The importance of creating focal points in the garden is to lead the eye and the visitor from one area in the garden to another. Think of focal points as a dot-to-dot matrix to follow in the landscape. These focal points are more compelling if there is a strong structure in the garden. Using plants as focal points can actually be easier than using large, heavy objects. Plants flow more naturally and fill spaces in a much more organic way.
The eye naturally follows lines and repetition. One successful method is to use intersecting lines in the planting scheme and include the specimen plant as the decorative element where these lines meet. Use plants to emphasize architectural elements in the home landscape or to camouflage an undesirable view. Choose plants and trees that are attractive throughout the gardening year. A large, tall dark green hedge is a perfect background to increase the drama of a specimen tree or unusual shrub in the garden plan. Let’s look at some wonderful examples.
Eastern Red Bud
The cascading Eastern Red Bud tree (Cercis canandensis) is a perfect example of using an unusual tree as an architectural focal point at the entrance to the garden. It acts as a welcoming pyramid and draws attention as you enter. The Red Bud is beautiful year-round with bright pink flowers that grow directly on the branches in early spring. It then fills out with lush heart shaped leaves. During the dormant season when it has lost its leaves, the twisting bare branches add a dramatic touch. Outdoor lighting also adds another interesting artistic touch, especially if it is lit from the inside making the tree glow from dusk to dawn.
Sky Pencil Holly
Another extremely desirable plant to use as an architectural element in garden design is the Sky Pencil Holly. These plants are easy to find and grow. They have very dark green foliage, which is always desirable as a backdrop or focal point. They grow in a narrow, upright fashion and are perfect to use as short walls or columns in the garden plan. They are much more aesthetically pleasing and vibrant if they grow upright. These tall shrubs can become top heavy and split. To keep their growth neat and tidy, gently tie them with green twine to keep their growth uniform and full.
Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar
To add some real drama, use a tree or shrub with interesting and unusual foliage and form like Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘glauca pendula’). The needles are a silvery gray, which adds color without relying on blooms. The twisting branches contribute organic movement, and it is effective when planted in front of a simple white stucco wall. At night when the low voltage lighting is on, the tree casts unusual shadows that add even more interest and flair to the evening garden. This is an evergreen tree, so it is beautiful and unchanging during the South’s long gardening year.
Jerusalem Thorn Tree
Here is another example of using an unusual specimen tree for dramatic statement. The Jerusalem Thorn tree (Parkinsonia aculeate) has feathery, dark green foliage and delicate yellow blooms. It has an open growth habit, so it is easy to use in mixed borders, by itself against a wall or in an open area where its branches can grow in an unencumbered space. It can also be used as a small canopy tree over a bubbling fountain, adding an oriental touch to the garden.
A simple row of tree formed Ligustrum can act as a living wall, which provides privacy or a border to lead the visitor to the entrance of the garden. Plants used as focal points don’t always have to be showy or unusual. Ligustrum are easy to grow, readily available and relatively maintenance free. They are a wonderful choice for a hedge or specimen especially when they are pruned into a tree form.
The Century plant (Agave americana) is an unusual sight in a Midlands garden. They are big, showy and definitely demand attention in the garden. The limbs are edged with spikes so it is best to give these beauties plenty of room. Their silvery fronds make them a striking counterpoint to many of the different shades of green in most of our Midlands gardens.
Spineless Prickly Pear
I have never planted or recommended a Spineless Prickly Pear (Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’) for any of my garden designs, but that is definitely going to change. This drought and deer resistant succulent is one of the few varieties of prickly pears with no spines, making it much more conducive to our home gardens. It is a bushy plant that grows slowly to 4 feet tall. Bright yellow flowers appear in late spring to early summer. Grow it in a container as a focal point in the garden. Since it is such an unusual plant with such an unusual shape, it might not flow with most of the suburban gardens in the Midlands, but it is definitely worth considering as a dramatic focal point when grown in a simple container.
Grasses and Reeds
One of my favorite grasses or reeds to use in the garden is Striped Giant Reed (arundo donax). This variegated plant looks like a grass but is actually considered a reed. It has the same growth habit as corn, but the variegated foliage is a beautiful counterpoint in the landscape. Striped Giant Reed lives up to its name. It is tall, dramatic and can grow to 8 to 9 feet tall. It is drought resistant and not prone to disease or bug infestation. It is impressive when used in front of a dark green hedge or border. The dark green foliage of the hedge material contrasts beautifully with the white and green variegated foliage of this lovely reed. If lit at night, the white edges of the arching leaves light up the space in the garden.
Giant Leopard Plant (Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’) has become popular during this past decade. When I first started gardening, this plant was called “Ligularia,” but for some unknown reason, the name was changed. Farfugium are characterized by huge lily pad-like leaves which are mostly evergreen in our climate. In late summer, bright yellow flowers appear on tall stems that find their way through the leaves. This lush green plant prefers morning sun and afternoon shade, tolerating moist soil but preferring a soil with good drainage. It is best showcased when planted in a tall urn and used as the focal point at the axis of two garden paths. It is also dramatic when planted in large swaths in the garden to lead the garden visitor from one area of the garden to another. There is a variegated variety of this strong plant, but I prefer to use the all green variety for greater impact.
November is a wonderful time to work and plant in the garden. Study your garden and landscape, pondering ways you can use unusual plants in your garden as an interesting focal point. Visit other private and public gardens to discover how plants have been used as focal points. Spend an afternoon at one of our well-stocked garden centers and nurseries to see which of these interesting specimens they may have, and find a spot in your garden for one of these examples to add a new spark of surprise and interest in your home landscape. You’ll be glad you did!
Gardening Chores for the Gardener
November is a big cleanup month in the garden.
• Pull up tired annuals and deadhead perennials.
• Redefine planting areas with a deep trench or add a soldier course of brick. Defined beds make the garden look neat and tidy year-round.
• Rake out old pine straw and mulch. The brutal heat of summer can make pine straw and mulch look tired and burnt. A new layer of either will make the garden look fresh and ready for the dormant season.
• November is the month for Camellia japonica. Inspect any existing plants for scale and treat accordingly. Enjoy the wonderful blooms.
• If you would like to add new Camellias to the garden, shop for them now while they’re in bloom.
• Inspect azaleas for lace bugs. Treat accordingly.
• Consider using raked up leaves as mulch in the vegetable garden.
• Inspect irrigation and make any necessary repairs.
• Check outdoor lighting. Reposition any fixtures that may have gotten knocked over or moved by months of lawn mowing. Replace bulbs and reset timers.
• This is a great time to plant bulbs for beautiful spring bloom. Plant in the garden or in containers.
• Start forcing Paper White bulbs for blooms and fragrance for the upcoming holidays.
What’s Blooming Now
Camellia japonica, Camellia sasanqua, Chrysanthemum, Cassia, Pansies, violas and Snapdragons