One of the things that drew me to landscape architecture, rather than say architecture, is the organic form. Nature’s designs always appealed to me more than man’s. But when massed together in a forest or a garden, all of those organic forms can become a bit of a jumble, and your eye needs some help to make sense of it all. Just as a photograph, even a landscape, needs a subject to draw the eye and provide visual hierarchy, so does a built landscape. And the very same subjects which may appear in the foreground or middle ground of a landscape photo, such as a stand out tree, a craggy boulder, or water in motion, also make very effective focal points in a built landscape. Water features, to me, are an especially effective focal point, as they add motion, immediately drawing the eye. In addition, the sound they provide also draws one’s attention.
Planting design is another way to think about focal points/subjects, as well as foreground and background. A relatively simple planting plan, or one that repeats a more complex color and texture throughout the yard allows for certain plants to pop out and demand attention. We call these specimen plants. Often times, this refers to a tree, but a specimen can be any plant that is more powerful on its own than grouped in mass. Usually a specimen plant has a a striking form or color, with a larger size than the surrounding planting, anchoring the space. Japanese Maples, including smaller lace leaf varieties, as well as fruitless Olives are very common specimen trees. Their low branching structure provides interesting form, and their colored bark accepted landscape lighting nicely. Examples of smaller specimen plants that have both interesting form and color are Cordyline, Phormium (New Zealand Flax), and Chondropetalum, or small trees such as Vitex, Smoke Tree or Pomegranate.