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 »

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10 thoughts on “Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Visual Clues

  1. Love your design and the points you have made here.
    Thanks very much

    Thank you, Robert. The classic design suits the property. I’ll post more photos when it’s grown in a bit.

  2. This is BEAUTIFUL, Susan! I can’t wait to see it grown in, but the focal points already give it gravity and a sense of integration. Bravo!

    That is high praise indeed Ivette. THANK YOU!

  3. A wonderful illustration of how focal points can serve as exclamation points along an axis. The sense of movement and discovery are essential in any garden that is truly “alive”. Thanks!

    Markers along an axis make things interesting–thank you for noticing that.

  4. Since I’ve been enjoying seeing pictures of the progress of this garden on Twitter, it’s really nice to read more about it, and how you’ve strategically incorporated Focal Points within it. I look forward to seeing this garden mature over the next few seasons, too! – Great job

    The garden is only there for this season unless the home’s new owners decided to keep it. It’s been a fun experience!

  5. I’m so jealous of this project! Nice job taking the lessons of Le Notre and re-interpreting them on a human scale (I’ve been known to encourage a client to consider an axial design by saying, “If it’s good enough for Versailles, than it’s good enough for us!) I like this post because it drives home the amount of design chops it takes to create a an uncluttered, classic garden. Excellent explanation of the design strategy.

    You got it Susan. I’ve been channeling my inner Villandry and Versailles! Le Potager du Roi at Versailles is one of my favorite places and I’ve got two photos of Villandry in my bathroom!

  6. Direct, intrigue and inform, love that! Fun to see the project you’ve been so focused on lately; nicely thought out. The bean teepee will have quite a different mass when it has filled in, and yet will still work beautifully. Nice! Thanks!

    Now that it’s done I’m slightly depressed. Like post partum depression…

  7. “The idea is to allow people to visually travel the space without actually moving through it.” I love this concept and am always explaining it to non-gardening clients. Formal elements like a focal point on an axis with the front door can mentally pull you right into the garden, even when you’re only looking out, not strolling.

    It dawned on me reading your ccommet that that’s exactly why they’re called ‘focal’ points. No being snarky either. Sometimes I’m slow on the uptake.

  8. Aside from your great article on focal points…what a great garden. I loved how there are sitting areas there too. For anyone reading this comment, enlarging the first photo is a must to get the true essence of this garden design.

    I loved the geometry of the focal points.

    Thanks, Susan. I don’t often get to go this far on the geometric side, but it makes sense for a vegetable garden–easy organization and rotation. I had fun making this–come and see it!

  9. Brilliant plan, Susan. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your view on focal points and your approach to designing.

    Seeing such beauty in a vegetalbe garden and orchard is a concept that takes some getting used to for me, having grown up on a farm where productivity was naturally our chief aim.

    Productivity and beauty do not have to be mutually exclusive. This garden will produce a lot of food in its 2 month existence while looking great all the time!

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