Thursday, January 26, 2012

Creating a Focal Point, Part 2

The beginning and end of this traditional allee is a classic urn. This focal point is accentuated with a circle of stonework. Brian Folmer's Garden near Walkerton, On.

How would a focal point work in the context of a smaller garden? 

Here are some design tips I picked up from gardens that I have visited.

Heather Bradley's Garden, Mississauga, ON.

Guide traffic in the direction of a main garden feature by using a series of pathways.

Heather Bradley's Garden, Mississauga, ON.

This pathway leads you to the birdbath, and then circles around it, allowing you to view 
the planting bed from all sides.

The Singer Garden, Brampton, ON.
Group collections of smaller objects.

In this pretty border, there is no focal point; nothing really demands your attention more than anything else. There are instead, multiple points of interest, that tend to draw you in.

The Singer Garden, Brampton, ON.

 Look closely, there are little bunnies to be discovered amongst the flowers.

The Singer Garden, Brampton, ON.

The Singer Garden, Brampton, ON.

Now, if the gardener had continued with the bunnies in the flowerbed opposite, the rabbits might easily have gone from a cute detail to over-the-top. Instead, she wisely put a single focal point in the planting bed across from the one with all the bunny rabbits.

Private Garden near Hamilton ON.

If your garden is really small, keep it simple. This garden has one main feature: the pond. Located right off the back deck, it is in the perfect spot for the homeowners to relax in the evening.

The Singer Garden, Brampton, ON.

Let the garden suggest a theme for your focal point. In this small garden, the 
pond is again the main feature. 

The Singer Garden, Brampton, ON.

What would be a more natural focal point than a pair of cranes?

Edwards Gardens, Toronto.

Focal points don't have to be traditional.

The Singer Garden, Brampton, ON.

They can be rustic as well.

Brain Folmer's garden near Walkerton, ON.

Private Garden, Mississauga, ON.

 Make use of color and the plants themselves. Your eye goes right to the burgundy leaves of this Japanese Maple. Surrounded by a sea of green, the tree fixes and holds your attention.

Leave the beige inside the house. Instead go bold with color. Your garden can handle it!

Emphasize a focal point with contrast. Your eye is immediately drawn to the stone figure which stands out against the mass of dark green leaves. 

Finally, channel attention toward a pretty feature by creating a frame for it.

These design ideas are just a few of the things that I have learned from other gardeners.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Creating a Focal Point

The shrub rose 'Palmengarten Frankfurt' at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, ON.

The senses are bombarded with information in a garden.

Hollyhocks in the RBG, Hamilton, ON.

There are visual cues like color... 

The Rockery at the RBG in Hamilton, ON.

and shape. 

The climbing rose 'American Pillar' at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, ON.

There is also scent, ...

A bee on a fall aster 

sound and...

Moss covered rocks and fern, The Rockery at the RBG in Hamilton, ON.

 the tactile cues of provided by texture. 

When on top of all that information, a gardener mixes in a some garden gnomes, a few birdhouses, and/or a statue or two, a mild disquiet can start to creep in to the mind of the observer. When assaulted with too much information, what the mind wants most is an escape route.

A late fall bouquet of store bought roses in my favourite watering can.

I don't know about you, but when it comes to garden clutter, I really have to retrain myself. I love watering cans, birdhouses, fairies, mushrooms...gosh, what don't I like...well, maybe I can give plastic looking garden gnomes a miss, but you get my point; I love all manner of garden ornaments.

I don't believe you should feel that you have to rigidly adhere to design rules with regard to garden ornaments. It's your garden. Please yourself first! Heck, if you fill your garden with plastic garden gnomes, I say, go for it! Life is too short to worry about other people's opinions. 

But if you look around your garden and feel a vague sense of dissatisfaction, understanding design principals can help you identify what is and isn't working and then help you to correct it.

Brain Folmer's garden near Walkerton, ON.

This finally brings me around to the subject of today's post: focal point. 

Focal point is one of those designer terms that you hear tossed around frequently. Commons sense suggests that it is a point of focus; something whose dramatic presence demands or fixes your attention on it. In a garden, using a focal point can also take away from that feeling of visual clutter by centring your attention for a time on a single point of interest.

The picture above is a classic example of using focal point in a garden. The eye rockets along the lines of perspective created by a walkway flanked with two parallel rows of ornamental grass. Your point of focus is a single object, the gazebo in the far distance. Curiosity about that distant structure drives you forward, along the path to get a closer look.

Let's look back the other way. Again, there is a single focal point. 

Brain Folmer's garden near Walkerton, ON.

What is that distant object anyway?

Brain Folmer's garden near Walkerton, ON.

I see now. It's an urn.

Fixing your line of sight on a garden focal point is like finding a stepping stone in the center of a stream you are trying to cross. It's a place to rest, to catch your breath, adjust your balance and then move on.

Brain Folmer's garden near Walkerton, ON.

Take a look at this garden scene. The bench is not only a literal place to rest, it is an object for the eye to rest on as well.

Lose the bench through the magic of Photoshop, and your eye starts darting all over the place. It is like a sentence without a period. The visual information provided by the mixed planting suddenly seems vaguely overwhelming. 

Brain Folmer's garden near Walkerton, ON.

Now, I know what you might be thinking. This is all well and good Jennifer, but I don't have acres of garden to work with in creating a focal point. Fair enough! I don't have vast acreage either.

In Part 2, I will show you some inspiration for creating a focal point in a smaller garden.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Art of Gardening

Dames Rocket in a vase.

I was about to sit down to work on a design themed post on the subject of creating a focal point, when a long ago phone conversation that I had with my Mom flashed into my mind. Newly married, my husband and I had moved up from Nova Scotia and had been living in the greater Toronto area for a couple of years. That weekend I had gone on my first ever garden tour.

Goldfish from last summer's pond tour

"It turns out that you are a nobody gardener here Mom, unless your garden has a "water feature". Not a pond, mind you, that's way too country quaint! It has to be a "water feature" or it seems as though your garden is not deemed worthy of being seen by the public."

Water feature! Those two words do have a kind of grand, cinematic ring to them, don't they?

And here I am, all these years later, about to about wax-on about creating a garden "focal point". "Focal point" is another one of those somewhat pretentious terms that has the same flair for the dramatic as "water feature".

In my head, I started to imagine readers, who are always polite and encouraging in their comments, privately regarding their computer screens and rolling their eyes, "Blog posts on creating grand entrances, pathways and now one on focal points! Really, Jennifer! I just want to grow some pretty flowers and be done with it!"

Could all these years in the big city really have turned me into a garden snob who bandies around designer phrases as if I owned them?

Random shot of my front border

Gosh, I hope not! Honestly, I think that there is nothing wrong with a straight-forward, honest-to-goodness flower garden.

Growing up, my mother's garden was both simple and unpretentious. Her garden had no carefully designed layout. There were no curved beds, no sweeping vistas, no bubbling fountain or koi-filled pond. And if you asked her about her garden's "focal point", I am sure she would have told you, that if her garden had a focal point, it was surely the flowers themselves. My mother certainly knew a lot about growing flowers.

In my mother's garden, the beds were straight as arrows. One might think that this lack of artifice was unsophisticated, but actually, this simple design aesthetic was perfectly in keeping with the modern design influences of the late 60's and early 70's.

My mother never, ever, bought annuals like petunias or geraniums.

Having grown up in the depression years of the 1920's, she regarded annuals as an extravagance; throw-away plants that wouldn't last more than a single summer. There was also an element of snobbery in her opinion of annuals; they were common and therefore too ordinary for her tastes.

Her forceful opinions extended to perennials as well. In keeping with her contemporary tastes, she saw no charm in old fashioned cottage garden favourites like bleeding hearts.

Random rose shot. This is 'Clair Renaissance' which is an English Style Shrub rose 
that I admired in the Spargette's garden in Brampton, ON.

And my mother absolutely detested roses! 

And as for hostas, that popular shade garden staple? Well, her garden did not have a single one! To this day, my mother who is still gardening and almost 90, dismisses hosta's as "lazy man's flowers".

My mother created her garden back in the 1970's, when we moved into a Pepto Bismol colored house overlooking the Halifax harbour. (These days, you couldn't buy a car for what my parent's paid for that house!) It was the era of harvest gold appliances, spider plants in macrame plant hangers, hot pants, mini skirts and platform soled shoes.

So what did my mother grow in her garden? A wide range of perennials, but her favourite flowers were poppies.

She had a large collection of annual poppies.

She also had big, bright, orangy-red perennial poppies.

We had a vegetable garden too. It was a squarish, utilitarian patch of earth totally lacking in artifice. The vegetable garden's practical purpose was to provide the family with inexpensive food in the summer months. There were no herbs, no heirloom tomatoes. My mother grew modern, disease-resistant "Beefstake" tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, currants and common vegetables like beans and peas.

My biggest gardening influence has easily been my mother. I still aspire to have a perennial border that is as beautiful as hers was in early July.

I have also gone my own way at the same time. I do have bleeding hearts, roses and hostas in my garden.

And I take a far greater interest in the design aspect of gardening than she ever did.

Does that make my garden somehow better than hers? No!

I will use an analogy to explain the way I look at the comparison. A single violin can produce the most beautiful music. So can a full orchestra. The mix of different musical instruments in an orchestra adds complexity through layers of sound, but the music is not necessarily more appealing than a haunting melody played on a single violin.

My mother prefers the violin. I like to mess about with orchestral pieces. For me the design aspect of gardening adds an interesting level of complexity to more straightforward flower gardening.

It is your turn to have your say. Who or what have been your biggest influences in the way you approach gardening?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Spring Tulips in the Sunshine

The garden is sleeping, but there is a little spring bit of blooming in my kitchen.  

It is little treats, like these pretty pink tulips, that get me through a cold winter day.

I will link this post to May Dreams Gardens monthly garden blogging event called Garden Blogger's Bloom Day. I am also going to link to Sunlit Sunday at My Little Home and Garden.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Down the Garden Path: Part 2

Lost Horizons Nursery, Acton Ontario.

"May flowers always line your path and sunshine light your day. May songbirds serenade your every step along the way. May a rainbow run beside you in a sky that is always blue. And may happiness fill your heart each day your whole life through." Old Irish Blessing.

The plan of Larkwhistle Garden from the book The Art of Perennial Gardening by Patrick Lima, 
Photographs by John Scanlan, Published by Firefly Books in 2000. 

If you look at this drawing of Larkwhistle Garden or at the layout for David Tomlinson's garden called Merlin's Hollow, you will notice that the pathways make up the skeleton or framework for each garden. Pathways link each of these gardens into a cohesive whole.

Merlin's Hollow Garden Plan

With a pathway, a gardener channels visitors through a garden. How a garden is viewed is determined, to some degree, by the nature and even the shape of a path. 

Lost Horizons Nursery, Acton Ontario.

You are more likely to motor down a straight path...

Lost Horizons Nursery, Acton Ontario.

than one that twists and turns.

Merlin's Hollow, Aurora Ontario.

How wide should a path be?  

I personally think that the spacing needs to feel comfortable, not claustrophobic. If a pathway is tight, a visitor has to pay too much heed to each footstep and this can distract from all the visual delights along a path's length.

Brain Folmer's Botanical Gardens near Walkerton, Ontario.

So, what about materials? 

Even an ordinary lawn can function as a pathway between plantings.

Pea gravel is a nice option that has a pleasant crunch underfoot.

Larkwhistle Garden, on the Bruce Peninsula.

This garden has a hard-packed combination of sand and very fine gravel.

Private garden, Mississauga, Ontario.

Flagstone is a classic choice. 

(Note here that the gardener here has continued the flagstone onto the lawn and around to the front of the house. In doing so, he saves wear and tear on the grass by directing visitors away from cutting across the lawn.)

Private garden, Mississauga, Ontario.

Stonework is more costly and requires a greater degree of skill to install, but is hard-wearing option 
and it looks incredible doesn't it?

Private garden, Mississauga, Ontario.

Mulch is yet another alternative and is softer underfoot. It also helps to create a nice woodland effect.

Private garden, Mississauga, Ontario.

Of course, you can always combine pathway materials. Here we have mulch combined with flagstone.

Private garden, Mississauga, Ontario.

Pea gravel and flagstone.

Moss and flagstone.

(Deborah of Deb's Garden Blog has written a wonderful post on creating a moss pathway. She has a spectacular woodland garden that you should definitely check out.)

Edwards Gardens, Toronto.

Plantings along a path can be crisp and tidy.

Private garden, Mississauga, Ontario.

Brain Folmer's Botanical Gardens near Walkerton, Ontario.

Or they can be uneven and more natural.

Brain Folmer's Botanical Gardens near Walkerton, Ontario.

In the end, it comes down to the overall look and feeling you are after.

I hope you feel as inspired by these gardens as I do. Have a great weekend!