Six Easy Steps to Landscape Design

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Deciding to landscape your own home may seem daunting at first. But, with a little planning, it can be a very manageable and rewarding project that can increase the value of your home. Here's how to get started.

1. Large Spaces vs. Small Spaces

How much space do you have to work with? If you are fortunate enough to have a 10-acre estate or larger, then you'll have ample room to add multiple special interest or activity areas. But if you are working with a smaller area like the typical suburban home lot of 9,000 square feet, then you'll need to think smaller and plan multipurpose areas.

Either way, the first step is to walk your property and list your primary and secondary desires. Do you need a greater level of privacy or sound reduction from street traffic or neighbors? Do you need a play area for your children? Do you need a larger area for entertaining? A sports area? A water feature? A garden for herbs, flowers or vegetables? An outdoor deck, patio area or additional hardscape? Build your list of must-haves and the things you would also like if there's room.

The next step is to make a scale drawing of your lot and all existing structures such as your house, garage, driveway, pool, etc. This is usually called a plot plan. You'll find that graph paper works best for keeping the scale and proportion correct. Most stationery stores will offer several sizes and types of graph paper. I would also purchase a pad of blank tracing paper for sketching alternative ideas over your plot plan.

2. Design Themes

What is your personal style? Is it formal or relaxed, social or private? Consider the outdoor spaces you enjoy the most. Are you drawn to neighboring yards, parks or botanical gardens in your community? What features or plants appeal to you? Analyze your favorite spaces and try to discover what draws you to them. Magazines are also an excellent source of design inspiration.

Several ideas for your new landscaping project might include the following: a country estate with rolling lawn, an English cottage flower garden, a Zen rock garden, a formal herb garden or a water feature. This is the time to brainstorm and have fun!

Professional designers use forms, lines and edges as structural elements within their landscape. Forms include square, rectangular, circular, irregular polygons and organic elements. Lines include straight, curved, serpentine, vertical and horizontal lines. Edges include organic, fragmented and plant edges.

Start with the largest elements first: structures, followed by trees, followed by bushes and hedges. This is much the same way artists plan their composition for a painting: the big elements first. For trees and shrubs, think in uneven numbers like three, five, seven and so on. These seem to occur more often in nature and will give your property a more natural look and feel.

Don't forget about space. Space between forms, lines and edges is an element of your landscape design. It can be used to bring emphasis to an area or to de-emphasize an area. Space has a volume of its own.

3. Choosing the Right Plants

Select plants that will grow and prosper in your specific climate zone. Avoid trying to grow mangos in Minneapolis; it usually doesn't turn out well. Nurseries and botanical gardens are a good source of professional advice. If these are not available close by, then you can also search online for a plant database. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has an excellent site that provides an exhaustive database of plants that will thrive in your climate zone. Just input your city, state and ZIP code.

You may also want to add a good plant encyclopedia to your resources. They are useful for choosing plants by climate zone, color and size. They can also help selecting plants that are insect and disease resistant, need sun or shade, are moisture tolerant or are drought resistant, and they'll identify what type of soil is best.

You'll want to choose plants that will mature into the correct height, width and mass for your landscape plan. Form (the shape of the plants), texture and seasonal color are also choices the you'll need to make. If your climate zone permits, then choose plants with different bloom cycles throughout the year. Then there is always something new happening within your landscape.

4. Getting Additional Help

Once your landscape plan and plant selection is on paper, discuss it with your local nursery or botanist at your botanical garden. I've always found them helpful and passionate about sharing their expertise. They may also offer alternative ideas for plants that will successfully grow in your climate zone. And the best part is that their advice is usually free.

5. Tips From the Pros for a Successful Landscape

  • Divide a large open space of large lawn into small sections with colorful flower beds or borders.
  • Create visual movement with a ribbon of lawn or a pathway.
  • Vary texture and scale of your plants and shrubs.
  • Consider the garden view from your favorite windows.
  • Add interesting edging, such as a flowing stream of small river rocks.
  • Combine the right plants for great color or contrasts.
  • Add interesting shapes, such as containers or large glass spheres, for visual impact.
  • Build in a meditation area or a conversation area to sit and enjoy your new landscape.

6. What You'll Need to Get Started

  • At least 50 feet of measuring tape (100 feet would be better)
  • Graph paper pad
  • Tracing paper pad
  • 12-inch ruler
  • Plant encyclopedia (optional)
Last Updated: January 18, 2012
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About Bill Washburn William "Bill" Washburn has a BA in advertising from the Art Center College of Design and has taught at the University of Southern California and Northrup University. Writing from a well-connected studio in the rural foothills of the west coast, he is a frequent speaker at local art associations and has published numerous articles discussing periods of art history and the fundamentals of drawing and painting. William is a master gardener who grows his own culinary herbs, organic heirloom vegetables and a variety of fruits. He writes frequently about his gardening experiences on his website Pioneer Dad. He is an accomplished advertising writer, fine art painter, and art director with more than 20 years' experience. 

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