How to Create Your Own Landscape Plan. By Grant Williams
Maybe it’s weird that as a designer, I’m giving away some of my secrets free of charge to the masses including potential clients. I admit it feels a little uncomfortable but I realize there is always going to be a group who doesn’t get it or doesn’t want to get it (i.e. my clients.) As a fanatic of great outdoor spaces, I want people to have this information to make landscape design easier and less discouraging. Hopefully the result might someday benefit us both. There is nothing like the feeling of being in a well-designed garden. I think everyone should have one.
I’ve made the mistakes and done things the hard way plenty of times. Hopefully my experience will increase your design success and eventually turn into a landscape that feels good to be in.
These steps are not conclusive. Obviously every site and homeowner comes with individual needs. What’s important to realize is that good design is well thought out and happens on purpose. These are simple guidelines I use in my own business that systematically encourage good results.
Design Intent. Before you start, I recommend writing down what your design should accomplish and include. This helps you stay on track sort of like the outline for your project. List all of the needs and desires for the new landscape. It’s also a good idea to include existing problem spots that the design can fix. When your creative side kicks in sometimes it’s easy to forget about the functionality you need the plan to include. Refer to your design intent periodically throughout the process.
Site Plan. A site plan is basically an overhead view or scaled map of your property. Measure the footprint of your house and all existing elements that will remain a part of the new landscape such as the drive, walkways, trees, planting beds, and so on. This is a tedious but very important chore and needs to be thoroughly recorded and accurate. Transfer your measurements onto graph paper making sure they are in scale.The site plan will be the first of several layers of paper you will use to develop your master landscape plan. In the next few steps, you should use tracing paper to allow you to see through to the site plan below. Eventually all of your layers will be transferred to one final layer, which will become your master plan. It’s best to tape down each layer to prevent them from moving as you draw. Inexpensive rolls of tracing paper are available at any art supply store.
Force of Nature. With the site plan complete, lay your first sheet of tracing paper over it to draw what designers call lines of force. Lines of force are imaginary lines that extend out into the landscape from major architectural transitions like the corners of the house and edges of windows and doors. Designers use these lines to see how the landscape might easily relate to the lines of the house.To draw lines of force, use a red pencil to extend a line perpendicular from every corner, window, door, and other relevant features of the house. The lines will create a grid over the site plan. They are not meant to limit choices in the design and not all the lines of force will be used to develop the lines in the landscape. Very often though, the grid highlights potentially great relationships between the house and the landscape that can be taken advantage of.
Focus Out. The next step is to consider important focal points in the landscape. To do this draw a thin line straight out from the center of all windows and doors. This will quickly show dominant lines of sight from inside the house. Also consider where potential focal points might be from existing walkways and other transition areas in the landscape.Planning where to take advantage of focal points is a great way to boost the quality of a design and more importantly the enjoyment offered in the installed landscape.
Get Creative. Now that you have a solid base plan set up you are ready to start designing. This is the most difficult step to describe because it’s one that you can’t solely rely on with logic to complete. This task in a way involves doing two things at once. You will be laying out lines for functional space with pleasing characteristics and shape while at the same time, taking advantage of available focal points to draw people in to those spaces.There is no special formula to help you accomplish this but I typically start by thinking of what my focal point items could be and then building the space around them. Focal point items can be anything such as a specimen tree, an art piece, bench or sitting area, birdhouse, or other special piece you might have. Remember to place your focal point directly on the thin focal line you drew earlier.With a new layer of tracing paper, insert your focal items and begin sketching out potential lines for hardscapes, planting beds, and the other elements in your design intent. Try to be loose. Let the lines of force suggest lines of landscape but feel free to go outside them if you need to. You will draw things you like and things you don’t. Keep layering paper and playing with ideas until lines you like evolve.
At this point, do not concern yourself with details. Pay close attention to the design intent and use it to make general design decisions. You are just trying to get the basic shapes and bed lines to be functional and pleasing. Chances are if you followed the previous steps, soon something nice will start to take shape. Keep it up until the overall lines and sizes meet the requirements you have set up.
Fill in the blanks. The next step is to start thinking about general types of plants and other materials. It’s ok to be generic at this point. For example, you might know you want a row of upright evergreens to screen a neighbor’s garage but unless you have a specific plant in mind, just label it ‘upright evergreen’ for now. Later you can take your plan to the nursery to figure out specific plants that are available to fit the needs of your design.Keep in mind the seasonality of plants. Start with evergreens and large plants to build year-round structure and color. Next, work on important areas that need color such as around focal points and then fill in with different textured plants to add interest.
Clean it up. By now you have several layers of trace paper and the elements of your design intent are close to complete. Transfer your progress onto a single sheet of white paper. Use any type that allows you to see the lines below and reproduce your work. Always use a straight edge and circle template to guide your pencil in the master plan. Continue until your entire plan is on a single sheet.If you have generic labels, research appropriate plants and materials to add to the master plan. Local nurseries are the best source of good information about plants that fit your design. They will show you plants that have been successful in your area. Be very careful to make choices that will do well in your climate, will fill but not overgrow the space, and will get the correct sun exposure you have on site.
Final Touch. Label your plan with the selections you made at the nursery. Add color if you like to help visualize how the garden will look in bloom. Make notes about materials and specific planting instructions.
As I mentioned, every design scenario is unique and will raise issues that can’t be covered in one article. These eight steps are intended to systematically guide your process and hopefully help you create a great plan that soon becomes a great landscape.