How to Design the Landscape of Your Dreams

Designing your landscape isn't rocket science, but there is a method to the madness.  Today I'll briefly cover 5 steps involved in the landscape design process to help you start thinking about your project.  Need more detailed instruction?  Enroll in my free intro design course.

Before I get started, you might be wondering "What's the problem with planting without a plan?"  There are many things that could go wrong, such as overlooking the mature size of plants which often leads to overcrowding, plants too close to structures, and large plants smothering smaller plants. 

Without a plan, it's often hard to make the best use of your space.  Knowing what you want to use the space for will help dictate how the landscape flows and what you plant where.  With a plan, you can also maximize your space by pairing complimentary things in the landscape, like your lounging space under a future shade tree.  One other huge benefit to a landscape plan is creating a space that is easy to maintain.  That alone is enough reason for most people to take the time for a landscape plan.

When designing your landscape, here are 5 steps to follow:

1 - Site Assessment

Get to know your site by observing the space for one full year.  This way, you’ll know what is already growing and have a chance to observe the conditions during each season.

Sometimes it’s not realistic to wait a full year.  In this case, use what you know about the site to predict what conditions might be during each season.

Things to observe are sunlight, wind, water, soil, noise, views, access / walking patterns, and existing plants.

2 - Site Measurement and Base Map

Site measurement can be as casual or precise as you need it, depending on your project.  Consider your project and what you want to accomplish with your design.  Do you just need to figure out where to put the compost bin, play area, and veggie garden?  Or do you have a long list of design elements to add to your landscape plus a massive plant wish list and you want someone else to install it for you?

You can either just eyeball the measurements based on distances you already know or if you’d like to be more precise, measure your site then draw it to scale on a large sheet of paper.

3 - Bubble Diagram

Here is where the fun begins!  Depending on your project, this can either be done on paper, or right on the ground in your yard.  

Now that you’ve observed your site and taken measurements, what is it you’d like to have in your landscape?  Make a list of all of your desired “landscape elements”.  Examples are compost bins, herb garden, outdoor seating, fire pit, play area, open space, tea house, covered area, outdoor kitchen, veggie garden, etc.  Try not be very specific because this can limit your creativity. For example, instead of saying 8x4 raised garden beds, write veggie garden.  You may find out that a rectangular garden isn't the best shape for your space.

On Paper
Lay tracing paper on top of your map and start doodling or write all of your ideas on scraps of paper so you can move them around on your map to see what might work best in each area.  Draw “bubbles” or blobs of space that represent roughly the amount of space you’d like to dedicate to a certain design element.

On The Ground
Use your garden hose to experiment with different shapes for your open space.  Everything outside of this area will be garden or other usable space.

While you’re playing around with various layouts of your design elements, consider which elements should be placed near each other for ease of use and to support each other.  In permaculture design, this is called stacking functions.  For example, if you take out your compost, visit your chicken-coop, and harvest salad daily, how can those elements be placed in a way that minimizes your walking (or maximizes it by taking you past the rest of your garden so you can check on your plants while you’re out)?  

Once you decide where all of you design elements will go, it’s time to refine the design a little bit.

4 - Concept Plan

The concept plan locates all of your design elements, defines your bed lines, and places trees and shrubs into the design, but it doesn't get into the details of perennials, annuals, and veggie planting plans.

Start with your open space (if you have one) and define your bed lines.  If you’re creating your design directly in the garden, it could be helpful to mark off your lines then mow only that area.  This will give you a chance to make sure you are creating an area that is easy to mow and won’t require any extra trimming; plus, you’ll get a good visual of how the bed lines will look and how much garden space you’ll have.

Fill in the rest of your space with your other design elements, stacking functions where possible to maximize your space while creating a functional design.

5 - Plant List

The plant list is actually one of the last things to think about when designing your space.

Based on the mature plant sizes and site conditions, determine which plants will do best in your space.  It can sometimes be a puzzle, but keep at it and you will come up with a great plan!

I'd love to hear from you!  Have you designed your own space?  What did you learn in the process?