Garden Designers Roundtable: The magic of using focal points

Today I join 10 designers from Garden Designers Roundtable in posting about focal points. (Photo: English Walled Garden, Chicago Botanic Garden)

Placing a focal point in your garden is like wielding a magic wand to cast a spell over your visitors. A well-placed object has the power to make people look at what you want them to see and walk where you want them to go. Here are some guidelines that have worked for me in placing focal points in my own and clients’ gardens. Some of these are self-evident, yet they can be easily forgotten in the excitement of finding a spot for a new piece of garden art, a bench, or a colorful container.

1. Put a focal point where you want people to look or go:

In the bend of a path (Chanticleer Garden, PA)

At the end of a long allee or on the far side of an arbor, to entice visitors through (Lucinda Hutson’s garden, Austin)

In the middle of an open space within an enclosed area, like this tiny thyme garden planted around a bowl on a pillar (Jenny Stocker’s garden, Austin)

At the conjunction of two paths (Antique Rose Emporium, San Antonio)

2. Don’t put a focal point in front of something you’d rather visitors not notice, like a sagging fence, the neighbor’s unpainted garage, or a telephone pole. Look with fresh eyes at your garden to see these undesirable elements that have become invisible to you over time; taking pictures of your garden is a good way to get a fresh perspective. Screen these elements with plants or hardscaping like a trellis rather than placing a single eye-catching item, container, or architectural plant in front of them. (Photo: My former back garden)

3. A container planting positioned in a garden bed makes an excellent focal point. Containers do not have to be placed on hardscape (patios, decks, porches, etc.) They attract the eye just as beautifully when placed among the plants in your garden. (Photo: My former front garden)

4. Avoid placing too many focal points in one area. You want the eye to zero in on one element, which may be part of a larger composition, not bounce around off several unconnected elements. (Photo: My new back garden)

5. Find the right scale for your focal point. Most of us err on the side of too small rather than too large. One way to increase a focal point’s presence is to elevate it on a plinth or, more simply, stacked pavers or stones. (Photo: Eleanor Pratt’s garden)

6. Plants make good focal points too. Use a specimen tree or an architectural plant like an agave as a focal point. Just be sure it looks good in all seasons. (Photo: Chanticleer Garden, PA)

By keeping these considerations in mind, you may find new and better places for your treasured garden pieces. Just remember what grande dame Emily Whaley said, in her book Mrs. Whaley and Her Charleston Garden, about placing statuary and other garden art: “There’s such a thing as too many dancing girls.” Wield your magic wand judiciously.

To read what other garden designers on the Roundtable have to say about focal points, follow these links:

Andrew Keys at Garden Smackdown, Boston
Carolyn Choi at Sweet Home and Garden Chicago, Chicago
Debbie Roberts at A Garden of Possibilities, Stamford, CT
Laura Livengood Schaub at Interleafings, San Jose, CA
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber at Hegarty Webber Partnership, Bristol, UK
Rebecca Sweet at Gossip In the Garden, Los Altos, CA
Susan Cohan at Miss Rumphius’ Rules, Chatham, NJ
Susan Morrison at Blue Planet Garden Blog, East Bay, CA
Susan Schlenger at Landscape Design Viewpoint, Hampton, NJ
Tara Dillard at Landscape Design Decorating Styling, Atlanta

All material © 2006-2010 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

22 Responses

  1. Town Mouse says:

    Great post! I love that you tell us what to do, and also what not to do. I probably have too many focal points in my garden, maybe a pot removal or consolidation even is in my future…

    I struggle with it too, TM. What can I say? I like garden decor. But editing down during my recent move showed me how less can be more. —Pam

  2. Another good article.

    Sometimes I think my yard…um…’ornaments’ might be ‘too many dancing girls’. But, I do my best to not overdo it. I like the use of containers to draw the eye in.

    We can always count on great photos, from you.

    Thanks, Linda! As I replied to TM above, ornaments are my weak spot too. Anyway, these are just guidelines. Each person’s garden is his or her own eden, and the only rules that really matter are the ones that make you happy. —Pam

  3. Eric says:

    This blog post is right on! I’ve actually designed a focal point from my main sitting area in the garage, through a window out into the back. In fact my entire yard is based on this “sight-line”.

    Designing around a sight line nearly always yields a pleasing result, Eric. Smart move! —Pam

  4. Diana says:

    Lovely focal points and good advice, as always. Can’t wait to see the other contributors. I keep thinking about the sight line and the focal point for that area I want to re-do in the back corner. I can “see” it in my mind, just have to turn it into reality now!

    From the vision to reality—I know you’ll make it happen, Diana! I look forward to seeing your new corner garden evolve. —Pam

  5. Loree says:

    Pam I felt like you were talking right to me with “2. Don’t put a focal point in front of something you’d rather visitors not notice, like a sagging fence, the neighbor’s unpainted garage”…this has been my problem since the day we moved in. I’m taking steps right now to fix it and your excellent post couldn’t have come at a better time! Thank you!

    My pleasure, Loree. Of course I wasn’t thinking of any example in your lovely garden but of ones I’ve dealt with over the years in my own or my clients’ gardens. —Pam

  6. Nice post Pam! Two things in particular struck a cord with me – most of us err on the side of choosing focal points that are too small, and a grouping of pots can act as a single focal point. I run into both of those situations on a regular basis, I think in part because it’s counter-intuitive to think that a small garden still looks better with larger focal points.

    Maybe I’ll organize a boycott of little pots :-)

    Thanks, Susan. Little pots can be made to work if anchored by a few larger (much larger) pots, especially if some of the little pots are elevated. In her book Succulent Container Gardens, Debra Lee Baldwin has a photo of a patio garden that combines a lot of pots to make one fantastic focal point. I think the key is grouping them together and adding something big to the mix. —Pam

  7. Germi says:

    Pam, how can I EVER have a meaningful focal point in my garden when I fill it with scene-stealing AGAVES??? This is one bloglink post that I am REALLY glad I am just sitting out and LEARNING from!
    I love your points about containers not needing to be on hardscape -I love them tucked into plantings; often that smooth ceramic surface is just the thing to make a planting association sing. And that plinth made from stacked pavers is GENIUS! so simple and modern – I swear it looks like a custom piece!
    Loved your opening line about casting a spell. You did it! XOXO!

    Thank you, Germi! I know—I loved Eleanor’s stacked-paver plinth too. I even tried to copy it at home with square pavers, but it didn’t look as good as the round ones. Must find those. And by the way, I think agaves make fantastic focal points, and your garden has definitely got it going on. —Pam

  8. Loved the dancing girls quote.
    SO much good advice here!
    Best Wishes

    Thanks, Robert. As soon as I answer my comments, I’m off to read yours and the other contributors’ posts. Can’t wait to see the various takes on this subject. —Pam

  9. Pam- You are a fantastic teacher. I look forward to reading your roundtable posts each month because your explanations are clear. Love that you included John Brookes’ garden at the Chicago Botanical Garden…

    Thanks, Susan, for the very kind compliment. The English walled garden at CBG is one of my favorites. I’m a sucker for garden rooms, arched doorways in hedges, and the romance of an English garden. —Pam

  10. Pam, you really know your stuff! Thanks for making this post fun and user friendly. I think I need to round up a few of my “treasures” and lighten the visual load in my garden a bit. Thanks for the smack with the magic wand, too—I needed it!

    I frequently need it too, Jocelyn! My last garden was overloaded with “dancing girls.” Moving helped me clean it out, and I try to remember that less is more with regard to garden decor. Luckily, focal points can be created with plants as well as decor, and you can never have too many plants. Can you? ;-) —Pam

  11. Debbie says:


    I enjoyed the analogy of wielding a magic wand when using focal points, it’s very true. As usual, your photos are breathtaking and serve as great visual reminders of how to use, or not use, focal points. I’m not one to place containers in my beds but I just may give it a try this season after seeing yours.

    Hi, Debbie. I’m glad you enjoyed the photos; I love to collect ideas and design inspiration when I visit other gardens. Once you try placing a container or two in your garden beds, I bet you’ll be hooked. Pots are so natural-looking there and provide elevation, color, and a sure-fire focal point wherever you need it. —Pam

  12. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Excellent. I must go around and see what I need to move. I love to move my focal points around due to my friends having seen them all before anyway. They look fresh when moved to a different place. Great ideas here.

    Moving your decor around can be a good way to give things a fresh look, Lisa. I like to experiment with placement too, trying something out for a few weeks or a month to see if it works. —Pam

  13. You did a great job of explaining and illustrating the principles, Pam. Maybe I’ll think about defining a focal point in the public/front yard and I think the green bench kind of works in the also public Pink Garden, but no rules about focal points are allowed inside the gate.

    My back garden doesn’t need to lead any visitor’s eye anywhere. It’s my private paradise where the dancing girls (and boys!) can run riot.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Rules (or guidelines, in this case) are made to be broken, Annie, and as I said to an earlier commenter, one’s garden, especially a back garden, is a private paradise, where the only thing that really matters is whether it makes the owner happy. So dance on, girls and boys! Your lovely garden is called Circus Cercus, after all, and it wouldn’t be the same without them. —Pam

  14. carolyn says:

    Excellent, Pam. Enjoyed your post and the beautiful illustrations.

    Thanks, Carolyn! This was a fun topic to write about, wasn’t it? —Pam

  15. Very nice post, Pam. I particularly like your advice of not putting a focal in FRONT of something – and I see this done all the time! Great before and after pictures, too. Thanks for the simple to read, yet informative design principals!

    Thanks, Rebecca. Yep, I see that frequently too. I think we tend not to see messy backgrounds in our gardens after a while, though they may have jumped out at us the first time we saw them. —Pam

  16. Some very nice spaces there. I especially like the pots, something featuring plantings, but the pale urn in the first photo, surrounded by white flowers and a mainly green background with gray benches is a great effect.

    Yes, that urn and walled garden is located within Chicago Botanic Garden, a truly excellent public garden. I found much inspiration there. —Pam

  17. Jean says:

    Great examples of your points Pam (and doesn’t Chanticleer do a fabulous job with their focal points?). I liked that idea of stacking stepping stones to use to elevate an object. Very clever.

    Chanticleer has the seating-as-focal-point thing mastered, Jean. I have so many pictures of various benches and chairs placed with care and thought throughout the garden. Inspiration! —Pam

  18. Eleanor says:

    Well, gee, thanks for the compliments. It was a necessity-mother-of-invention kind of thing. I knew the bowl (made by a friend) would make a pretty birdbath but get lost sitting on the ground. The pavers had been sitting by the garage for years and I needed to get them out of the driveway to tidy up for the tour, and… voila!

    It was a match made in heaven, Eleanor, as you can tell by all the enthusiastic comments about it. —Pam

  19. Birdwoman says:

    This is inspirational. I’m going to look at my entire garden with new eyes. What could be good focal points? I know my garden will benefit from this informative post.

    Thank you, Birdwoman. I’m happy to know you found this useful. —Pam

  20. What great examples of focal points. I particularly liked the ones tucked into the planting beds…no wait, maybe my favorite is the tile on the purple wall. Can’t decide! Using one in a curve is interesting too. I might try that one!

    Thanks for the supportive comment, Susan. I’m glad you stopped by. —Pam

  21. Andrew says:

    Ha! I think a few of us have said it (or tried to say it), but I think your use of Mrs. Whaley’s comment about dancing girls may have said it best. Bravo!

    Mrs. Whaley is emminently quotable, isn’t she? Thanks for dropping by, Andrew. —Pam

  22. Genevieve says:

    Wow, Pam, as always, your photos are simply stunning and tell the story so well. I am very taken with your simple, curing screen/ trellis hiding the trampoline. I just read about using more screens to create smaller, more manageable spaces in Val Easton’s New Low-Maintenance Gardening book, so it was neat to see the concept in action elsewhere. Thanks for a great discussion on this topic.

    Thanks, Genevieve. I’m glad you liked the trellis screen. It’s an easy project with immediate impact. —Pam