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How to Create a Landscape Design

It is important to have an organized system of steps that can be followed when creating a landscape design. This allows the designer to make more efficient use of their time.

The basic steps in creating a landscape design should include the following:

  1. Develop a base map and inventory the site
  2. Analyze the site and list needs
  3. Transform your site analysis and user needs into drawings
  4. Create functional diagrams
  5. Develop a preliminary design
  6. Create the final landscape design

Develop a Base Map and Inventory the Site

Before starting any design work, you should first develop a base map and inventory the site. The base map or base plan is a two-dimensional birds-eye view drawing of the house and property drawn to scale. It should detail the property lines, location of all structures on the property including the house, location of all hard structures (driveway, sidewalks, decks, and patios), location of fences and walls, location and types of existing plants (trees, shrubs, and flower beds), location of utilities, and the north/south orientation. When drawing the house, be sure to show all doors, windows, porches, and rooms drawn to scale. If possible, secure an accurate plat of the lots and house placement, as well as a floor plan of the interior including external dimensions of the home. These plans are often available from the builder, developer, city property records, or county property records.

Once the base map has been created, conduct a site inventory. Though you can document it on your base map, it is better to make a copy of your base map, label the copy “Site Inventory”, and add all site inventory notes on the copy. The site inventory should include notes about light conditions (i.e. which areas of the property get morning sun, afternoon sun, and full sun as well as shade patterns), the soil texture (clay, sand or loam), the topography of the property, drainage patterns, microclimate areas where the environmental conditions are different from nearby areas, and arrows to indicate views into and away from the lot as well as noise from adjacent properties.

Analyze the Site and List User Needs

A site analysis documents existing features of the property and how they affect the home or business owners. The information should be recorded using symbols on a sheet of tracing paper placed over the base map and site inventory in such a way that it does not obscure information on the underlying base map and inventory.

There are many things that should be recorded on the site analysis. Note great views which should remain unobstructed ,and any undesirable features that should be screened from view, possibly by a living fence. Note the direction of prevailing winds on the tracing paper. Examine all trees and shrubs to determine if they need to be treated or removed. Examine other natural elements like streams, hillsides, rock outcroppings, etc. and make notes about them and whether they might be modified to better feature them in your landscaping plan. Look for areas with poor drainage, noting the direction of water flow onto the property and off the property. Identify any areas where the ground is eroded and may potentially be eroded. Look for sources of noise like busy roads or schools where you might want to put up some type of noise barrier. Identify bright lights and signs that might need to be screened from view. These are the types of things that should be noted when performing your site analysis.

It is important to understand the users’ needs and desires for their outdoor spaces before starting a landscaping plan. You should understand the type of areas that may need to be included in the plan for activities they enjoy should as outdoor cooking and dining, swimming, sitting, working, laundry drying (clothes line), play areas for children, etc. It's important to understand the type of entertaining they do, the number of guests that usually attend, and whether there are specific parking capacity requirements. If the user enjoys gardening, then you would need to know whether they grow herbs, vegetables, flowers, or vines and whether they would like to include a compost bin, greenhouse, or water feature like a pond or fountain. Also, you need to understand how much maintenance they are willing to do themselves and whether they would like an irrigation system for watering. If they own pets, then determine the types of pets, number of each type, and any housing or fencing requirements. If they enjoy birds, then find out if they would like bird houses, feeders, or baths included in the design. If there are storage requirements for boats, trailers, RVs, gardening equipment, toys, etc., then it is important to identify these requirements up front.

Transform Site Analysis and Needs into Drawings

Once all the user needs and desires have been determined, label another sheet of tracing paper “User Needs Analysis”, and lay it over the base map and site inventory. Organize the property into public, private, and service areas.

The public area of a residential property is generally the front yard with the front door acting as the focal point. The private area typically includes those areas such as patios, decks, porches, play areas for children, etc. that are an extension of the interior of the home. The service area is used for work and storage. It might contain things such as wood piles, trash receptacles, and clothes lines. Garages are often considered part of this area.

These three areas are related to one another like rooms in a home. They are separated often by plants or other physical boundaries like rooms are separated by walls. But they are also tied together and allow movement between the areas with walkways or lawn like doors tie rooms together.

Create a Functional Diagram

Place another sheet of tracing paper over your base map and site inventory and label it “Functional Design”. Use rounded shapes or bubbles to break up the public, private, and service functional areas on the property into more specific functional areas like patio, play area, garden, etc. based on the users’ requirements.

The bubbles should provide a rough approximation of the location and space requirements for each activity area. Place the activity areas where they should most logically be located. For example, make sure that child play areas are visible from inside the house like from a kitchen window. Be sure that any outdoor dining area is located close to the kitchen and outdoor grilling area. Place trees and plants where needed to screen undesirable views and to provide privacy. Include building elements such as decks, walls, fences, etc. as well as natural landscape elements in the plan to add interest and function.

Repeat this process multiple times using multiple sheets of tracing paper to create alternative functional designs. You may find that there is simply not enough space to implement all of the activity areas specified in the user needs analysis forcing you to prioritize their needs and only implement the most important areas and features that will fit in the overall space.

Next, create a circulation diagram showing how one might move through the landscape in each functional design. Do this by placing another sheet of tracing paper labelled “Circulation Diagram” atop the base map and functional (bubble) diagram. Draw arrows indicating paths that people will take into and out of the home as well as to move between the various outdoor functional areas. Heavily traveled paths should be drawn with thick lines while less frequently traveled paths should be drawn with thin lines. These will be useful when deciding where paths and sidewalks need to be created.

This iterative process will allow you to experiment with various solutions and ultimately guide you to the best design. You may end up taking ideas from multiple solutions and combining them to come up with an even better solution. Be sure that everything in the diagrams is drawn to scale and within the property lines so you know the design can be implemented on the property in question.

You may also want to create a xeriscape plan dividing the property into hydrozones based on expected water use. There are three water use zones including high water use zones which require regular watering, moderate water use zones which require occasional watering, and low water use zones which can usually survive off rainfall alone.

Develop a Preliminary Landscape Design

To create a preliminary landscape plan, you must first decide on a theme that can be repeated throughout the design composition. It is important to select a theme that works well with the character of the house and property. Some common themes are rectilinear, curvilinear, angular, and naturalistic.

Base your theme selection on the character of the home and property. If the home is located on a wooded lot, perhaps a naturalistic theme would be most appropriate. A home with curved lines like dome-shaped roof sections or dome window/door awnings might benefit from a curvilinear them. Those homes with dynamic angles are often great candidates for an angular theme. Those with rectangular lots and structures are suited for a rectilinear theme.

As an example, assume the home is best suited for a rectilinear theme. Place a sheet of tracing paper over the bird’s eye view base map showing the home structure and property lines drawn to scale. Extend straight lines that already occur in the house and property. This should include extending the outer walls of the home and edges of the windows, doors, sidewalks, porches, patios, decks, etc. outward from the home.

Place the tracing over the bubble functional diagram created previously showing functional areas to see if any of the extended lines match up with outlines of the functional areas and boundaries between them. If so, then this will help to blend the basic forms that will make up your theme.

It is often fruitful to repeat the above process using multiple themes to see which works best. You may find that your first theme choice was not the best.

The next step is to give form and definition to the various functional areas in your plan. Place a sheet of tracing paper over your base plan and bubble functional design. On this new sheet you will rough out a functional concept diagram, giving more definition to the various elements that will make up the final design. At this point it is important to begin thinking in three dimensions and considering views from eye level.

Add sidewalks, paths, parking, driveways, and other “hard” surfaces to the drawing. Add landscaping beds and ground covers with either straight or gently curved bed lines separating the beds from the lawn so that they are easily maintained and direct the eye as desired. Make sure the bed lines are perpendicular where they meet walls, sidewalks, etc. to give them a sense of completion. Add plant masses needed to serve a purpose and unify the plant such as those needed to create boundaries, screen undesirable views, reduce noise, or to provide windbreaks, shade, and beauty.

If the design is to include a garden, then focus on the basic structural elements of a garden like the planting areas, walkways, fences, and major plants that will be visible year-round. You can add steppingstones, pools, fountains, retaining walls, bird feeders, and other features to add interest.

This should be an iterative process resulting in many sketches. But in the end, you should land on a great design.

Develop a Final Landscape Design Plan

It is during this last step where you flush out all the details of your final landscape design plan. Use symbols to show the mature size of shrub and tree masses to scale. Use the Site Analysis and Needs Analysis tracings to ensure plants are in appropriate places where they will thrive. Once all woody shrubs and trees have been placed, move on to placing herbaceous plants on the drawing. The landscape design plan may include several other subplans showing how the property is to be graded and a detailed planting plan.

Confirm that the proposed scheme is practical. Make sure the view from key frequently used areas inside the home (living room, dining room, kitchen, porch, etc.) are attractive. Check views from all parts of the property. Ensure that living areas are provided the appropriate amount of privacy and that all parts of the plan fit together and flow. Make sure important user requirements have all been met.