Focal Points Ideas for a Small Garden

Every Space Counts in Garden Design

A woman gardening
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Focal points are used in garden design to draw and direct the eye. Think of a garden, large or small, that was just a swath of plants. Your eye sweeps along, not knowing where to land. A sense of flow is nice, but without a focus, your garden is not really taken in and studied.

Now consider a garden with a wonderful water feature, a weeping tree, or a dramatic ornament. The first thing you notice is this focal feature. Once your interested is concentrated there, you start to branch out and notice other plants and features in the garden. The garden is slowly discovered rather than swept through. You don’t have to have a focal point, but your garden will appear more intentional if you do.

Small gardens can pose difficulties when it comes to creating a focal point. Obviously, you don’t want to sacrifice your entire garden space to one large plant or tree. But focal points can be scaled to the size of your garden. Even the smallest space could have one unique, flamboyant plant that calls attention to itself. Think of tall, orange-leaved cannas or small weeping Japanese maples.

Garden Focal Point Ideas

Any striking feature or plant can be used as a flower garden focal point:

  • An unusual specimen (red twig dogwood)
  • A large, architectural plant (Cimicifuga)
  • A group of plants (a cluster of astilbe, bleeding heart, and ferns)
  • A vibrant color (orange canna)
  • A single white plant
  • An ornament (birdbath, gazing globe, statue)
  • Large boulders
  • A dwarf shrub or tree

You don’t have to start your garden design with a focal point, but avoid throwing one in as an afterthought. Think about the style of garden you want and the plants you are considering using. Then list possible features that would complement, yet stand out from your basic design. Some designs lend themselves to the obvious focal point: a zen-like garden with a small water feature, a cottage garden with a cement statue, a formal garden with an obelisk.

If you have a preexisting large tree near your garden, that will become a focal point whether you want it to or not. You might choose to enhance it with a birdhouse or a flowering vine, like climbing hydrangea.

Larger gardens often have more than one focal point, stopping the viewer as she surveys the whole scene. Small gardens generally only need one focal point, but it can make or break the garden. Don’t let that intimidate you. If you find you don’t like your first choice, welcome to the world of garden design. You can always try something else. One of the best ways to find out what you do like is to discover what you don’t.

Positioning Your Focal Point

Resist the temptation to center your focal point and plant around it. Use the rule of thirds and place the focal feature just off-center. If you have a small, circular garden, place it towards the rear of your viewing perspective.

The closer you will be when viewing your garden, the smaller your focal point can be. In a garden next to a seating area, you don’t need drama to catch the viewer’s attention. A view from the dining room window some 60 feet away will be lost unless it dramatically stands out.

There's no magic formula for how large to make a focal point. A lot depends on where you are viewing from, plant choices, and color. It often helps to use a stand-in for the focal point: a chair, ladder, or even your child.

Focal Point Tips

  • Choose a proven performer. A sickly looking plant or one that perpetually gets eaten or has mildew is not a good choice.
  • Make sure it has a long peak period. Don’t fall for a short bloomer or a plant that only has one season of interest, no matter how spectacular it may be. Plants in small gardens need to pull their weight.
  • It is possible to have seasonal focal points, in succession, but this requires planning and diligent maintenance. The idea behind a focal point is to attract the eye. If your spring focal point is going dormant or yellow before your next focal point has come into its glory, the yellow foliage of the will be your current focal point.