You may think you know what’s in your yard, but when it comes to drawing a landscape plan, it’s important to examine your existing landscape and note its features on an accurate base map of your property. Property boundaries are a good starting place. For legal reasons, be sure you have these correct, especially if you might decide to plant a hedge or build a structure near a neighbor’s property. If you own your home, you probably received a plat map of your property at the mortgage closing. Otherwise, commission a surveyor to create one that indicates property lines, a footprint of your home, and hardscape elements such as walks, driveways, decks, patios, and permanent outbuildings. This might cost several hundred dollars, but it provides peace of mind. The surveyor should also place stakes that define the corners of your property.

If you want a less expensive alternative, visit your county courthouse and ask for a tax map, which is often available for a small fee. The map will be less detailed than a surveyor’s plan, but it should suffice. Transfer the boundaries of your property as shown on the tax map onto a sheet of graph paper. Take your plat map or hand-drawn map and a pencil and head outside. Walk around your property and sketch the features of your yard as you go. Include details such as roof overhangs, which are key in siting plants and planning irrigation. Draw in each window and door and note the direction they open. A small compass is handy for noting directions on your plan, which will provide useful information when selecting plants with the proper sun or shade tolerance and for finding a sunny site for a vegetable patch or a shady niche for a cool weather feature.


A camera helps provide an objective view. Snap some shots from views that you’ll see daily, such as from your front steps or looking out the kitchen window. You’ll refer to these photos as you form a cohesive landscape plan and design inviting garden spaces that let you become a part of them, rather than a one-dimensional scheme meant for viewing only from the street. Ask family members, a friend, or a neighbor what they see as your property’s pluses as minuses. They may spot problems you’ve overlooked and offered a fresh perspective on your property’s assets, too.


Label one list “Assets” and another “Liabilities.” Some features of your yard may belong on both lists. For example, your yard may include a sheared privet hedge. It’s an asset because it provides valuable privacy from the neighbors, but it’s a liability because it requires high maintenance. As you develop your plan, you’ll decide whether to live with it or tear it out and replace it with an easy-maintenance border of mixed shrubs and perennials.


Place a sheet of tracing paper over your site plan and sketch your ideas for your landscape. You can begin this process as soon as you’ve analyzed your yard, but don’t consider it complete until you’ve skimmed some other sections of this site, spent some time reflecting on your needs, your family’s needs, and your limitations of time and finances. As you do this, start another list labeled “Needs”, where you jot down your critical priorities and specific ideas.

It’s easy to draw a concept plan, sometimes called a bubble diagram. Keep the planned general. For example, rather than labeling an area a “deck” or “patio” call it an “outdoor room” or “family space”. Instead of specifying shrubs, sketch one long oval and label it “buffer”. Create several versions. In one, the outdoor room may be just outside your back door. In another, try placing it under a shade tree or beside the front door, so you can socialize with passing neighbors. As you shift bubbles around, consider how the areas relate. For example, a buffer, a natural area, and a secret garden could work well together. Place the “pet area” bubble near the lawn as an exercise area. Gather opinions from each family member and create a final concept plan that represents the best ideas.


Develop a budget using your lists and concept plan. Get estimates from professionals based on your needs and wants. Call contractors, carpenters, irrigation experts, sod farms, landscape nurseries, masons, and stone yards. Ask for ballpark figures. If you’re serious about a project, most contractors provide free estimates. Ask neighbors or friends who have recently done landscape work if they mind discussing the cost and lessons they have learned.

In budgeting, note major items – such as a boring garage door – despite your cost concerns. The estimated replacement cost might be less than you think. Or seek a low-cost way of improving it. Although a brand-new $10,000 carriage-house style door fits your dreams, spending $100 on dressing up the existing door with paint, an overhead trellis, a flowering vine, and some evergreens in snazzy containers could make a design statement within your budget.

Be realistic about tackling major projects yourself. Honestly assess your capabilities for do-it-yourself projects. Remember that – in addition to the cost of wasted materials – professional charges more to tear out a botched job and replace it than to build a project from scratch.


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