When less may be more – restraint with focal points

We lack a cricket pavilion in our garden. To build one, even as attractive as this one, would look sadly out of place

We lack a cricket pavilion in our garden. To build one, even as attractive as this one, would look sadly out of place

I have been pondering focal points and garden structures. This was partly initiated by an email from an overseas friend who, while praising our garden, was lamenting the lack of “features”. By features, he meant man-made features. He mentioned such things as tempietto, summer houses, maybe even ruins in the William Kent style of Palladian garden architecture. I laughed. I do not think he has quite got to grips with the differences in New Zealand. This is a man, after all, who has a splendid garden full of substantial features including his very own cricket pavilion which was designed to be used for the annual village cricket match.

We lack an amenable village nearby. Such a pavilion might look a tad pretentious in our situation. And we have always subscribed to the view that it is better to have nothing than to have a cheap imitation. I have yet to see a New Zealand garden that imports classical European or indeed Asian antiquity-inspired features and settles them well into our New World gardens. Summer houses built out of tanalised timber – which are commonly favoured here – have never appealed to us. Painting them white does not necessarily improve them, either.

The tanalised pine gazebo is much favoured in New Zealand gardens, often as a focal point

The tanalised pine gazebo is much favoured in New Zealand gardens, often as a focal point

I have seen a fair few around the country in my time, and often situated where they are to be a focal point, a feature, rather than to be used as an outdoor entertaining area. I guess what it comes down to is that we have different spending priorities in the garden. A well designed garden room that is both functional and architecturally attractive would be nice to have but would cost a great deal more than a kitset, octagonal gazebo.

Maybe we are just too ingrained with functionalism because we would place a garden room in an area that is most convenient and attractive for use, rather than where it would serve primarily as a visual focal point. I find little gazebos marooned forever as an unused, ornamental point of interest a bit sad, really.

An outdoor seating area marooned forever as a focal point more than a social centre

An outdoor seating area marooned forever as a focal point more than a social centre

The same philosophy applies to seats, in my book. Seats are to be sat upon and therefore situated in a position where there is a reason to sit rather than to be cast in the role of focal point. But I am a lone voice in the wilderness on this topic. A brightly painted chair is often forced into fulfilling this function.

If you go back to basics, the purpose of a focal point is to focus the eye of the viewer. It may be to serve as a punctuation point to end a view, or it may be to channel the eye towards a desired feature, maybe a vista or a borrowed view if you are lucky enough to have one. It creates an illusion of depth but if you already have depth, you may not need one at all. If you clutter the place up with endless focal points (a common mistake in small gardens), it becomes bric-a-brac rather than a statement. Less is more. And remember that the focal point is what attracts attention, often to the detriment of the areas of garden that lead to that point.

Miscanthus and alliums gave a subtle end point to a long walk at Gresgarth

Miscanthus and alliums gave a subtle end point to a long walk at Gresgarth

Because we have always leaned more to plants than structure, we prefer the judicious use of plants as focal points. It is a softer, more naturalistic approach which does not immediately claim centre stage. We had watched a television interview with Lady Arabella Lennox-Boyd, one of Britain’s foremost gardeners and garden designers. She was commenting about needing to terminate her herbaceous borders in some way, to create a visual end-stop. She would have liked water but that wasn’t possible and she didn’t want the cliché of a statue. Instead she decided to use miscanthus grass which, she commented, looked somewhat like water.

We remembered her comments when we visited her personal garden at Gresgarth. There was the miscanthus bed, with the globes of giant allium seedheads rising above and giant cardoons flanking either side.

It wasn’t a strong visual statement. It didn’t shout “look at me! Look at me!” It provided a gentle endpoint to what was a complex and highly detailed walk along battlemented herbaceous borders with interludes of detailed mosaic paving – an exercise in subtle understatement. We really liked the effect.

Similarly, a clipped or shaped plant can give a point of interest which keeps harmony with the surroundings while giving an accent point. Because we have a garden richly endowed with large, established plants, we have tended to head more in the direction of using plants as visual focus points rather than dropping in manmade objets d’art, or, worse: objets sans d’art.

Statues, urns and sculptures? Now that is a whole can of worms to be returned to at a later date. Decorating one’s garden can be a minefield.

Camellia Elfin Rose, cloud pruned in layers to give an accent point

Camellia Elfin Rose, cloud pruned in layers to give an accent point

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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2 thoughts on “When less may be more – restraint with focal points

  1. Anne Wareham

    Hmm. The thing about seats as focal points, I think, is that if they give you a view when you sit in them (and why else have them, of course) then they have the kind of space in front of them which makes them into a focal point when approached.

    We may be thinking differently, as often, as a sea of alliums and miscanthus are very pretty but not quite pointed, as far as I can tell. But in photographs we lack context, of course.

    Sorry to be being as difficult as ever. Xxxx

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I don’t have a problem with seats multi tasking. Filling a dual role as both a place to sit and as a focal point. My objection is when they are only a focal point and placed in situations where they can’t even be sat upon. I have photographed a few such seats but am reluctant to use these identifiable locations in such a public forum as the newspaper or internet! The miscanthus and alliums? Nice breathing space or gentle termination which did not steal the limelight from the detailed borders leading to it as a clear focal point would have done.

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