How to Plan a Landscape Design

Learn the four steps to creating a scale plan for your landscaping project.

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Putting plan to paper (or computer) is crucial in designing your landscape. If you're working on a simple project, graph and tracing paper might be all you need. A professional landscape designer starts with a property survey and topographical map, and then typically creates a series of conceptual sketches, preliminary elevations and final renderings as your vision evolves and crystallizes.

Create the Basic Grid

Measure the area and transfer the basic dimensions to graph paper or input them in to an online design tool such as Google Sketchup. Visit the National Gardening Association for tips for drawing a landscape map.

Next, plot the position of fixed features that you can't change, or don't care to, such as buildings, trees, driveways, yard entrances, hardscapes, views, irrigation systems and the like.

Tip: In one corner of the paper, include a compass to remind you of sunlight and shadow patterns.

Sketch It Out

Now you get to play around. To audition various concepts, use tracing paper overlays or multiple photo or electronic copies that allow you to try out with different form compositions, paths and proportions.

It's not too early to include elements such as shrubs and patios drawn to scale and placed in different configurations on the grid. Don't overlook the practical details, such as the placement of irrigation and lighting systems, running electricity to the pond pump (or can you go solar?) and access (can you get the wheelbarrow down the stone steps?).

The "basic grid" starts with the basics, such as drawing out the area you plan to work within and accounting for objects or buildings that you need to work with or around. The next step is the "rough concept" where you begin to actually plot the placement of plants, trees and shrubs. Images courtesy of R&S Landscaping, Midland Park, NJ

Draw the Final Plan

Once you settle on a basic traffic pattern and the "bones" of the space, the fun begins as cryptic labels morph into cute green blobs, colorful flower beds and paver patterns. As in decorating a room, visualize how the colors, shapes, textures and patterns will work together.

Understand What's What

Landscape plans use symbols to indicate plants, hardscape materials, trees and architectural features. The symbols are not standardized so whatever you use, make sure they mean the same thing to you and your landscape designer. They should be simple yet suggestive of the actual appearance of the landscape features.

For example, hardscape areas should resemble the material and pattern to be used—zigzag rectangles for herringbone brick, random amoeba shapes for flag stone, little dots for gravel, and so on. Whether you color code or number the symbols, double check the final draft of your plan to make sure you have the right symbol in the right place.

Finally, you'll come to the "final rendering" which takes into account color placement, textures, shapes and patterns. Almost all plans make use of a "key" to help people understand which shapes correspond to specific plants, materials and features of a landscape plan. Images courtesy of R&S Landscaping, Midland Park, NJ

Next Up

Choosing Landscaping Materials

Learn how to shop for materials for your landscaping project, from plants to patio pavers.


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