Tag Archives: feature plants

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.

Dealing with maturity (in garden terms)

First published in the spring issue of “Our Gardens”, the quarterly magazine of the Garden Clubs of Australia

Sculpted kurume azaleas

Sculpted kurume azaleas

In gardening terms, I guess most people would agree we are blessed. Our climate is mild, never very hot and never very cold. We have regular rain all year round, good sunshine hours and the soils are friable and volcanic. Added to that, we are fortunate to be on a family property where the oldest trees were planted by Mark’s great grandfather in 1880. These give a wonderful mature backbone to the garden and how obliging of him to have planted an entire avenue of our majestic native rimu trees.

Notwithstanding the big trees, the majority of our plantings date back to the 1950s and having a mature garden offers its own challenges. Finding space for new plants can be problematic, even though we have reasonable acreage (we open about seven acres to the public). But the biggest challenge of having a mature garden is to stop it all melding together and becoming walls of foliage which choke out the less vigorous plants. Increasingly we find ourselves doing more lifting and limbing, shaping and clipping.

We like to use plants as focal points and features. Our garden is light on ornamentation. You won’t find anything armless, legless or white lighting up a dark corner. We prefer to place garden seats where we will sit on them, rather than using them as focal points. When sculpture is used in gardens, we think it becomes the dominant feature, forcing the garden setting and the plants into the background. We want the plants to be the stars.

There is no shortage of candidates for clipping or shaping but we do not want the Italian formality where almost every plant is manipulated. This is not about topiary so much as it is about finding the natural shapes within the plants and featuring them.

Clipping Mine No Yuki

Clipping Mine No Yuki

Maples can develop a wonderful form over time which just needs cleaning up. Loropetalums also clip and shape well. We keep our small flowered Kurume azaleas limbed up so that it is possible to look through them. The trunks naturally grow white lichen and, in season, the undulating tops of the azaleas form a carpet of colour, while we have species cyclamen planted beneath around the white trunks.

Camellias are wonderful for clipping because their growth rates are not too fast and, if you make a mistake, they will sprout again from bare wood. We have a massive plant of the white sasanqua, “Mine No Yuki”, which looks wonderful with its pristine white blooms until we have a heavy downpour to turn them to brown sludge. These days we regard any flowers as a bonus and the plant justifies its garden space because of its shape. We keep it tightly clipped into layered mounds – generally referred to as cloud pruning in a technique associated with Oriental gardens.

The finished product

The finished product

Fairy Magnolia Blush

Fairy Magnolia Blush

Michelias also lend themselves to shaping and the lollipop Fairy Magnolia Blushes at our entranceway are a more recent addition. A light pruning twice a year with secateurs keeps them to a tidy shape and we have been able to stop them getting too large.

It is all much more fun than weeding and gives us the detail and focal points we want.

Mark and Abbie Jury garden at Tikorangi, The Jury Garden in Taranaki on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. Like his father before him, Mark is a plant breeder, probably best known in Australia for his Fairy Magnolia Blush, Camellia Volunteer, Magnolias Black Tulip and Felix Jury and his joint venture plant with his father, Cordyline Red Fountain. Abbie is a garden writer for national and regional publications. Their garden opens for the magnolia display at the start of August and remains open until the end of March.
Website: http://www.jury.co.nz
Facebook: facebook.com/thejurygarden
Twitter: @Tikorangi