The importance of stopping the eye

Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

I’m in the middle of reading – or trying to read – a most perplexing book that contains paragraphs the length of one entire page. I consider this a sign of bad writing as the writer is apparently daring me to scan over the lengthy paragraph, an impossibility simply because the eye has no place to stop and rest. And this difficult (and relatively useless) book has caused me to reconsider my garden.

How can such a book relate to the garden? Eyes, if they are going to observe and comprehend what they are viewing adequately, need to stop to rest occasionally. Shorter paragraphs allow me to scan if the topic isn’t important, permitting me to catch their meaning without laboriously reading every word or sentence. No, I wouldn’t do this to a work by Aristotle, but I would love to do it to a work devoting 700 + pages to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – and please don’t throw your hands up in disgust as this really does pertain to the garden.

The longer I garden, the more I have learned the need to get the eye to rest on a particular plant. When we regard a garden, the natural tendency is to glance all around, gathering the vista. But gardens are made up of plants, necessitating that the eye should stop to incorporate the individual plants – and this can be a hard task.

Now gardens are mostly green, interspersed with color. However, the best perennials rarely bloom for longer than six weeks, while many have a shorter flowering time. This means that the gardener has to work with several other important features of the plants – other than color – in order to make that perennial border work.

The photo at the top of this article illustrates what two of my perennial borders looked like in late April, and it demonstrates that I have some work to do. What is wrong with this picture? I have too many plants all the same shape – spiky in nature. I like the chartreuse of the fatsia and enjoy the rose’s dark green leaves in the distance. However, the perennial border on the left side has no place for my eye to stop. It’s pleasant enough, but it certainly doesn’t hold enough notice. In fact, as far as my eye is concerned, it’s a haze of green.

Photo by Kit Flynn.

Contrast that with this photo, which holds more interest. Yes, the maroon color of the Japanese maple helps, although by midsummer, it will lose that color. However, the foliage of the windmill palm grabs the eye as do the leaves of the rose ‘Peggy Martin’ on the left. The greens are all of different shades, another help in capturing the eye.

Shape is so important in the perennial garden, yet it’s one we tend to forget when we’re concentrating on the floral output. Shape is one of the aspects of the garden that we’re left with when the blooms disappear. The daylilies in the top photo only bloom for one month, leaving their spiky foliage to decorate the border. It’s suddenly obvious that I have planted too many daylilies in the left perennial border as there is too much monotony

My long row of magenta-colored azaleas failed so miserably because it was a long line of repetitiveness: the color resulted in a massive row of magenta followed by the rather boring small leaves of azaleas once the spring flowers had departed. There was no focal point for the eye to rest to contemplate the scene.

The last photo I shall describe features an amazing Lady Banks rose in bloom at the end of March. Technically a zone 8 rose, she can thrive here if she’s planted in the spring. She dominates the scene even when she isn’t in bloom as the trellis sets off her height – she’s far more effective here than the one I have plastered over the side of my fence as the height gives her a certain dramatic feature. Again, the lesson here is to have plants on a different level of height. Even out of bloom, she remains a dominant feature.

To avoid sameness, I was determined to scatter roses throughout the garden rather than shuttling them off in two rows, settling them in a “rose garden.” My eye observes the individual roses, whereas it passes over the group of individual roses comprising the “rose garden.” Those roses create a blur of color in my mind.

The purpose of this exercise is not to dwell on my gardening failures, which I can certainly lay claim to, but to show why focal points are terribly important even in a perennial border that has a surfeit of plants. As gardeners, we have to think of color, shape, and texture if we are going to see our designs accurately. Height is another factor to consider.

Gardens, alas, don’t just appear. Planning pivotal points is just one aspect of gardening. Keep in mind that these focal points will change with the seasons so take pictures, list those plants you enjoy in different months and get your eye to stop so you can really observe your garden.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at
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