obvious from any one focal area. Using care to camouflage or obscure these additional focal areas helps you to keep from creating a sense of disorder in the garden space.

A unified, memorable garden takes time to create. Don’t expect to do it overnight!

Plan for enticing views from all the key points in your garden, whether patios, destination points, or house windows. Focus on one area at a time, make it spectacular, and then move to the next. Your garden will guide you, a bit at a time toward an integrated, beautiful picture.

Listen to it.

When you design a garden focal point, your goal is to astound your visitor (and yourself!) with the incredible view. Make it something you want to live and grow old with!

However, don’t overwhelm your garden with too many areas of emphasis!

Keep the balance, create unity, and provide just enough variety to bring interest.

When you design a garden focal point that is appropriate to YOUR garden, you will know it. It will excite not only you but all your garden visitors.

Focal Point Garden Design Ideas

A picture is worth a thousand words they say!

Here are some great ideas that may help you expand your definition of a garden focal point. ANYTHING will do, placed properly, supported with the right plantings and hardscape and reinforced by placement along a garden axis.

Take a look at these wonderful examples of garden focal points and fuel your own dream. Design a garden focal point that incorporates these ideas or one of the hundred thousand other possibilities and make it your own.

Use a plant with incredible branches, and a year round presence…

Or group plants of a vibrant or contrasting color to arrest the eye….

Find an interesting conversational piece of art and highlight it….

Build a beautiful, quirky, or textural gazebo …

Create an artistic path or patio…

Or an extraordinary water feature…

Add interesting garden furnishings…

Or place an unusual bench in a corner……….

Grab them with the entrance…

Or highlight a gorgeous view.

Establish an appealing collection of objects…..

Or focus on a garden wall….

Create an interesting garden expanse…..

Or salvage your dad’s old car…..

There is ALWAYS another beautiful option available to design a garden focal point with.

Have fun with this!! It is your best opportunity to infuse your garden with personal style!

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12 Lovely Focal Points to Enhance Your Garden

Using focal points in the landscape is one of the easiest ways to transform a ho-hum garden into one that feels more designed and intentional. The simplest of objects — an empty ceramic container, a potted plant or a pair of garden chairs — can be used as focal points. The key to hitting the mark designwise is all about placement. Here are 12 ideas for how to use garden objects and standout plants to draw and direct the eye in the landscape.

Focal Point 1: Scott Brinitzer Design Associates, original photo on Houzz

1. Inviting seating nook. Draw a visitor into the garden by putting chairs, benches and lounges where they can act both as inviting destinations and as focal points. To do so, place seating where it can be viewed from other areas of the garden or from inside the home. For example, a pair of Adirondack chairs at the end of the walkway makes an attractive vignette viewed from the house and gives a reason to wander down the gravel path.

2. Container among foliage. Work focal points into garden beds to provide a resting spot for one’s gaze amid drifts of plants. For example, an empty ceramic container nestled in the bed draws one’s focus and then encourages the eye to wander over the surrounding plants in a slower appreciation of the bed.

Focal Point 2: Banyon Tree Design Studio, original photo on Houzz

3. Pathway pivot. Corners and pathway intersections are prime spots for adding a focal point. In this garden in Seattle, a glazed ceramic container set against a lattice screen creates a place for the eye to rest as one walks down the pathway from one garden area to the next. The wooden chair acts as a second focal point for the latter part of the journey.

4. Simple sculpture. Anchor a formal garden with a focal point at the center of traditional beds edged with clipped boxwood hedges. For understated elegance, choose a sculpture with a simple form, such as an obelisk, and plant beds below with masses of a single bloom color.

Focal Point 3: TERRABELLA, inc., original photo on Houzz

5. Edgy screens. As an alternative to a hedge, use interesting screens to both provide privacy and act as a focal point. Here, a trio of metal panels calls attention to the interesting semitransparent design, rather than the neighbor’s deck. Panels and screens also could be used to form a point of focus at the end of a walkway.

6. Water element. Fountains and other water elements immediately attract attention in the garden, drawing one’s eyes to the movement of water and one’s ears to the soothing sound. Use fountains as focal points at the center of patios, set into garden walls or at the end of pathways.

Focal Point 4: Goessling Design, original photo on Houzz

7. Window frame. Use recycled objects and simple structures as focal points at the ends of pathways or patios. Here, a wooden window frame and a clipped shrub encourage your eye to linger on an area of the garden that would be easy to overlook. The screen also serves a practical purpose — marking a subtle grade change in the landscape to keep a visitor from walking over the edge of the patio.

8. Cottage garden shed. It’s easy and cost-effective to turn existing structures into intentional focal points. If you already have a garden shed, consider updating it with a fresh coat of paint and a few potted containers on both sides of the door.

For new sheds, think about their placement. Instead of hiding the structure in the back corner of the garden, make it the focal point of the side garden to bring attention to a less-used area.

Focal Point 5: Traditional Landscape, original photo on Houzz

9. Alluring garden gate. Another way to create a focal point out of an existing garden feature is to play with the surrounding planting palette. Keeping beds simple with all green hues and masses of one or two types of plants directs attention toward other elements of the garden.

In this garden in upstate New York, one is drawn down the curve of the path to the iron gate and left to wonder what lies beyond.

10. Showy specimen plants. To use a tree or a small shrub as a focal point, choose one with outstanding characteristics — such as spring flowers, interesting branch structure or brilliant fall leaves — and plant it with a bit of room to breathe. For example, put a specimen tree in the center of a patio or within a garden bed surrounded by lower-growing plants.

How to Grow a Butterfly Garden

11. Raised vessel. Elevate simple objects to act as focal points by giving them more prominence in the landscape. Placing an empty urn on a pedestal so that it’s at eye level makes the object stand out more than if the same urn were on the ground.

Focal Point 6: Le jardinet, original photo on Houzz

12. Colorful accent. Use vivid colors to immediately draw the eye. In this Seattle garden, the designer placed bright chartreuse chairs against a cobalt-blue adobe wall to create a focal point at the back of the property. The wall also serves a practical purpose of hiding a large storage shed.

041-Small Space Garden Design

Susan Morrison is a landscape designer and author of the new book, The Less is More Garden – Big ideas for designing your small yard. She joins us for this podcast to discuss some of her fascinating ideas and philosophies for small space garden design.

While her book is tailored to small space gardens, I found a wealth of informative ideas that will help me in the continuing design of my five-acre property too. So regardless what size space you may be working with, I’m confident there will be something useful for you here.

Transform Your Garden Dream Into Reality

Often, this phrase conjures up visions of a lush, flower-packed, perfectly-manicured setting. The truth is, small space garden design is a great exercise in paring down all your big garden ideas to what’s most important – to your reality.

Use this garden opportunity to think carefully about how you will use the space. Be honest with yourself. If you don’t enjoy sitting outside after dark, perhaps that fire pit isn’t such a good idea after all.

Susan Morrison, author of The Less is More Garden – Big ideas for designing your small yard

Consider all the magazine or Instagram pictures you’ve been drawn to, the plants you’ve been dreaming about, and all those entertaining spaces – then distill them all into what is truly impactful to your lifestyle.

Questions Every Gardener Should Ask

How do you cut through all the details necessary to plan and prepare? Begin with what Susan refers to as The Three W’s:

  • What will you be doing in the space?
  • When will you be outside?
  • Who will be with you?

You should enjoy being in your garden space, regardless of its size. You should enjoy looking at it. So, be practical – not aspirational. A thoughtful assessment to align the space functionality with your habits will ensure that the garden is a pleasure – not just something else on your maintenance To Do list.

Answering the Three W questions honestly will help cut through the dreamy photos and idealized vision. You will be able to prioritize the elements that matter most and maximize your budget by spending accordingly.

If you don’t enjoy entertaining outside, save some money by not investing in that large patio table set. Sure, it may look nice on the showroom floor, but you will never regret prioritizing that precious yard footage for something more in tune with your every day.

Looking Through Green-Colored Glasses

For most of us, our vision of what “home” really means harkens back to those childhood days of vast garden expanse. It used to be commonplace for our homes to be small but surrounded by a large yard.

This is how many of us remember our childhoods – lots of room to run, ballgames on a seemingly endless lawn, etc. That is rarely our present-day reality.

Use “see through” plants to create a sense of subtle separation. (photo: Jude Parkinson-Morgan)

This sentimentality can get in the way when designing your present-day landscape. Just like the inside of your home, the outside of your home should reflect your present lifestyle.

Pragmatism can, surprisingly, help you create something truly special in your garden space.

All Great Things Start Somewhere

Once you’ve identified your priorities, don’t forget to begin. Sounds obvious, right? Yet, small space garden design can be intimidating. Paralysis by analysis.

We feel that – because it is small – it must be perfect. If you make a mistake in a large garden, that error will be overlooked in the vastness of it all. Small spaces offer less room for error.

Susan compares this to a dinner party. If you invite a large group over, and you make several different dishes; one dish gone wrong is a minor hiccup. If instead, you plan to serve one feature dish to everyone – well, it had better be phenomenal. Less is … well, more pressure.

Your design should include space for activities you enjoy, like a comfortable lounge chair for reading or relaxing. (Photo: Doreen Wynja)

Maybe you aren’t designing a space from scratch but just want to amp up your existing small garden. Where do you begin with that? Well, it’s still important to ask yourself those Three W’s and make sure you’ve got those bases covered or identify those changes.

Sometimes though, you just need help pulling all those established plantings and design accessories together for more cohesiveness or punch. Susan recommends asking a friend to be a fresh set of eyes. That fresh perspective can call your attention to things you may have stopped seeing years ago or new ideas you hadn’t considered.

Making an Impact – Illusion Is Everything

Big item = big impact is a true equation. However, small space garden design reminds us that there are many ways to make an impact. In fact, small gardens do have certain advantages over those sprawling lots of our childhood.

When you walk outside, do you glance around the garden and the mystery is gone, because you can see everything in a moment? That’s not because the space is small. It’s because you haven’t created a sense that there is more to explore.

Utilize a disappearing pathway.

Susan suggests extending fence lines just beyond the edge of the house. That allows you to build a path that leads just out of sight. Even if that path only travels a couple of feet around the corner, the allure of something being out of sight of your patio door generates impact.

Lush foliage conceals a path that wanders through a small space garden.

Tuck in surprises. Whether they are small objects or Forget-Me-Nots tucked under the large leaf of a hosta, weave in elements that you or your visitor need to search for or discover over time.

Work some space magic. Since small spaces can feel confining, Susan utilizes double-duty design to create the illusion of more room.

Seating space is a good example of double-duty design. Seating can be a challenge in small gardens. If you entertain, you may feel it’s necessary to fill your space with chairs and tables, perhaps foregoing design.

Yet, seating and design can coexist beautifully.

If you are adding a retaining wall or other hardscapes, build the element to a height of 18” – the ideal height for sitting. Top that ledge with a cement cap or other flat surface that is at least 8” wide. Your entire retaining wall ledge transforms into the perfect seating spot – or just looks beautiful when no one else is around.

Retaining walls can do double duty as extra seating. (photo: Tai Williams)

Raised beds offer another perfect opportunity for double-duty seating. Did you know 18” also happens to be the perfect depth for raised beds? A little garden design kismet!

Maybe you think a raised bed vegetable garden will look too unkempt for your small space? The bed structure will create some order out of that edible chaos, and never underestimate how drawn your guests will be to a vegetable bed.

Getting Intimate

Small gardens can and should create a sense of intimacy. Think of your outdoor space as just another room in your home, and design it using the same principles.

Just as you might group chairs around a fireplace inside, look for a wall or any vertical space in your garden around which you can group two or three chairs. That area – even though small – won’t feel cramped but, instead, becomes a cozy garden room.

Even those of us with large landscape areas need intimate spaces. It’s all in defining some boundaries and building small “rooms” into the larger area. Oftentimes, homeowners start by thinking the only way to create a sense of enclosure is to add hardscape – build a wall.

An intimate space is tucked into a larger garden. (photo: Susan Morrison)

An intimate outdoor area can be better served with a green wall – utilizing trees, shrubs or other plant materials to create division. Just remember that, when using plants as your building material, it can be easy to lose sight of proportion.

A common mistake when planting to screen for privacy, for example, is to use trees that will mature to 30’ or more. You probably wouldn’t build a 30’ concrete wall, so don’t “build” a 30’ green wall either.

Intimacy also comes through a sense of place. Although memories of your past can hold a strong influence on your garden ideals, that past may be getting in your way.

Design your landscape to reflect your present-day area. This will more easily foster a sense of place, and utilizing regional plants in your garden will also cut down on maintenance. If you are committed to including favorite plants from your childhood, try them in containers or look for something with similar qualities that will perform better in your climate.

What many of us forget is that intimacy develops through the revelation of your personality. When your garden is a reflection of who you are, you will feel most comfortable there. Also, your visitors will come to know and draw nearer to you through your garden.

You decorate inside using treasured items or photos that make your heart sing. Do likewise in your landscape.

The Art of the Focal Point

When you read the words “focal point” does your mind automatically jump to a vision of a large, white fountain or maybe a vine-covered pergola? A focal point doesn’t need to be large, and it doesn’t need to be something far off in the distance of a sweeping landscape.

A focal point is simply something that stands out from its surroundings – something distinct. Small gardens need focal points too – they help create a view or views of the space.

A water feature helps attract birds and butterflies to a garden. (Photo: Saxon Holt)

There are three types of focal points:

1. One that leads the eye

An element that arrests your vision momentarily. This creates a visual pause before your eye continues to take in the whole garden space.

2. One that unifies

If you separate spaces with an element that can be seen and appreciated from all sides, it becomes a unifier. Think circular.

A fountain or an urn is a good example of a unifier. The unifier can be placed between two distinct living spaces to separate them visually, yet because it can be enjoyed from both spaces, it also unifies them.

3. One that can be enjoyed from inside your home

When you’re indoors, your windows frame the view outside. Bear those framed areas in mind when designing your small space, and use them to create a focal point.

One element, be it plant or object, can serve as two or even three types of focal point. It’s all in how you design your space.

Design Your Color Story

Is there a color or a color combination that always appeals to you? If you want to feel calm while in your garden, what color(s) calms you? Utilizing a color theme is another means of designing around your personality.

Perhaps you have a favorite vacation spot? What colors remind you of your time there?

Susan is a big proponent of designing with color stories or themes, and there are some remarkable photograph examples in her book.

A color theme can be monochromatic – using plantings and furniture of all the same color, like shades of blue. A color theme can be made up of complementary or contrasting colors, such as yellow and orange. Just remember, there can be too much of a good thing.

Choose flowering perennials that bloom over a long season. (photo: Jude Parkinson Morgan)

Susan gives the example of using a bold blue and yellow color theme. In a small space, such a strong theme can be overpowering, so look for gold and teal elements instead. You can use small pillows or container plants to bring in the stronger blues and yellows. The marriage of the toned-down shades with small pops of the bolder shades you love will combine to remarkable small-space effect.

Designing for color doesn’t need to be complicated. It may be as simple as finding colored accessories that play off the colors of your plant foliage. A chartreuse chair takes on a whole new appeal when combined with a lime-toned sweet potato vine. Same too, a crimson container next to a Japanese maple.

Three Keys to Success

There are so many valuable ideas in Susan’s book, but they all revolve around her Three Keys to Success:

1. Scale & Proportion

These aspects are of particular importance in the small space garden. In a small garden, you are the most important fixed object. How the other garden elements compare to you in scale is the primary factor. Small space shouldn’t dictate small plantings and accessories.

How the garden elements relate to each other is where proportion comes into play. If you plant a tree that will grow to 30’ high, will it be proportionate to your other garden elements? Probably not.

Remember – comfort is king! Choose furniture you can sink into. (photo: Tai Williams)

2. Circulation

Plan your garden to allow people to move naturally and easily through. If you incorporate tables and chairs, be sure there is room to walk around them or to scoot the chair back during a relaxed conversation.

We all tend to map out our space – take all our measurements, graph out walkways and garden beds. It’s important to step down from that bird’s eye viewpoint to visualize the experience you will have with garden elements.

Susan suggests making cardboard cutouts to match the dimensions of things like chairs and fountains. Place the cutouts where you envision them. Can you navigate around them easily? Do they block the view of a focal point or the scene out your window? This exercise will help you to anticipate problems.

3. Comfort

Ideally, you will be spending time in your garden, right? Isn’t that one of the reasons you are doing all of this? Don’t neglect comfort in your design.

If your area will be sunny and hot, plant for some shade. If the wind is a regular visitor, plan some green or hardscape windbreaks.

Incorporate elements that will encourage you to linger – a comfy lounge chair, a shady spot. All you’ll be missing is a good book.

Speaking of good books, pick yourself up a copy of Susan’s. We only touched the tip of the advice iceberg in this podcast. For spaces small and large, there is much to be gleaned from Susan’s design philosophies.

If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend listening to the podcast linked at the top of the page. Susan shares some additional stories and examples that are best enjoyed through listening.

Links & Resources

The Less Is More Garden: Big ideas for designing your small yard book, by Susan Morrison

Podcast episode 019: GardenFarm Audio Journal – First Day of Fall, 2017

Podcast episode 024: Japanese Maples: A Passion and Profession with Matt & Tim Nichols

Podcast episode 033: Savvy Seed Catalog Shopping

joegardener Blog: How to Create a Productive Raised Bed Garden

GGW Episode 214: Small Space Gardening, featuring Susan Morrison

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About Joe Lamp’l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently in production of its ninth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm, just north of Atlanta, GA.

Principles of landscape design

There are six principles of design that have been used by artists for centuries throughout all art forms, painting and floral design as well as landscape design. They are:

  1. Balance
  2. Focalization
  3. Simplicity
  4. Rhythm and Line
  5. Proportion
  6. Unity

1. Balance

Balance is a state of being as well as seeing. We are most comfortable in landscapes that have a sense of balance. There are two major types of balance: symmetrical and asymmetrical.

Symmetrical balance is used in formal landscapes when one side of the landscape is a mirror image of the opposite side. These landscapes often use geometric patterns in the walkways, planting beds and even how the plants are pruned into shapes. This type of balance appears to be rather stiff in appearance and often is highly maintained. Asymmetrical balance, also known as informal balance, differs from one side to the other and appears to be relaxing and free flowing.

Using these principles, landscape designers create landscapes that are pleasing to look at and even inviting. These principles were not created by artists centuries ago, but more of an inherent visual sense that most people possess. Using these as guidelines helps designers and homeowners create a landscape that “make sense” to look at.

2. Focalization

Any good design has a focal point – the place where the viewer’s eye is first attracted. Focalization is sometimes referred to as focalization of interest or simply focal point. The focal point is the strongest element in the design in any given view. A home’s focal point is often the front door. The landscape focal point is often something close to the front door to enhance the entrance of the home.

Each area of the landscape may include a focal point, but it is certainly not necessary. Landscape designers should not overuse focal points. In any view, people are attracted to interesting plant forms, bright colors and artistic, architectural design as well as art or sculptures. Mix it up, have some fun and create interesting focal points.

3. Simplicity

Simplicity is what the name implies – simple. Keeping landscapes simple, not cluttered or fussy is always a good practice. This is not the opposite of complexity. Many landscapes have very complex features, including the architectural design, water features and extensive lighting features. Landscapes that make people happy and comfortable avoid using too many colors, shapes, curves and textures, but in no way does this mean simplistic, boring or lack of imagination.

4. Rhythm and line

When something in the landscape is repeated with a standard interval, a rhythm is established. In landscape design, the interval is usually space. Plants, groups of plants, lamp posts, benches or other structures can be repeated within the design to create this rhythm. Lines within a landscape are created in a landscape by the shape and form of the planting beds, sidewalks, where the turf meets pavement and other hardscaping features. The rhythm and line design principle gives a landscape a sense of movement and is what may draw you “into” the landscape. This is what makes landscapes calming to our souls.

5. Proportion

Proportion refers to the size relationship of all the features in the landscape. This includes vertical, horizontal and special relationships. Short people, tall people and children all perceive space differently. Proportion in landscape design extends to building size, lot size, plant size, areas of plantings to areas of open space as well as the use of the landscape.

6. Unity

The principle of unity is easily measured if the other five landscape principles have been properly executed throughout the landscape. Unity in design simply means all the separate parts of the landscape work together to create a great total design. Colors, shapes, sizes, textures and other features work together to create a unified space. Patterns and colors are often repeated. Lighting, special features, bed shapes and hardscapes such as walk ways all need to work together to create a pleasing look and a unified landscape.

By following these principles of design, you will be able to create a visually pleasing landscape in any space, large or small. For more information, see “Water Wise Landscaping: Principles of Landscape Design” by Colorado State University Extension.


Presented by the National Association of Landscape Professionals in partnership with

Lauren Dunec Hoang, Houzz

Sightlines in landscape design are clear paths that help direct your eye to a focal point, out to an attractive view or from the inside of the house to the garden. When used intentionally as part of a garden’s design, sightlines can help open views, make gardens of any size feel more expansive and connect the inside of homes to the landscape.

If you’re laying plans for a new garden, or looking for ways to update your existing design, here’s how to incorporate more sightlines into the design.

Photo by Scott Brinitzer Design Associates

Line up garden views with windows. Start inside the house. Take note of which rooms you spend the most time in, and pay attention to how the garden looks from those vantage points. Does a window in the living room look out onto the front yard? Place a focal point centered on where your eye falls looking out the window and keep the area between the window and the focal point a clear view.

A focal point can be anything from a shapely shrub, specimen tree or potted container to a garden element like a bench or urn set into a bed.

Emphasizing a sightline from inside the house to outside works for small gardens and apartments as well and can help these spaces feel larger. For tight city terraces or windows that open to the walls of adjacent buildings, it’s even more important to match the line of sight closely with what you view from a particular window or doorway. Play with levels of potted plants and the scale of the plants and pots to create focal points where your eye falls.

Photo by Amy Martin Landscape Design

Once outside, look in every direction. Take stock of views beyond your garden and where your eye is naturally drawn to in the landscape. What counts as a “view” doesn’t need to be a sweeping vista, but rather can be as simple as a mature tree canopy from an adjacent lot, an area of open sky between trees or a particular area of your garden that your eye is often drawn to.

To create sightlines that emphasize these views, define pathways, beds and open areas of the garden to direct a viewer’s gaze. Cut back overgrown plants to expose expansive views, and establish sightlines within the garden by placing focal points to direct one’s gaze. In this Santa Barbara garden, for example, the most dramatic view is of the hillside, and the sightline is kept clear by keeping plantings small, save for an olive tree accent. The pathway acts as a second sightline, with a pair of blue adirondack chairs placed as a focal point.

Photo by The Real Garden Company

Add linear features. Straight lines going away from you tend to draw you forward in the landscape. You can take advantage of this quality to visually stretch a space by aligning linear features along a sightline. Looking down this water rill to the spillover water fountain, for example, one’s eye is drawn down and across the garden, giving the illusion that the space is larger than it is.

Pathways laid out in a straight line are easy to incorporate as linear features and capitalize on sightlines since the center of the walkway is, by default, kept clear. Remember to place an object or plant as a focal point at the end of the sightline so your eye is drawn to something.

Take advantage of expansive views. If you’re lucky enough to have a garden that opens up on a vista or to open space, keep plantings low to emphasize a sightline to the view beyond the garden. You may also like to use hedges, fences and walls to help selectively frame a particular view.

Photo by Jonathan Raith Inc.

Create a pinch point to home in on a sightline. This idea works for gardens of nearly any size and isn’t dependent on having a stunning vista. By narrowing the view, you can more clearly direct a viewer’s gaze just where you want it and emphasize a focal point. Place a pair of midsize structural evergreen plants — like clipped boxwoods, pittosporum or privet — on either side of a sightline. You can do the same with walls, hedges or fences.

In this Mediterranean-style garden, two mature boxwoods framing the path help define the sightline to the cafe table set on the terrace.

This formal gardening technique doesn’t need to be limited to parterres and large-scale classical gardens — although it’s certainly gorgeous in those settings. By laying out a section of the garden along a central axis, one can create a sightline down the axis with the option for lateral sightlines as paths intersect the central axis. The clear center path and roughly symmetrical hedges placed on either side of the axis help define it as a sightline.

Photo by Mariani Landscape

In this Chicago garden the designer used an axis on a much smaller scale to define bed structure and create a sightline to the water feature focal point.

Try a tree allée. If you have the space for it, planting a line of trees on either side of a garden walkway in a classical allée can instantly define a sightline. While longer lines of trees make more dramatic allées, you can make use of this classical planting scheme to direct a view in a smaller garden.

Add a sightline appreciation spot. The start or end of a sightline — depending on your garden layout — can be a perfect spot for placing a bench or pair of chairs to pause and take in the view. For sightlines that open to expansive views, place seating at the start of the sightline where you can look out over the vista. For sightlines that rely on narrowed spaces like a garden walkway bordered by hedges or a tree allée, a bench placed at the end acts as both an invitation and as a focal point for the sightline.

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