April 26, 2010


Sweet Home Chicago

 I'm as excited as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs to be doing my first post as a member of the Garden Designers Round Table.  A warm welcome to the followers of our Facebook page and garden lovers everywhere.

Remember how you were told as a kid that if you didn't quit making faces it would stay in that position permanently ?  Well I'm afraid that my fingers may someday become permanently frozen in the frame position that I constantly use as my focal point finder. 

I am going to use my own garden and paintings to illustrate how focal points create interest in these arts.

First and foremost, the primary focal point of the landscape is the front entrance.  No other part of the landscape is viewed as often so having an attractive focal point in this area creates the curb appeal you hear so much about.

My century-old American Foursquare above is located on a small urban lot surrounded by a wrought iron fence.  It has a short wide walkway that leads to a grand staircase and front porch.

Sweet Garden Chicago

To enhance my primary focal point or entrance,  the area next to the staircase is planted with a specimen tree, shrubs, perennials and colorful annuals .  Planters with seasonal color for Spring, Summer and Fall , hanging baskets  and planter boxes add a welcoming touch.


Acer Shirasawanum 'autumn moon '

A single specimen shrub or tree such as the one above located on the right side of my front porch makes an outstanding focal point . Autumn Moon's chartreuse leaves are a real show- stopper all season long and in the Fall it turns a bright red . A specimen used as a focal point should be striking and have a long season of interest.

 This Red Fox Curly Sedge is a focal point in my perennial bed and one that keeps its shape and reddish-brown color year round.   Just as a container is planted for seasonal interest , so too can a garden have changing focal points with colorful plants.


The  focal point above,  a copper rain chain that my engineer- hubby connected to a re-circulating pump was a big hit at the Chicago Springfling gathering in my garden of 50 garden bloggers across the U.S last year.  Now I have rain on demand which is both tranquil and soothing on a hot summer day.   This rain-collecting system has been used in Japanese temples for thousands of years.

Drama queens as focal points :  My gigantic  Plume Poppy next to the fish pond. 

 Be cautious in having too many drama queens in a small space or there will be a royal fight for attention.  Her majesty wishes to be the sole center of attention .  As a designer of small urban spaces I find it best to limit focal points as too many can make for a dizzy design.

Art is always a great subject for a focal point.  Again, caution is urged for small gardens.  This very youthful, slender Buddha sits serenely in a vignette that a talented designer at the garden center arranged.

The focal point in my painting above uses the 1/3-2/3 technique, or the rule of thirds which places it off-center, works in garden design as well. Color is another important aspect which draws the eye. Although the vase above is a subdued color, surrounding it with a complimentary, or opposite color, highlights the focal point and draws your eye to it.

In this painting of my daughter walking our collie I have used one of the most effective ways to create a focal point : Contrast. The cool blue foreground contrasted with the complimentary colors of the background is a technique employed by one of the greatest of focal point masters -Leonardo himself. In garden design, plantings of blue and gold or chartreuse and maroon are good examples of this as is contrasting foliage by using narrow against smooth and round or bold against fine.

Flow and balance is illustrated in this wildflower garden which has no focal point.
  I realize that there's always an exception to every rule and some may ask if they have to have a focal point.  Well no, not really, all you have to do is pay taxes and die, but what fun is that ?  Creating focal points is one of the most highly effective principles of garden design and art . Sans a focal point, flow and balance in garden design and art will direct the eye somewhat, but seldom has the same dramatic impact.

In conclusion, almost anything can be a focal point -a bench, a tree, a path, a borrowed view.  It's important to keep in mind that proper placement and scale are crucial to its effectiveness -too large and it overwhelms, too small and it won't be noticed, too many and it's dizzy.

 I could go on and on ...but I think you get the point.  The focal point, that is.

Please visit these round table designers to get their take on focal points :

Andrew Keys @ Garden Smackdown
Debbie Roberts  of Garden of Possibilities
Laura Livengood Schaub of Interleafings
Leslie Hegarty &  Robert Webber of the Hegarty & Webber Partnership
Pam Penick of Digging
Rebecca Sweet of Gossip in the Garden
Susan Cohan of Susan Cohan Gardens
Susan Schlenger of Landscape Design Viewpoint
Tara Dillard of Tara Dillard Landscapes


  1. Your artwork and your plantings are beautiful!


  2. I enjoyed your post, Carolyn. Great tips about focal points using your gorgeous garden as a backdrop. Your photos are lovely--as are your paintings. I remember your rain chain from previous posts. How clever to hook it up to a recirculating pump. Must keep that in mind--

  3. You're up early, Carolyn, and I enjoyed your practical and nicely illustrated post. That Acer Shirasawanum 'Autumn moon' knocked my socks off at Spring Fling Chicago last year, and it still does. What a wonderful focal point for your entry garden.

  4. Wow - great post! And I'm so glad to see your paintings - they're not only unbelievably beautiful, but they so perfectly illustrate your focal point ideas. Brilliant!!!

  5. Love the garden Love the paintings! Now that I'm thoroughly intimidated I'm going to go cast an evil eye at my garden for not acting right. Thanks Carolyn, for some wonderful tips. :-)

  6. OMG if ONLY I could have an Acer like yours! Here, the Santa Ana winds make potato chips out of their delicate leaves... BOO!
    Great post, Carolyn - I am guilty of the TOO MANY points of focus, and could learn a thing or two! Your garden is a real stunner. Thanks for the excellent tips!

  7. What a great post you make so many good points.
    Love your house and your artwork!
    Best Wishes

  8. Love that you relate the principles of garden design to those of art---with lovely examples of both! Thanks!

  9. Carolyn,

    What a wonderful inaugural GDRT post. Your garden is simply beautiful as are your paintings. I love the color scheme on your home, it is perfectly accentuated by your garden.

  10. Ok I heard you "Be cautious in having too many drama queens in a small space or there will be a royal fight for attention" now I just need to take that bit of advice to heart!

  11. Wonderful post Carolyn! Congratulations on being part of the designers' round table!

  12. You are a gift, dear Carolyn, delighted to see you shine. I divide my garden into sections as I work, each having a focal point then echo plants/color in other sections, pulling the garden together as I view it as a whole.

  13. Excellent points, all! You were thinking the same thing I was -- how too many drama queens will cause a royal fight for attention. I'm working on improving my entrance-as-focal-point this year!

  14. I agree with Andrew about the drama queens (love that description by the way!) It is very easy to go overboard on focal points.

    Using your paintings to illustrate your points was a wonderful idea! I like thinking about a familiar topic in new ways and this helped me do so.

  15. I love your home and your paintings are amazing!

    You've done so much with a small space...it's very charming. I can see how your front door is the focal point framed by all the lushness.

  16. Thank you, Eileen. Your comments are sincerely appreciated.

  17. Hi Jan,

    Thanks so much for your kind commments.

  18. Thanks, Pam. Old folks need less sleep :-) So yes, I was up early and posted my piece. Glad you liked it.

  19. Hey Rebecca,

    I'm so pleased that you enjoyed the post. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your pithy comments.

  20. You are most welcome, LeSan. Do give your garden the "once over ". I'm always doing that , too.

  21. So sorry to hear that, Ivette. But then again, we're not able to grow all those beautiful and gorgeous tropicals you have there. Thanks for visiting.

  22. Lesley and Robert,

    Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving your kind comments.

  23. Jocelyn,

    Thanks so much for stopping by. Appreciate your kind remarks.

  24. Hey Debbie,

    Thanks for all the accolades. I appreciate your stopping by.

  25. Hey danger garden,

    You're very smart.

  26. Thanks,Linda. I really enjoyed doing this post.

  27. Sounds like a good plan, Dear Joey. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your kind comments.

  28. Thanks, Andrew. Glad to hear you plan to enhance your primary focal point - and the most view one - the front entrance. Good luck!

  29. Thanks, Susan. Glad you liked my approach to focal points. I view landscaping as much an art as painting.

  30. You're very perceptive, Susan. Thanks for your lovely comments.

  31. A very informative post, Carolyn, and beautifully illustrated as well!


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