Gardener: Planning a landscape? Get it all down on paper first

Joe Lamp'l

Designing your landscape can be one of the most rewarding projects you'll ever do. It's also one of the best garden-related things you can do during the long, cold days of winter.

Good gardens don't just happen; they're the result of careful planning. As anxious as you'll be to rush to the garden center, now's the time to pause and develop a real understanding of your property's features and how they can be used to create enjoyable outdoor spaces.

Consider doing these steps:

-- Base map. A sketch of your yard, showing property lines, the house's orientation, driveways and paths. Start at the front corner of the house. With a 100-foot tape, measure the distance out to the curb and across to the nearest property line, and draw onto graph paper. A scale of 1 inch equaling 10 feet works well, but pick whatever works for you and stay consistent through the drawing. The larger the grid paper, the easier it will be to write in all your plans and ideas. If you can find it, 18- by 24-inch grid paper is great.

Continue measuring from all corners of the house to the property's boundaries. Draw an arrow indicating north. Locate doors and windows; gas, electric and cable utilities; trees and shrubs; and any neighbors' features near the property line that might affect your design, such as large trees, fences or buildings.

-- Site analysis. Make a basic inventory of the property's strengths and weaknesses. A site analysis can be sketched in a single day, but it would be better to record how the area changes throughout the year. Note all significant features like sunny and shady spots, prevailing winds, drainage problems, existing vegetation, good and poor views and all utilities and easements. Make several photocopies of the base map with site analysis notes.

-- Preliminary designs. Now use the copies to come up with three or four preliminary designs. Let your imagination run wild with gazebos, vegetable gardens and flowerbeds. For each design draw a bubble diagram roughly indicating the shapes and locations of these features. Exact items and perfect graphics aren't necessary; just "bubble in" rough ideas.

Do pay attention to your site analysis, however. For example, a vegetable garden needs a flat, open area with lots of sun. Don't place it under a huge tree. Consider how the elements relate to each other and the house, too. For example, a compost pile should be close to the vegetable garden but out of view. Or a patio shouldn't get blasting, summer sun without some kind of cover. It's going to take several tries to fit the odd pieces smoothly into the jigsaw puzzle, but finally a practical plan will emerge.

Look over your preliminary designs and note the features you like from each. Put them all together on a new, more detailed base map while paying attention to that site analysis. It's critical that the garden's features all cooperate. Here is where you need accurate dimensions, too. Find the mature spread of that shade tree; measure exactly how long that front walk will be; count the number of shrubs needed for the hedge. You may find you have to make a hybrid of several different ideas to get everything to work together. Above all, consider the mature size of the plants and trees you want to add. Otherwise, you're setting yourself up for lots of work and expense later.

When you find your perfect design, draw it on a clean base map. As an option, you can color the different features for easier visual reference, then show it to other gardeners or even a professional landscape designer. A fresh set of eyes is an insurance policy that you haven't overlooked something that could really cost you later.

-- Next, work out a budget. Don't let money limit your creativity, but be realistic. Actual costs might mean a change in the design. But instead of going back to the drawing board, consider building one part of the plan at a time. Figure what you most want and can do immediately and what can wait until next year. You may find you can have it all -- but just not all at once.

Good landscape design isn't difficult, but it involves a definite process. Planning, patience and looking to the future are characteristics of gardeners, anyway. You'll be amazed how quickly you can create the landscape of your dreams.

Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a master gardener and author. For more information visit Adapted from an earlier The Gardener Within column.