The Principled Gardener Part 2 – Unity by Dominance

Well here we are the last Monday of the month and time for your monthly measure of design doctrine. Last month, in Part 1 of this series, I discussed Unity in the garden and how it can be achieved using repetition. Continuing our discussion on Unity then, let’s look at the use of Dominance. By this I don’t mean standing over your plants, whip in hand, ordering them to behave themselves – nope, in fact a plant may get to do the dominating. Dominance occurs when one element or group of elements stands out or is more prominent than others.  The dominant feature may be a plant, a design line or space, or a non-living element. It can be dominant by way of its size, its shape, its colour, its texture or because it is a Focal Point (a Focal Point refers to a non-living element such as a bird bath or fountain.)

Dominance in the landscape can result from larger size, coarser texture, stronger form, stronger colour or the existence of a focal point.

Dominance in the landscape can result from larger size, coarser texture, stronger form, stronger colour or the existence of a focal point.

The arching purple branches of Berberis thunbergii ‘Rose Glow’ stand out against the softer greens of surrounding foliage. Photo: Pat Gaviller

A good design concept will have a hierarchy of spatial sizes with one dominant space. Here the lawn area in the centre is dominant as it is the largest design space.

A good design concept will have a hierarchy of spatial sizes with one dominant space. Here the lawn area in the centre is dominant as it is the largest design space.

The circular lawn area is the dominant space here because it contains the only arc in an otherwise angular concept.

The circular lawn area is the dominant space here because it contains the only arc in an otherwise angular concept.

The symmetrical planting (Hosta ‘Guacamole’ and Heuchera ‘Plum Pudding’) around this bird-bath enhances its role as focal point. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A garden devoid of any moments of emphasis can be visually unrestful as the eye tends to just wander. A dominant feature however will draw the eye and steady it, allowing it to rest. This is another concept that gardeners often intuit early on, but lose sight of later – myself included. When I purchased my first bird-bath and placed it in the garden, I indeed noted a more cohesive, restful composition………..so I bought another. Then I found a beautiful earthenware bowl, filled it with water and nestled it amongst some groundcover in my shade garden. My husband asked me ‘What is it with you and round things filled with water?’ Good question. The truth is I’d given in to the gardener’s favourite mantra ‘more is better’ and rendered ineffective the dominance I’d unknowingly applied with the initial bird-bath. A single strong feature demands attention. Too many strong features compete for attention.  This too can create unrest in the garden as the eye bounces around between competing elements.

Unfortunately there’s no dominance metre to tell us when enough is enough. Just keep in mind that the stronger the colour and/or the form, the more dominant it will be, hence the fewer of these elements your garden can support.  For example, weeping standards such as Young’s weeping birch or Walker’s weeping Caragana, have very strong architectural form thus should always be used as single specimens, whereas vertical accents like columnar aspens or tall reed grasses, though still fairly dominant, can be repeated a couple of times or used in small groups. Warm vibrant colours like bright yellow or lime green will really draw the eye so should be used with some restraint whereas cooler, less intense colours can be used more generously.

The key is to use elements within your garden composition that are dominant for different reasons – maybe one has brilliant colour, another is a small group of very coarse textured plants and another has unique form. Or maybe there are several that are dominant because of their unique form but they are very different forms. While each one will draw the eye, they tend to lead the eye from one to another rather than rival each other. As well, a single dominant feature will often stand out for several reasons, for example it may be larger and more colourful and have unique form, making it particularly dominant. And you can help your focal point or feature tree take centre stage by surrounding it with more subdued elements.

Good placement of dominant features is also important. Anywhere the eye is naturally drawn, like the deepest part of a curve or through a visual opening, is an obvious spot to situate a strong feature. The space where design lines form a visual frame is another good location, as is an area you want to draw attention to – your front door for example. Remember too, that some of these elements – focal points or feature trees and shrubs – will have a presence in the winter as well, so make sure they are visually supported by other woody plant material. For more ideas on Focal Points and dominant plant forms as they are experienced in the winter months, check out a couple of my earlier posts: Focal Points in the Garden and Form Colour and Texture in the Winter Garden.

Malus ‘Rosyglo’, with its elegant form, takes centre stage in the foreground while Syringa prestoniae dominates the background. Note the placement of the two features – Malus is framed by the curving design line and Syringa is situated at the deepest part of the curve. Both are well staged by subdued plantings of Juniperus sabina cultivars. The junipers will serve as visual props for these features in the winter. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Hosta 'Sum and Substance' stands out because of its very coarse texture (large leaves) and its bright lime green colour. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ stands out because of its very coarse texture (large leaves) and its bright lime green colour. Photo: Sue Gaviller

While too many dominant elements in close proximity is bad design, there are scenarios where several strong features can be present together in a co-dominant relationship – for instance a vase shape tree with a bird bath in front of it. One may be slightly more dominant than the other but the effect is that they appear as a single focal vignette, not two competing entities.

A container filled with brightly coloured annuals is quite dominant on its own, as is the top graft Picea pungens 'Glauca Globosa', however because they are so different, their proximity to each other is mutually supportive rather than conflicting. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A container filled with brightly coloured annuals is quite dominant on its own, as is the top graft Picea pungens ‘Glauca Globosa’, however because they are so different, their proximity to each other is mutually supportive rather than conflicting. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The dominant feature brings unity to the garden by subduing all other elements in its presence, hence unifying them in their shared secondary status.

A dominant feature like this gazing ball focal point, can pull together an otherwise nondescript scene, thus creating unity and harmony in the garden. Photo: Sue Gaviller

So go out and buy yourself a graceful weeping standard like Malus ‘Royal Beauty’ – but just one. Indulge yourself with that beautiful bird bath – but just one. You’ll see how creating areas of emphasis can bring about peace and harmony in your garden.

Yours,
Sue
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

ANOTHER GARDENING BLOG…….seriously?

Yes indeed…..another gardening blog. Bear with me though, as I present a designer’s perspective of what is for some, a minor hobby, and for others an obsession so grand they forget to eat, bathe or feed their children……. the garden.

My intention had been to start blogging on Jan 1st – New Year, new endeavour. But honestly, I just couldn’t get excited about garden writing when the darkest days of winter were still upon us, regardless of the above average temperatures we’d been experiencing. Then when winter truly hit and we plunged into the deep freeze, so did any ambition to write about all things spring and summer.

Temperatures have since moderated – in fact the days are again unseasonably warm and the promise of spring is actually believable. There are still weeks of winter ahead of us though – Balzac Billy saw his shadow. So…. what better to write about than the garden in winter?

Many gardeners don’t see winter as a ‘gardening season’ and I guess, considering nothing is growing at this time of year, we don’t really garden. But that doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, design our gardens with winter in mind. In fact as a designer, when I‘m choosing plant material for a landscape plan, I always start with winter appeal – evergreen plant material, trees /shrubs with colourful bark or berries, plants with strong form or interesting texture. All these things allow us to extend the beauty of our garden-scapes beyond the growing season to fill much of the rest of the year.

These first blog posts then will address how we might plan our gardens for winter interest.

Focal Points in the Winter Garden

A Focal Point refers to an element in the garden that is constant, unchanging. This means it is a ‘hard’ feature, i.e. non-living. A non-living element doesn’t grow, or change colour, or lose its leaves. It simply remains the same – drawing the eye and giving it a place to rest, throughout the seasons. Never is the importance of focal points more evident though, than during the dreary winter months when there is often little else to capture our attention. A well placed bird bath or piece of sculpture in the dead of winter can be as lovely as any summer garden scene, albeit more subtle. The presence of a focal point reminds us that the garden is still here, still beautiful in its simplified form.

But just plopping the aforementioned feature anywhere in the yard will not necessarily create the postcard winterscape we’re after – a focal point is most effective when properly staged. Too often I see a unique garden element with no visual support – stuck out in the middle of the lawn or a part of the garden that is completely barren from fall through spring. Of course everything is picture pretty when covered in snow, but in the austerity of a snowless landscape (as is often the case in Calgary), more artful planning is required. Plant material that maintains a presence throughout the year will provide an effective prop for your garden ornament. This means using woody plant material (trees and shrubs), ideally some of it evergreen, in the vicinity of or surrounding your focal point.

I drove by this garden recently while taking an alternate route home - this charming lady presents an elegant focal point and would be equally lovely even in the absence of snow. Photo: Sue Gaviller

I drove by this garden recently while taking an alternate route home – this charming lady presents an elegant focal point and would be equally lovely even in the absence of snow. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A single boulder, ideally with a unique shape and textural interest, can serve as a focal point. Photo: Pat Gaviller

A single boulder, ideally with a unique shape and textural interest, can serve as a focal point.
Photo: Pat Gaviller

Containers are a valuable addition to the winter landscape - the container itself serves as the focal point and also allows for the use of seasonal arrangements, as this homeowner has created. In this example the rocks play a supporting role rather than focal. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Containers are a valuable addition to the winter landscape – the container itself serves as the focal point and also allows for the use of seasonal arrangements, as this homeowner has created. In this example the rocks play a supporting role rather than focal. Photo: Sue Gaviller

This wintry scene as viewed from my back window illustrates how a focal point can be so well merged with its setting that it appears to have ‘grown there all by itself’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

This wintry scene as viewed from my back window illustrates how a focal point can be so well merged with its setting that it appears to have ‘grown there all by itself’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Another photo taken by my sister on one of our walks - not sure if the colour of the gazing ball was purposefully chosen to echo the golden inflorescence of the reed grasses in the background, but the result is quite effective. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Another photo taken by my sister on one of our walks – not sure if the colour of the gazing ball was
purposefully chosen to echo the golden inflorescence of the reed grasses in the background, but the result is quite effective. Photo: Pat Gaviller

A focal point, in any season, can pull together an otherwise nondescript scene. This gazing ball is surrounded by woody and evergreen plant material surround, so will have the same effect in winter as well. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A focal point, in any season, can pull together an otherwise nondescript scene. This gazing ball is surrounded by woody and evergreen plant material, so will have the same effect in winter as during the growing season. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Bear in mind that your focal point needs to be level. If your bird bath is leaning, get out your level and straighten it, otherwise it just looks sloppy.

And don’t be tempted to overuse focal points – this is probably the most common mistake gardeners make with garden decor. Too many of these in close proximity will create competition for the viewer’s attention, hence visual unrest. So how many is too many? Unfortunately there is no formula for this – it depends on the particular focal point, the overall landscape design and the size of the area.  Generally speaking though, for an average size front yard, one bold focal point can deliver sufficient visual ‘punch’ – there will be other ‘soft’ (i.e. living) features drawing the eye as well. I’ll discuss these in my next post.

Consider too that there are superfluous elements in the garden that may inadvertently serve as focal points, e.g. a couple of my personal pet peeves – bright blue security system signs and outdoor lighting fixtures.  I don’t mean elegant post lamps or subtly placed spot lights – rather I’m referring to the cheesy sets of lights gardeners poke haphazardly into the ground, forgetting that the purpose of garden lighting is to draw attention to the lovely light that is cast, not the fixture that is casting the light. But more on garden lighting another time. As for security system signs, I appreciate that they serve an important purpose and hence need to be visible, but to me they are beyond visible, they are visually distracting– just keep this in mind when placing them.

I often pass by this well done landscape on my neighbourhood walks – though it’s especially attractive at this time of year, I doubt the homeowners intended for the light fixtures to be the focal point in this composition, especially since one is noticeably lopsided. Photo: Sue Gaviller

I often pass by this well done landscape on my neighbourhood walks – though it’s especially attractive at this time of year, I doubt the homeowners intended for the light fixtures to be the focal point in this composition, especially since one is noticeably lopsided. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Well, so ends my inaugural blog post. I realized when writing this that I ought to practice what I preach – the bird bath in my front yard could use some evergreen plantings around it. That will be my first purchase come spring – ah yes, spring………….so close, yet so far.

Til next time,
Sue

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.