GARDEN THERAPY: Hocus Focus – Going to Pots – March 2016

Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

I recently returned from another 3 week winter gardening “vacation” to the Andes mountains in Ecuador. We started this annual activity in 2013 before I was invited to write a column for the Gazette. I could literally write a book about the subject by now, but with only 800 words I offer you the following to get some background story and perspective. Check out my columns from February and March of 2014 and April of 2015 in the Andes Gazette online at What a great resource! If you really want to get down and dirty, Peggy and I wrote a blog, Two Gringos, Two Months, the first year we were there in 2013, pre-Garden Therapy, which is still available at

Since we started this multi-year adventure we have been slowly shaping the 10 acres of gardens at Hacienda Cusin. Year one was just Peggy and me working our butts off for 2 months. We have since tried to establish a “designers in residence” program, and this year there were 2 groups of professional landscape designers who each spent 2-3 weeks. You have to be passionate (and maybe a little crazy) to enjoy spending your “vacation” working in somebody else’s garden. But there is a pay-off. We all enjoyed a couple of weeks of paradise – oh, and a free room in the most gorgeous place, doing something you love, being fed mostly wonderful food 3 times a day and having a hot water bottle put in your bed every night and fire made especially for you in the fireplace. Not bad! And yes, for the passionate folk, it is truly like playtime in the garden with friends…and friends who all know what they are doing when digging in the dirt!

There are always many lessons to be learned about gardening and design from our experiences there. This year the standout lesson was the value of focal points. Any “how to” or theory of garden design will introduce the idea of focal points, but Hacienda Cusin really drives the point home. At Hacienda Cusin, the general architecture of the garden consists of the formality of many long allées and the wildness of lots of varieties of plants and textures. Over time they have become more and more delineated and structured with large clumps of Agapanthus, African lilies (I wish these beautiful and reliable plants could grow in our Andes!) The scale and majesty of these long allées draw you in, in a compulsory and mesmerizing manner. However, they seem to drop you in a “mush at the end,” leaving you entranced by the tunnel, but with no resolution. The solution was clear, they needed focal points!

Numerous garden elements act as focal points: a gate, a plant with a contrasting color or structure, a sculpture, a bench or how about a pot (maybe with a plant). Picture12Dogs are also great if you can get them to sit still. At the hacienda we already had the gates (and dogs) providing the focal points in several cases.

Last year we added a square terracotta pot with a large jade plant to a spot that desperately needed some cohesion. It worked fairly well, but the contrast was not great enough to have a strong impact. The pot is a little too dull and the jade’s foliage is too detailed to show off the branch structure from a distance. And it was in a dark spot. It was still an improvement.Picture15

This year we had more opportunity to shop and were intent on using brilliant color and contrast in our focal points, kind of like Picture14discovering fire. At the end of this REALLY long allée we added a brightly colored pot holding a conical juniper with golden foliage and some bright red geraniums at the base. It was in a spot that got more sun. The combo really popped at the end of the long view and brought the whole scene into focus. It made a very big difference in the experience of this allée.

Beyond adding some pots as focal points, we also broke up some large expanses of plants by creating small patios and grassy areas for benches. Some of the long allées are perennial and shrubs. We have been working to create more definition and clarity in these borders over the years. This year we decided to be more dramatic and create actual hardscaped focal points.

So remember the “end point”! Many of us use hardscaping or objects to add structure to a garden, but it really adds something special to bring a focal point item to terminate a sight line. It creates a specific point to stop and rest the eye, thus completing the thought. It can even be a big yellow pig in the garden. Love my pig!~


Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener