The Garden Focal Point

Making a bold statement through landscape design
Landscape architect Bruce Clodfelter added a statuary niche to the elevated pergola shown left of the pool. The arches of both the pergola and the brick wall strengthen the focal point.

Whether creating a landscape plan for a sprawling suburban estate or the patio of an urban townhouse, Bruce Clodfelter builds the design around a focal point. But Clodfelter, a landscape architect and owner of the Plaza Midwood-based landscape design firm Bruce Clodfelter and Associates, admits that choosing the right statement piece for the garden is not as simple as it sounds. He offers some advice on getting it right.

A metal sculpture creates a focal point for a side garden in Myers Park. Paving stones and shrubbery borders lead the eye. 

Why does a garden need a focal point?
A focal point is one of the elements of good landscape design. It adds a pop of interest and uniqueness to a landscape design. Without one, a garden lacks personality. A focal point can also help make a visual connection between interior and exterior spaces. For example, placing large planters near windows means that plants can be viewed from inside and outside; it creates a better flow between the house and the garden and makes the landscape feel more cohesive.

What advice do you have for choosing the right focal point?
There are no hard-and-fast rules about what to use as a focal point in the landscape. You could choose a water feature, fireplace or fire pit, sculpture; even a bench or unusual plant specimen like a Japanese maple could be statement pieces. The most important thing is that the focal point is special to the homeowner, something that gives them pleasure to have in the garden.  

Do different styles of homes and gardens require different focal points?
Yes. Just like a garden looks best when it matches the architecture of the home—a  row of pruned hedges wouldn’t look right outside a cottage home and a wildflower meadow is not the right choice for a Tudor-style home—a focal point looks best when it matches the style of the garden. For example, it would look strange for a formal French garden to have a Japanese lantern as a focal point. Picking a piece that fits with the style of the garden and the style of the home will give the landscape a unified feel.

Are there instances when there should be more than one focal point in a garden?
Again, there are no hard-and-fast rules about the number of focal points that belong in a garden. Multiple focal points can work, even in a small garden.

A client who downsized from a large home to a townhouse in Myers Park had two bronze sculptures that she loved and wanted to incorporate into the small garden. The entire garden was designed around the sculptures; I placed one along the side of the house and another in the back garden. Instead of thinking of two large sculptures as “too much” for a small space, the design worked because the same artist made both sculptures and that helps create a unified feel between the spaces. We placed them in separate parts of the garden and it’s rare to be at a point in the garden where you can see both sculptures, which is less distracting for the eye.

Clodfelter designed this oversized bench (more than seven-feet high) as a focal point for a large Eastover garden. Although it has classical elements, its grand scale has a touch of whimsy. 

What are the biggest mistakes homeowners make when it comes to choosing a focal point for their landscape?
The biggest mistake that homeowners make is picking a focal point that would work in an interior space but is too small for the garden. There is a lot more volume in an outdoor space so a focal point needs to have a grander scale. If the focal point is too small, it looks insignificant and doesn’t have much impact.

Choosing too many focal points is another common mistake; a lot of different statement pieces make a garden look cluttered.

What is your best advice for choosing a focal point?
Don’t pick something in a rush. You don’t need to put a focal point in the garden right away. It’s ok to experiment with a few different focal points—place the piece in the garden, leave it for a few weeks and decide if it is the right fit. If nothing feels right, leave a placeholder in the garden until you find the perfect focal point. You should pick something you love and want to look at for a long time.