Good gardens don’t just happen; they’re the result of careful planning and observation. I suggest you get to know your property over the course of at least all four seasons before you commit to any major design changes or installations.
Observe the ebbs and flows, the way the light hits your property throughout the year, how water flows and where additional privacy is needed when leaves drop. All this can only become truly clear once you’ve paid attention and studied these effects over time.
Designing your landscape equipped with that knowledge can then be one of the most rewarding projects you’ll ever embark upon.
Here are five steps to creating a basic landscape design:
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▪ Create a base map. Sketch your existing yard showing property lines, the house’s orientation, driveways and paths. Start at the front corner of the house. With a 100-foot tape measure, find the distance out to the curb and across to the nearest property line, and draw it onto graph paper. (A scale of one inch per 10 feet works well, but pick whatever works for you and stay consistent through the drawing.) The larger the grid paper, the easier it will be to write in all your plans and ideas.
Continue measuring from all corners of the house to the property’s boundaries. Draw an arrow indicating north. Locate doors and widows, gas, electric and cable utilities, trees and shrubs and any neighbors’ features near the property line that might affect your design, such as large trees, fences or buildings.
▪ Prepare a site analysis. Make a basic inventory of the property’s strengths and weaknesses. A site analysis can be sketched in a single day, but it would be better to record how the area changes throughout the year. Note all significant features like sunny and shady spots, prevailing winds, drainage problems, existing vegetation, good and poor views and all utilities and easements. Make several copies of the base map with site analysis notes.
▪ Draw preliminary designs. Use the copies to come up with three or four preliminary designs. Let your imagination run wild with gazebos, vegetable gardens and flowerbeds. For each design, draw a bubble diagram roughly indicating the shapes and locations of these features.
Pay attention to your site analysis when doing so. For example, a vegetable garden needs a flat, open area with lots of sun. Don’t place it under a huge tree. Consider how the elements relate to each other and the house, too. For example, a compost pile should be close to the vegetable garden but out of view. It’s going to take several tries to fit the odd pieces smoothly into the jigsaw puzzle, but a practical plan will emerge.
Look over your preliminary designs and note the features you like from each. Put them all together on a new, more detailed base map while paying attention to that site analysis. It’s critical that the garden’s features all cooperate.
Here is where you need accurate dimensions, too. Find the mature spread of that shade tree; measure exactly how long that front walk will be; count the number of shrubs needed for the hedge. You may find you have to make a hybrid of several different ideas to get everything to work together. Above all, consider the mature size of the plants and trees you want to add.
▪ Transfer your design to a clean base map. When you find your perfect design, draw it on a clean base map. As an option, you can color the different features for easier visual reference, then show it to other gardeners or even a professional landscape designer. A fresh set of eyes is an insurance policy to make sure you haven’t overlooked something that could cost you later.
▪ Determine your budget. Don’t let money limit your creativity, but be realistic. Actual costs might mean a change in the design. But instead of going back to the drawing board, consider building one part of the plan at a time. Figure out what you most want and can do immediately and what can wait until next year. You may find you can have it all, just not all at once.
Good landscape design isn’t difficult, but it has a definite process.
Joe Lamp’l is the host and executive producer of Growing a Greener World on national public television.