Tag Archives: focal points

Garden decoration 2: contemporary colour and bold statements

A few weeks ago, I looked at a selection of somewhat subtle garden ornamentation, understated even. Returning to the topic today, it is some more colourful statements that have caught my attention.
???????????????????????????????1) The box with its flat planes of colour is by Coromandel-resident artist Michael Smither and has found its permanent home at Puketarata Garden near Hawera. It has echoes of a child’s play house but the simplicity is deceptive. So too is the placement. It becomes the absolute centre of attention in the middle ground but is also successful in drawing the eye to the large landscape beyond.
???????????????????????????????2) In a similar vein, the whimsical pavilion created by garden owner, Clive Higgie at Paloma Garden near Whanganui makes an undeniable statement as a focal point in an otherwise natural environment. The reflection is an integral part of the picture. As with the Smither box, it is the combination of a vibrant creation with thoughtful placement which makes this a successful installation. What appears to be a blue ceramic ball topping the roof is arguably the best use I have seen of one of these mass produced decorative items.
???????????????????????????????3) The freestanding, two dimensional yellow cow was on temporary display in our garden, the work of Joep from Arttoi (www.arttoi.co.nz) so we won’t mention the placement. The gentleman in the very purple jersey posed so willingly, adding a certain ambience, I felt. The cow may or may not be to your personal taste (I would have preferred it without the map of New Zealand). The purple jersey, the man’s wife told me, had been found in a skip and became an instant favourite for the wearer. Each to their own.
???????????????????????????????4) At the same temporary installation of Joep’s work, the stainless steel sculptures were beautifully executed and caught my fancy. The reflective qualities of the highly polished stainless steel were a great deal more subtle than a garden mirror. While there is a tendency to put this type of work in a hard-edged, minimalist, modern garden, I admit I was surprised by how well they fitted in to our own setting which is anything but that. We placed them in positions with relatively plain backgrounds where they could star and the reflections made it a two way interaction with their surroundings.
???????????????????????????????5) While not keen on reproduction classical statuary in a New Zealand garden context, these modern interpretations made me smile. In a very family-oriented garden, they fitted thematically. The frozen moment in time captured with the balance of their poses gave the contrast of tension with the subtle placement against the nikau palms. I could see these ageing gracefully down the decades.
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006 insert - Copy - Copy6) When out and about garden visiting in spring and I could not help but notice a plethora of parking meters as garden ornaments. I am sure this was a result of the market being flooded with old meters in this particular area, which had moved to an electronic sensor parking system. The customised triple meter installation was perhaps more witty and striking than those single ones which had simply been placed as a relic of the past decade.

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

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.

Points of interest

In an otherwise undistinguished garden in Giverny village, these clipped hummocks gave real impact.

In an otherwise undistinguished garden in Giverny village, these clipped hummocks gave real impact.

Punctuation points. That is what clipped shrubs can be. Very effective punctuation points, at that.

Formal gardens will often have pretty much everything clipped. If you have ever been to many Italian gardens, you may have noted the inclination to clip everything – at times to within an inch of its life. It photographs well. In fact we have often found that the photograph can be better than the real thing when you get to see it.

The modern New Zealand garden is characterised by clipped hedging, often carried out with military precision whether 30cm or 200 cm high.

But if you don’t want a formal garden or clipped hedging, there is a middle path. Punctuation marks.

Clipped accent plants give form in this garden which has predominantly loose herbaceous plantings and grassy meadows. Pettifers near Stratford on Avon.

Clipped accent plants give form in this garden which has predominantly loose herbaceous plantings and grassy meadows. Pettifers near Stratford on Avon.

It is the English gardeners who can lay claim to the mix of formality and informality. At one level, it is that act of taking hard edged design and softening it with froth as the proponents of the Arts and Crafts garden movement did.

It is a technique that you can transfer to many situations. At its simplest level, a tightly clipped shrub gives a focal point of order in a casual or chaotic environment. If your garden looks an unkempt mess, try it. You may be surprised at how a formal shape can make the disorganised areas alongside look as if they are intentional.

A sequence of clipped punctuation points gives coherence or visual order to an otherwise disorganised space. Sometimes it is a deliberate design feature, other times it may be closer to an act of trickery by a laissez faire gardener.

While the topiary bird At Gresgarth may be beyond the amateur, the sharp lines give contrast to the informal plantings and design.

While the topiary bird at Gresgarth may be beyond the amateur, the sharp lines give contrast to the informal plantings and design.

As you progress up the status ladder, a clipped shrub can become a deliberate focus to act as counterpoint to more informal plantings. It is then filling the role that others may choose to try and fill with manmade objects – a bird bath, a seat, maybe a sculpture – but there is a logical orderliness to a well tended shrub that those other objects may lack.
Pyramids on stilts give an accent point, a breathing space between two very different gardens at Bury Court.

Pyramids on stilts give an accent point, a breathing space between two very different gardens at Bury Court.


I have also seen small groupings of clipped shrubs used as a breathing space, a quiet linking device between two very busy but different areas of a garden.
Various shrubs can be clipped effectively. There are the tried and true hedging plants of buxus, lonicera and teucrium. Yew is a classic clipping candidate.
Often referred to as “pudding trees”, these Chamaecyparis give structure in the otherwise informal cottage garden made by Margery Fish at East Lambrook Manor

Often referred to as “pudding trees”, these Chamaecyparis give structure in the otherwise informal cottage garden made by Margery Fish at East Lambrook Manor


Camellias clip well. If you can cope with the prickles, so do hollies. Choysia ternata takes clipping. Evergreen azaleas take clipping and shaping well. So indeed do our native totara and matai. Some conifers can be clipped, some cannot. The mark of one that does not take clipping is a failure to sprout afresh from bare wood (in other words, where you have cut below the external leaf cover). It can be terribly blotchy and twiggy on conifers, if not terminal. Do some research first before you try this on your prized specimen.

The more you clip, the denser the new growth becomes so the tighter shape you get as a result. But if you are considering a first hard clip to establish a shape, do it right now. This very weekend is good. That is because at the end of the day, most plants are on the cusp of breaking into fresh spring growth (spot my political allusion). The aim is to clip before that happens, stimulating the plant to make fresh new growths at the point where you have cut it back. You will generally have to follow up with a tidy-up trim of long new growths a bit further down the season, but the first clip is the most radical shaping. Once established, you can often get away with just once a year.

Or clip on special occasions when you want your garden to look sharp, cared for or creative.

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