One of the things about having a postage stamp sized garden is that you can see pretty much all of it all of the time. Design concepts such as having themed ‘rooms’ and creating ‘mystery’ by deliberately obscuring the view of a feature from certain angles are lovely ideas, but nigh on impossible to achieve if you are working with 30m² of space. Indeed accommodating attractive planting alongside practical features such as bins, water butts and washing lines can be a key challenge when garden proportions are limited. Thinking about where the eye is naturally drawn to in a garden, and where it is you would like it to rest, can be a big part of balancing the aesthetic and the pragmatic.
A focal point can be any feature which attracts the attention of the garden user to a particular area. It could be a tree at the edge of the garden, a feature plant in a border, or a sculpture at the end of a path. It could also unintentionally be the household’s ever expanding collection of bins and recycling tubs, your child’s abandoned bike or next door’s freshly painted shed! If interesting focal points are deliberately positioned though, they can both serve to draw the eye through the space and away from some of the less aesthetically pleasing, but nonetheless, necessary features.
Much as I would love to say I spend many hours sitting in the garden appreciating its tranquil greenery, the angle from which it is most frequently viewed is through the window of the kitchen door as I am washing up/making dinner/emptying the bin. Until recently the vision before me was somewhat dominated by a covered storage unit built by my Dad to protect our barbecue from the elements. It also served as a handy access point for our cat entering and leaving the garden. However, a decade on, the barbecue has long since perished and the cat (bless her) is now in her dotage and 6ft fences are well beyond her. So while the cover once had a function it has outlived its usefulness and had become something of a dumping ground for everything from half-used bags of compost to random pieces of scrap wood. Not exactly a feast for the eyes!
I felt it was high time that we had something a bit more attractive to gaze at while performing our household chores. The simplest thing seemed to be to create a focal point using a large container and an architectural plant – something evergreen with a strong bold form. This is at the north-facing end of the plot and so a plant which prefers shaded conditions was needed, although it does get a bit of dappled sunshine in the morning and evening during the summer. I plumped for a Fatsia japonica with its huge, lime green, palmate leaves which are easily the size of dinner plates. It’s a quick grower too – from a smallish specimen in a 1.5 litre pot to a substantial plant in only a few months, so great for instant impact.
A single container with feature plant would be fine as a focal point in itself, but once I’d bought the Fatsia and a suitable teal coloured ceramic pot to put it in, I realised that I already had a couple of other containerised plants which might be complementary. The first is a Pieris floribunda ‘Forest Flame’ (I think) which I’ve had for many years and has been somewhat neglected at the front of the house. It could do with a bit of tender loving care if I’m honest but it has wonderful red foliage when the new growth first emerges in Spring along with dense clusters of cream bell-shaped flowers, so it’s certainly worth resurrecting. In the summer it has narrow ovate leaves in a corresponding colour to the Fatsia so they link together well.
The second existing plant is an Acer palmatum which has dark red leaves and stems and is accommodated in a compatible burgundy coloured container. I’m not sure of the cultivar as it was a gift from my Mum and I suspect was purchased in the supermarket where specific labels are a rarity. The leaves of the Acer mirror the palmate shape of the Fatsia while providing contrast in colour. The three plants complement each other well having similarities in colour, form or foliage, while having sufficient contrast in size, texture and colour to maintain year round interest, particularly with seasonal variations.
Overall, I feel very happy with the impact of what has been a straightforward and inexpensive modification to the garden. The great thing about containers is that should future changes to other elements diminish the effect of this grouping they always be moved and redeployed elsewhere. Shimples!