Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Visual Clues

When I thought about the idea of exploring focal points, I thought in the plural and I also thought about my own design process.  Among the first things I consider after I’ve figured out most of the more functional needs of a garden’s design is how I want people to move through a space and how I can visually manage their interaction with it.  What will make them slow down and look to the distance? What will make them speed up to discover what something really is? What is going to draw the eye, pique the imagination, stop a viewer in their tracks with either beauty or delight?  Many times these visual clues are focal points.

In the garden plan below, a project finished just a few days ago, there is a series of three focal points – individual and unique in their function, all have a distinct role to play in the human experience of the garden.  Each one is deliberate it its attempt to evoke a response – either to draw participants into the space or to give them a visual resting place.

Garden Plan

From left to right-the focal points:  an urn in the center of the orchard,  an arbor at the entrance to the orchard, and a pole for sugar snap peas to climb in the center of the garden.  They are designed to work in a sort of tag team sequence so that from almost any angle of the garden the eye is drawn from one to the next to the next.  The idea is to  allow people to visually travel the space without actually moving through it.

The three focal points

When experienced in a straight line each point has it’s own identity and helps to create a marker for travel through the garden visually telling them that there is something else beyond.  Below is a photo from the side of  the garden and each focal point is still doing its job.

Sideline view of three focal points

The urn in the orchard was specifically planted with bright red geraniums to be a beacon in the distance–the garden is over 100 feet long.  It doesn’t really matter if no one goes back there or not–it defines the space as separate and unique from a distance.


Focal points are more than just a place to look in a garden-they can direct, intrigue and inform the people who spend time there.

Now you can focus on what the other members of the roundtable have to say…follow the links here…

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA »
Carolyn Choi : Sweet Home and Garden Chicago : Chicago, IL »
Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT »
Laura Livengood Schaub : Interleafings : San Jose, CA »
Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK »
Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX »
Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In the Garden : Los Altos, CA »
Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ »
Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA »
Susan Schlenger : Landscape Design Advice : Hampton, NJ »
Tara Dillard : : Atlanta, GA »

Busy Bee

I have been a busy bee trying to finish the show house garden this week.  Everything that can go wrong has…enjoy a post from this time last year–originally posted on May 5, 2009.  Miss R will be back next week.

Why Not Wisteria?

As beautiful and romantic as it is… Here’s why I never recommend it, plain and simple.

Wisteria escaped from a garden climbing a very large Picea abies on my block

There are wisteria vines choking out, shading foliage and pulling down garden structures in more places in New Jersey than I care to relate.

Monday 13 | A Year of Mondays Project

The truth.  I am fascinated with the ever changing combinations that I can create with plants.  For me, it’s not about the growing or the wonder of the natural world, it’s about the flow–about the change.   It never fails each spring that I discover or re-discover a grouping of  foliage  that stops me and makes me think  ‘Hmm.  That’s lovely.  Have to remember that…’   The next time I look, it will be different.  It’s a fleeting moment of visual joy. This morning it was roadside daylillies, Vinca minor and Kierengeshoma palmata.

No. 13

Fieldtrip: James Rose Center

Last Saturday morning I headed north to Ridgewood, NJ to help with the annual spring clean up at the quirky and impossibly creative James Rose Center.

The Guest House

This modernist bastion of free thinking and improvisation is located in a community of entitled suburbanites surrounded by traditional homes and manicured yards.  It is, as you would suspect, an anomaly.

A covered section of the roof garden

Rose, mad genius that he was, experimented with so many convergent ideas here that it is impossible to convey them all through photographs in a blog…one visit would not even be enough to absorb them all.

One view of the roof deck
Turn around and this is the view of the roof deck

Rose built the home/studio/garden in 1953 and lived there for almost 40 years until his death in 1991.  As I understand it, the building and surrounding garden were in a constant state of experimental flux for almost all of that time.

Light and shadow

Its still evolving history makes it  a vital emblem of  a changing world from a fertile and busy mind who fundamentally understood that change was constant and necessary.

A tree is given room to grow between exterior rafters
The same tree reveals itself again in the second story

Combinations of materials high and low, new and recycled, permanent and temporary are freely juxtaposed throughout the building and garden.

Stairway to the roof

In Rose’s own words– “to reveal what is always there is the trick. The metamorphosis is seen minute by minute, season by season, year by year. Through this looking glass, ‘finish’ is another word for death.”

View out from in

Over 60 years ago Rose wrote the closest definition I have ever found of a garden.

Man and nature, nature and man

From his 1958 book Creative Gardens— “A garden is an experience…If it were possible to distill the essence of a garden, I think it would be the sense of being within something while still out of doors.  That is the substance of it: for until you have that, you do not have a garden at all.”

Fence detail

To  visit the James Rose Center is to experience a garden where then is now, now is then, the inside is out, the outside is in and the top is bottom and the bottom is the top.  It is also an opportunity to take a glimpse into the mind of one of American landscape architecture’s most original thinkers.

Monday 12 | A Year of Mondays Project

I went out to the garden this morning and found my lilac in bloom a month early.  Last week’s heat wave must have forced it.  I don’t usually take loving pictures of flowers, but this seems so out of context.  In fact, it seems so crazy that  I decided to alter the image…after all isn’t this project about observation, exploration and creativity?

Monday 12

What’s better than a Birthday present?

The Garden Conservancy‘s Open Days Directory of course!  Mine arrived this past Saturday and was the immediate cause for me to stop what I was doing and explore which gardens I want to visit this year.  I have been visiting gardens on Open Days for almost 15 years now.

Garden Conservancy Open Days

Each day away on the back roads following the yellow conservancy signs to the next garden is an adventure.   The gardens I visit on these days are always surprising and never dull.  Sometimes I even walk away with a design idea or two or three.  I always get great photographs to share.

The Open Days gardens have been chosen because it is special in some way and offers visitors the best of American regional gardens.  Some are designed by landscape designers and architects, others are the work of passionate and talented amateurs.  Here are some images of just a few of the many gardens I’ve visited on Open Days in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

Monday 11 | A Year of Mondays Project

This image is special because the others have been so grey.  It’s spring in the garden with onions and the neighbor’s honeysuckle and ivy needing some control–and I’m short on time and attention span.  These plants have given me pleasure for more than 20 years.  Spring is also a time of gentle unfolding and soft promises if we listen to it tell its own eloquent tale.

Monday 11