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Using ‘anchors’ in the garden

These features will hold the look of a landscape together and provide substance

Conical blue junipers and vertical Karl Forrester feather reed grass serve as anchors, adding variety in this mixed border.

In landscaping, the term anchor means a feature in the landscape that holds it down, holds it together, and provides form and substance. Anchors provide a framework for the other elements of the garden. If all the plants are about the same size, the landscape becomes boring; there is a lack of structure; and there appears to be no transitions from one area to the other.

Trees and shrubs, as well as hardscaped features like trellises and arbours can serve as anchors — holding the landscape down. Anchors can also serve as transitions from one area to another, such as pyramidal trees or large shrubs planted at the corners of the house to allow the house to transition into the surrounding landscape. Considered the bones of a garden, anchors are the first features of a new landscape to be installed, around which all other elements are built.

They are also essential in planted areas such as flower borders. Whether the border is composed of annuals or perennials, or a mixture, if it is entirely made up of similar-looking plants that go on and on without interruption, the border will have a visual monotony.

How can anchors be added to a flower border to increase its visual appeal? If the border is viewed from one side, the backdrop of the border will serve as an anchor. Whether it is a building, fence, hedge, or a collection of shrubs or perennials, the backdrop will serve to anchor it in place because of its visual weight. A solid wooden fence, a hedge of cotoneaster, or a row of hollyhocks or Joe Pye weed would all serve this purpose.

Because the substance of the backdrop won’t be enough to completely anchor the border, focal points will need to be added here and there such as shrubs, large rocks, trellises, archways, large perennials, or even birdbaths and fountains. The goal is to add some geometric shapes such as globes, cones or mounds to draw the eye and add visual weight to the border. A big boulder has visual weight as does a large globe-shaped shrub such as a globe honeysuckle or a globe cedar. A deciduous shrub such as a lilac, can also be kept trimmed into a globe shape to produce such a focal point.

Cone shapes can be created by using suitably shaped shrubs and trees such as emerald cedars or any plant that has a base wider that its tip. Besides geometric shapes, other elements — plants with large leaves like ligularia “Othello” and plume poppy — will add more visual weight. Dark-coloured foliage also adds more weight, so plants with burgundy or bronze foliage, such as the darker ninebarks and sand cherry bushes will serve as anchors as well.

A tropical touch is added to this island bed of geraniums with the inclusion of a banana tree as an anchor. photo: Albert Parsons

Sometimes a border can be anchored by having visually heavy plants located at each end — perhaps a pyramidal cedar or some other evergreen with significant substance. A couple of smaller focal points within the border will complete the effort to make the border varied and interesting.

Island beds also need to be anchored and because they are not set against a backdrop of any kind, these will have to be located within the bed itself. The anchor might be in the centre, but often it will contribute more visual interest if it is slightly offset, creating an asymmetrical effect. A tree or shrub, rock, piece of statuary, large container or a bench or trellis are good choices.

By adding visual weight and providing variation in height and texture, anchors of all kinds will prevent a landscape from being monotonous because it lacks structure and a sturdy framework around which the remaining elements of the landscape can be effectively built.

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