Landscape Design 101: Understanding Your Landscape

Meredith Gaines — Apr 04, 2022

Every piece of art starts with a canvas. Think of your yard as a blank canvas ready to design however you wish. It might seem a little daunting at first, but when broken down into steps, your dream landscape can become a beautiful reality!

The first step in landscape design isn't the design part. It's actually just taking a look at what you have to start with. Most yards won’t be completely level and bare, so your “canvas” will most likely have some features already present. This might not be the most exciting first step, but it’s a necessary one. Without fully understanding your space as it currently stands could lead to mistakes with your design in the future. Think of this part as getting to know your canvas so you can begin a successful design.

Define Your Project Area

If you haven't done so already, now is the time to choose the location of your project. This area can be as small as a garden bed under a window or as large as your entire yard. Landscaping a garden bed will be a smaller-scale project than a whole yard, so choose accordingly based on the time and resources available to you.

We recommend starting small to get the hang of things and then designing different areas of your yard piece by piece. If you have a larger landscape goal in mind, consider dividing your yard into zones. These zones can be natural markers like an existing hedge or areas of your yard that have similar characteristics like shady or sunny spots. Using natural landmarks can naturally divide up the area into workable chunks. Alternatively, if your goal is a function, split the space up into functional sections like play areas, privacy hedges, garden beds, garden sheds or work areas, etc. It’s up to you!

Once you’ve clearly defined your project area, feel free to visualize it by placing markers or yard flags out. This is also the time to take some photos and videos so you can reference them during the designing portion of landscaping. This way you’ll also have a “before photo” to compare your project to once the transformation is complete.


Take a Tour

Taking a tour of your own yard may sound odd–after all, you look at it every day–but how well do you actually know the area? Set aside some time and challenge yourself to look at your space with fresh eyes.

As you walk around your yard, here’s some things to take note of:

  • Notice what’s planted and growing there now. Is there anything that holds significance or value to you? Any plants that are doing well or poorly?
  • Identify hardscape material such as stones/boulders, pathways, sidewalks etc. What condition are they in and are they in the correct place?
  • How is the area currently being used? Is there a certain pathway you walk or area that you use for a specific purpose?
  • Notice how you access the area. Is it right next to the road or off the beaten path? Is there a defined entrance?
  • Locate structures nearby and determine any unique features, architectural styles or colors used. Examples include power lines, houses, sheds, fences, patios and pools.
  • Is there any wildlife in the area or any that you’d like to attract?
  • Notice the topography or shape of the land. Any slopes, ponds, ditches, or low or high areas? Where does water flow and drain during heavy rain?
  • Does it back up to a neighboring property that you have to consider?
  • Does any part of the area receive harsh weather compared to the rest (i.e. high winds, overly wet or dry areas)?

This is just a small list, but the main goal is to locate key features of the area and consider the perspectives and overall function as it stands now. For a simple garden bed project, walk around the area and get angles from close and far away. For a larger project like a yard, take a bit more time to immerse yourself in the area to understand what work needs to be done. During this step, try to refrain from judgment; just observe and notice what you’re starting with. Making a list of things to change or keep is coming soon!

Do Your Homework

This might be the least favorite part of your landscape design, but you DO NOT want to overlook it. Look into where you live and what policies and limitations are in place.

To help guide you through this part, here’s some suggestions below as you research:

  • If you don’t own the property you’re landscaping, check with your landlord to make sure you’re allowed to landscape and any regulations in place. You want to be sure that before you dig any holes, you actually have the freedom to plant what you want!
  • If you live in an area with a Home Owners Association or in special zoning, familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations.
  • Are there any underground utilities that might be in the way? Locate things like power lines, septic tanks and sewers, and water, gas, cable, and internet lines.
  • Know where your property lines begin and end. After all, you’re trying to landscape your yard, not your neighbor’s!
  • Are there any environmental considerations that’ll need to be made in your design? For example, if you experience a lot of erosion due to the slope of the property, you’ll need to factor that into your design.
  • What kind of soil do you have in your yard? Is it the same throughout, or will you need to amend the soil? Now is also a good time to contact your local extension office and do a soil analysis.

taking notes

Take Some Notes

Now that you know your canvas a little better, it’s time to make some judgments. Now is the time to get critical and note things you like and dislike, determining what work will need to be done in order to bring your design to life!

  • Make note of any potential hazards or repairs that’ll need to be made.
  • List plants that you would like to keep and those you wish to remove.
  • Note any earthwork that’ll need to be done to even out high or low areas or shape the land.
  • Locate how the sun moves through the area and which are the sunny and shady areas during the day.
  • Consider the amount of maintenance you’re willing to put into your yard to keep it looking nice. This is something we’ll elaborate on later in this course.
  • Think about any construction that might be needed for sidewalks, retaining walls, or other features.

Consider Timeline and Budget

It's going to take time and energy to landscape your yard, so figure out which parts you plan to take on yourself and which parts you’ll need some extra help with. For a project that’s on the smaller side or doesn't need any earthwork like grading or repairs, you could estimate the project taking a weekend and might be an opportunity to involve your family and friends.

create a budget

Larger projects might require rented equipment or a landscaping crew to install and make your vision come to life. Start looking into companies and set a budget–knowing how much you’re willing to spend will help keep you on track and eliminate financial stress. Even if you’re planning on working with professionals, getting to know your yard, taking detailed notes, and determining what you want out of the space will go a long way in helping you reach your end goal.

Here’s an example of a timeline to give you an idea of what yours could look like:

Project area: Planting bed in front of the living room window–a rounded circle that’s about 10 ft. long and 8 ft. deep.


  • Week 1: Make observations of the area and determine what needs to be changed or repaired. Take notes and look into limitations or any hazards. Do your homework and take “before photos.”
  • Week 2: Gather inspiration, create a vision for the planting bed and drawing it out. Measure the space and formulate a plan.
  • Week 3: Finalize the design and order plants. Make any repairs and prepare the planting area.
  • Week 4: Plants have arrived, and its planting day. Get your plants situated, water them well, and take “after photos.”

Landscaping isn't some secret superpower that only a select few are gifted with. While the first step of understanding your landscape may seem uninteresting, keep following along through this course, and you just might be surprised by what you can create. If you can follow a set of steps, you can landscape your yard!

Don't forget to download and print our Initial Walk-Through Checklist & Worksheet to get started planning your landscape!

Plus, check out the rest of our Landscape Design 101 course to keep learning and transform your landscape! And be sure to shop our wide selection of trees and shrubs to really take your space to the next level.

    Meredith Gaines

    Meredith's love for plants started at a young age, and only grew when she started working in the Desert Exhibit at the South Carolina Botanical Gardens and the Historic Filoli Estate in the Bay Area. After graduating from Clemson University (GO TIGERS!) with a degree in Biology and Horticulture, she found her niche in the family as a horticulturist and has grown in her current role as Senior Plant Expert.

    She currently resides in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, and enjoys spending any time she can outdoors. She learns new things about plants every day and loves sharing her plant knowledge and tips with those around her. Her favorite plant is constantly changing, but her long-time favorites are peonies, oak trees, and ferns.

    Questions? Contact Meredith at

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