Focal Points & Vignettes Using Containers


Whether your container is left empty as a sculptural element or abundantly planted with a colorful assortment of trees, shrubs perennials and annuals, it is unlikely to be seen in isolation. Often they are placed

  • On a patio
  • Within a garden border
  • Adjacent to a path

Look around and behind your container – what do you see?  Is there a colorful shrub or tree adjacent to the container? Are there distant trees – what color is the foliage in spring, summer, fall or winter?

If we take these color and style cues into account when we select plants for the container or the color of the container itself, the overall composition becomes a memorable vignette, not just a container garden. Even a small container can ‘ live large’ when tied into its surroundings in this way.

Foliage as a Backdrop


Sometimes it is only through the camera lens that we really see what works. I tried photographing this purple pot in several locations and from different angles before settling on this one. I needed to achieve two things; have the container be  distinct from the backdrop yet also be visually related to it. Since the pot is only about 18″ in front of the grass that wasn’t easy!

To keep the seriously squished, exuberant planting from being lost  I  looked for a solid backdrop. That didn’t mean it had to be a conifer or hedge but rather that there was only  subtle detail within the backdrop foliage itself. The soft wispy Shenandoah grass (Panicum v. ‘Shenandoah’) provided a shimmery curtain that set off the bolder textures of the plants in the container.

Since the color scheme of the container was purple, burgundy and silver with a pop of raspberry for accent the burgundy tipped grass tied in perfectly.

Foliage as a Frame


When empty containers are placed in the garden they always seem to look better when nestled within plants rather than standing in a void. I especially like to add foliage plants with soft textures in front of them but take care to tie the colors of the foliage and container together.

In the photo above you can see how the multi-hued leaves of Gulf Stream heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica ‘Gulf Stream’) repeats the dusky colors of the rustic pot. A cream and yellow striped grass would not have completed the scene so effectively

Foliage as a Color Highlight



This small blue pot is only 12″ tall and wide so I often set it into a border to make it ‘live large’. This fall it is planted with foliage in shades of gold and blue/green, accented with the pink Bud Bloomer heather in the center. Notice the broad leaf perennial at the front which is a blend of pinky-purple and dusky green. That is Burgundy Glow bugleweed (Ajuga repens ‘Burgundy Glow’ ) and was my inspiration for setting the pot within a cluster of Midnight Wine weigela (Weigela florida ‘Midnight Wine’). This adds depth to the colors of the bugelweed and frames the entire scene taking this blue pot from a small focal point into a more dramatic vignette

Foliage as a Seasonal Accent


Learn to observe the changes in the garden and see if you can take advantage of seasonal foliage colors. Here the clay rim of the container is enhanced by the backdrop of the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Viridis’) in its fall glory. In summer a blue hosta to the front of the pot ties into the main container color.

Foliage sets the Scene

IMG_6715 A tropical design in this container would not have been nearly so effective – or pleasing to the eye as this more naturalistic style. The backdrop of native trees, shrubs and ferns suggested this dwarf maple as the centerpiece (Acer palmatum ‘Redwood’) whose red bark tied into the color of the container itself and inspired the colors of the summer annuals. The container stands out from the backdrop visually yet stylistically it is connected to it.

If you would like to learn more about using containers as focal points in the garden take a look at the course I teach for Craftsy; GORGEOUS GARDEN DESIGN; Foliage and Focal Points


Click on the photo for more details

Next week I will conclude my four part series on using foliage to enhance focal points as I give you ideas for using structures such as arbors. Missed the earlier posts? Enjoy part 1 and part 2 again

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon

Focal Points; Garden Art + Foliage


Whether your style is whimsical, elegant, traditional or contemporary you can find a unique art piece for your garden that let’s your friends and family know that this is your garden. However it is the relationship between the art and the garden that really makes or breaks it. There has to be a reason for that particular piece of art to be placed in that specific location. Both the art and the garden should be enhanced by the association and using foliage is one of the easiest ways to accomplish this.

The Snuggle Factor

The pears above are nestled into the leafy ‘arms’ of ferns, Heuchera and moss. Over time the moss has started to wrap itself around the over-sized fruit such that the lines are blurred between art and garden. The bold color catches our attention but rather than seeming incongruous in this subdued leafy setting it is highlighted by the contrasting textures and shades of green. (From the garden of Tina Dixon, WA)

Hide and Seek

IMG_7454 These funky fish (found lurking in the garden of Mary Palmer, Snohomish, WA) are swimming through a golden ‘seaweed’. Depending on the breeze sometimes you see them – sometimes you don’t. Art doesn’t have to be completely visible to be a focal point. Sometimes a little subtlety is a good thing. This isn’t the sort of focal point that will knock your socks off 1oo yards away but rather a ‘garden moment’ waiting to be discovered as you stroll through the space.

Art Mimicking Foliage


Giant concrete Gunnera leaves have become increasingly popular since iconic artists George and David Lewis started creating them. I’ve seen these in many tints of color and in many settings but what I loved most about the composition above was how natural it looked within its environment.

The sheer size of the leaf grabs our attention and the texture is so realistic that I challenge anyone to walk past without at least being tempted to reach out and touch it!

Within this vignette is a secondary art piece; a small concrete pillar finished in such a way as to suggest antiquity but in reality quite new. Emerging from a cluster of hosta and topped with soft grass this column adds to the drama while again benefiting from the backdrop of foliage to give it a sense of presence.

Winter Vignette


Even in winter foliage can play a vital part in transforming your focal point into a vignette. Notice how in the photograph above (Taken at the Denver Botanical Garden) the bleached grasses frame the imposing sculpture. The art is impressive enough to stand alone but the grasses enhance it. Their soft, rustling blades contrasts with the stark, gold granite – especially poignant on a bitingly cold winter day.

Placing art into a garden does not automatically create a fabulous focal point. Placing it in such away that it relates to its surroundings and then adding either a frame or backdrop of foliage takes a focal point and transforms it into a vignette.

(This is part two in a four part series on focal points. Missed Part 1? Find it again here)

For more ideas on focal points sign up for my design class on Craftsy; Gorgeous Garden Design; Foliage & Focal Points. 

Read my reviews, interact with other students (over 200 at the last count), ask questions and enjoy the class whenever you choose and as often as you want to.

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon

Water + Foliage = a Perfect Vignette


We all love the soothing sound of water, whether the rushing torrent of a waterfall or the gentle trickling from a fountain. It stills the soul, giving us permission to pause and enjoy the moment. Shallow birdbaths and fountains attract birds from hummingbirds to Western tanagers while butterflies can be seen ‘puddling’ in a simple dish rock.

A large water feature may well be a major focal point in your garden or a partially hidden birdbath could be a delightful ‘garden moment’ – discovered as you stroll along the path. Whatever the size there is one key design tip that will transform your focal point into a vignette and that is FOLIAGE and there are two ways in which it is typically used;

1. As a backdrop



Tall Shenandoah switch grass (Panicum v. ‘Shenandoah’) is the perfect backing for this luminous red glass birdbath by Seattle artist Jesse Kelly. A shorter copper stand would not have had the same impact. Rather the height of the stand emphasizes the erect architecture as well as the color of the tall grasses. The deep burgundy smoke bush set off to the side also plays into this scene well.

In the top photograph a rusty old tractor has sprung a serious leak! Love the whimsy of this. In this instance the hefty vehicle is seen against solid conifers while a rhododendron appears to be trying to escape from within. Great re-use of something that was headed to the landfill.

2. As a picture frame



Th image above is a wonderful lesson in composition. Firstly there is the geometry with the repetition of circles within squares (circular columns within a square pool) and also squares  within circles (pavers set within the boxwood perimeter).

Then we have the three columnar fountains that slowly drip water into the pool. Each is topped by grass or grass-like foliage which softens the hard appearance. The entire water feature is surrounded by a boxwood frame, adding a crisp picture frame to the  scene.



For a more naturalistic look this boulder lined pond, nestled within ferns, grasses and conifers could easily be found on a hike in the forest. Water loving foliage plants within the pond itself adds to the sense of integration between water and foliage.


How do you make a diminutive mossy birdbath into a noticeable garden moment? By setting it within a shady nook surrounded by shade loving plants in simple shades of green.

I have lots more ideas for creating a focal point using water features in my garden design course GORGEOUS GARDEN DESIGN  - Foliage and Focal Points. Click on the title to find out more . Craftsy is the fastest growing site for inspirational and educational courses led by professionals and the classes can be watched whenever you want – you own the class for life!

In my next blog post I’ll tell you about using foliage with garden art to create a unique focal point while adding your personality to the design.

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon

And the winner is….


If you didn’t win, don’t worry! I have a special consolation prize for you. For this week ONLY I will discount my class for you if you sign up from this post. Just click on the the photo below to get 25% OFF!


SORRY – but MY special discount has now expired. However you may still enroll in the class  - and sometimes Craftsy offers it’s OWN discount!! Click on the image below for more details


titleCardI’ll see you in the garden


Foliage & Focal Points – and a GIVEAWAY!

IMG_5980 When you look out into the garden what do you see? Is there something specific that catches your eye or do you find yourself just scanning the horizon? In our excitement to add plants to the garden it is easy to forget that a garden without distinct focal points can be unimaginative at best and boring at worst. Thankfully this is easy to correct even if you have already overstuffed your garden with your favorite perennials and shrubs.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to show you four different elements you can use as a focal point; water features, garden art, structures and containers – many are inexpensive, some you may already have gathering dust in the garden shed. There is one theme we will come back to every time though and that is the use of foliage to enhance our chosen focal point, so that seems like a good place to start.

Why foliage? What about flowers?

The simple fact is that flowers only bloom for a relatively short time. Even my whirling butterflies (Gaura) seen above only blooms from mid June until late September and that is one of the most floriferous plants in my garden. If I rely on those flowers for year round interest I am going to be disappointed.

On the other hand there are many  trees, shrubs and perennials that have beautiful leaves from early spring until late fall, often changing hue through the seasons and of course there are also many evergreens from magnolia trees and conifers to lavender and many grasses which keep their leaves year round. If we use foliage as a frame for our focal point we will always have something special to look at. In my front garden shown above I have dwarf conifers, silver wormwood (Artemisia), lavender, thyme, parahebe, daphne and more.

But I want COLOR!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’ve got good news – foliage comes in every shape, size, color and pattern imaginable so color is not a problem. From the spots and splashes on drooping fetterbush (Leucothoe) to the multi-hued heavenly bamboo (Nandina),  every shade of green and blue-green offered by conifers and the endless offerings of Heuchera and Heucherella (gold, cinnamon, black, purple, lime, orange, pink, peach, silver, green and more) your garden has no excuse to look drab.

How do I use foliage with my focal point?

Think of a picture frame – that’s the role foliage plays. It will typically either surround your piece or act as a backdrop Got you thinking? Well I have exciting news for you.

Next week (September 9th) will be the launch of my online class for Craftsy;

GORGEOUS GARDEN DESIGN – Foliage & Focal Points.

This is a 7 part class that will dive into this very topic in depth. You’ll walk around my garden and several others as I share ideas and we explore not only what you can use as a focal point but also how to link them together to create a garden. These classes are SUCH good value. In fact they cost less than just a one hour design consultation!

You can also watch the class at your leisure – your access never expries, so if you need to get up and put the kettle on or pour another glass of wine I’ll wait for you. Craftsy is a very interactive platform too. You can post questions and photographs as well as discuss ideas and projects with your fellow students.

My free gift to you

Click on my photo to enter to win my class!

Click on this photo and enter to win my class!

By way of thanking you for following my blog I’m giving away ONE FREE CLASS & A SIGNED COPY OF MY AWARD WINNING BOOK ‘FINE FOLIAGE’ ! Just click on my photo above to enter.

A winner will be selected at random on the day my class goes live; Tuesday September 9th, when you will be notified by email. Craftsy will set you up for your free class and I’ll mail you my book. (Note; sadly this giveaway is only available to residents of the USA and Canada but everyone will be eligible for my ‘runners-up’ prize mentioned below…)

I’ll have a nice commiseration prize for everyone else – but you’ll have to read my next blog post  (9/16) to find out what that is! And in case you are wondering the examples I’ll share in my Craftsy class will be unique – everything on my blog will be bonus material.

Good luck – I’ll see you in my garden

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon