Creating beautiful outside spaces is, for many people, an enjoyable part of owning a home. Challenges can arise when choosing focal points for specific spaces, but creating those focal points is one of the easiest ways to make a garden that’s a little ho-hum feel more curated and intentional.
Landscape architects, gardeners and horticulturalists define focal points as plants or objects that stand out and draw attention to a specific area of a garden or outdoor space. Focal points can be restful, dramatic, or even whimsical. They can be used as way-finders – a method of guiding people to a destination, or a designate spot tailor-made for special moments to occur. Most of all, they control how the garden is viewed. Experts say that the guiding principle to be remembered is that focal points are always viewed with the other elements in a setting. Although the focal point itself may be the object that stands out and guides the eye, it also has to fit in with the overall landscape aesthetic.
Two types of outdoor focal points are water features and courtyards, items that frequently co-exist in a landscape.
Dawn Hart, co-owner of ACE Garden Center, on St. Simons Island, said water features remain a popular addition to all sorts of landscapes. They are especially favored during periods when people are spending more time at home and have time to create their own oases.
“Our inventory is low at the moment because of it,” said Hart. “I have more fountains on order, but nationally, supply chain delays have impacted their availability.”
Having a water feature not only provides a focal point, but creates a tranquil atmosphere that has an effect on all the senses.
“There’s something therapeutic about the sound of running water,” she said. “Fountains and ponds help provide a habitat for fish, plants, birds and other wildlife. Birdbaths, of course, can be a nice feature to look at, while enjoying the birds that pause to bath themselves.”
Like other landscaping elements, fountains do not function in a vacuum.
Hart explained that fountains can accentuate a flower bed in the middle of a circular driveway or courtyard, in between windows in a front shrub bed, or adjacent to a wall in a patio or courtyard. There are also tabletop fountains for small spaces on outside porches or patios that require only a nearby electrical outlet and a table upon which to perch.
“Ponds are usually integrated into a landscape plan primarily to break up green space in a back garden with added features of large rocks, bridges or fountains,” she said.
Deciding on the right water feature can pose occasional complications, but Hart said there are a few guiding principles to follow.
“Home architectural styles often dictate fountain selection, with designs from the ornate to sleek and contemporary,” she said. “In our coastal community, designs that have an Italian influence seem to blend well with the Mediterranean stucco residences, while some of the more contemporary bowl and rectangular designs create more interest for those after a more modern or mid-century look.”
Having a water feature is wonderful, but there’s more to do than simply gaze upon it.
“These pleasurable garden features do come with a bit of elbow grease,” Hart said, explaining that people who install them in their yards should note that fountains and birdbaths require monthly maintenance in this humid coastal climate.
They should be cleaned once a month to keep the algae clear from basins and fountain pumps, she said. Chlorine should not be used to clean fountains as it will shorten the life of the pump. Ponds are a whole other story. Hart says the installers’ recommendations should be followed to maintain water clarity, which will also depend on whether fish and/or plants will be present in the water.
Courtyards have been around as long as people have been building homes. Typically, a courtyard is an open-air space surrounded by walls, and provides a great space for homeowners to have a private spot to dine, entertain and relax.
Courtyards have been a part of architectural design for centuries, dating all the way back to 6400 B.C.E. in Jordan, where there are renderings that show homes constructed around small courtyard spaces. They have remained popular, especially in warm-weather climates in the U.S., Middle East and Asia.
Jeff Homans, a landscape architect and owner of Land Design Associates, on St. Simons Island, says that courtyards are a historically functional and necessary feature in homes.
There are different types of courtyards. Some are built either in front or backyards, and in some cases, homes are built around a courtyard, with rooms along the perimeter opening to the outdoor space. More than just a decorative element, a courtyard serves multiple purposes, including inviting natural light, encouraging the movement of fresh air and creating a space for relaxation.
“As a private outdoor space, a courtyard may take different forms in dense urban homes, and rural country homes,” Homans explained.
A courtyard, he said, is essentially an outdoor room with “walls,” openings for “doors” and windows,” and a floor.
“Fixtures, furnishing and art in the forms of fountains, seating and sculpture can activate the space, similar to an interior space,” he said.
The courtyard itself is obviously a focal point, but it also contains focal points within it. Homans suggests pots and containers for plans, strong contrasts in foliage and/or texture among the plants, both still and moving water, and sculpture.
All, however, should contain three specific elements, Homans said.
“Structure of an outdoor room – walls/hedges, openings, space for circulation or a specific function – cooking, containment, culinary garden – (and) fixtures and furnishings for that function,” he said.
It’s not necessary for courtyards to take up a great deal of space, but they should be proportionate to the home, he said.
“Perhaps a space as small as 10’ x 10’ can take the form of a courtyard,” Homans said. “When two or three exterior walls of a home begin to form a space, this is where a courtyard is easily formed, by adding a third and/or fourth ‘wall’.”