Design Your Own Landscape

If you want your landscape to look like something out of a magazine, start by mapping out ideas for your yard now so you’re ready for planting when it’s warm enough.

Step 1: Know What You Want

Before putting anything on paper, think about what it is you’re hoping to accomplish with an overhaul to your landscaping. Knowing your goal is the key to a successful design.

A carefully planned landscape design allows you to do many things for your yard including:

  • Creating a leisure or play space for your family
  • Creating a beautiful and functional flower or vegetable garden
  • Providing privacy
  • Blocking noise from the surrounding environment
  • Delighting neighbors and adding value to your home

Do your research. Ideas can come from anywhere. Take a peek at your neighbors’ yards, get pictures from books and magazines, watch television shows or browse online. Absorb this information and try to picture what would work in your yard. Remember to keep your ambition from getting the best of your common sense – you’ll need to maintain your landscape and pay for it. Don’t get in over your head if you don’t have the time for regular upkeep or the money to fund a grandiose project.

Step 2: Design Like a Pro

If you want a landscape that looks professionally designed – without paying for the expensive professionals – you need to understand the design principles they use. Landscape designers combine art and science to cultivate their creations.

Here are the basic principles of design:

  • Unity – A specific theme should run through your design for a harmonious look. Planting large numbers of the same kind of plants repeatedly throughout the design will bring your landscape together.
  • Balance – Balance is the natural equilibrium of visual interest to your design. Balance can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical.
  • Proportion – The plants and features you use in your design must be in proportion to each other and the overall design itself. If you have a small yard, you don’t want to plant a giant tree or large decorative pond that dwarfs your house.
  • Transition – This is achieved through the arrangement of plantings with different textures and forms in a gradual, logical sequence to create certain effects, such as rhythm.
  • Rhythm – Refers to a feeling of motion that is created by directing a viewer’s attention across the design.
  • Focalization – This involves directing a viewer’s attention to a certain direction, feature or point.
  • Repetition – Like it sounds, this is the repeated use of particular plants and features that have similar sizes, shape, colors and textures.
  • Simplicity – Keep it simple. Design simplicity decreases confusion and increases functionality and easy maintenance.

In addition, there are basic artistic principles that designers employ for landscaping. These can be used together to work with the above design principles to create a design that works:

  • Color – Designers use color schemes to work toward principles such as unity, balance and repetition. There are three basic color schemes: monochromatic, analogous and complementary. All of them can work toward changing perspective and directing attention to certain points on the landscape.
  • Line – In landscape design, line refers to the way your eye flows over the design. Bed arrangement, plant height and other factors create a “flow” for the eye. Line refers to the outline or edge of objects.
  • Form – Closely related to line. Form means the size and shape of a plant or an area.
  • Texture – Texture is expressed in landscape design in the surfaces of landscape features like walks and plants. Coarse, medium or fine are usually used to describe texture.
  • Scale – The size of a plant or feature in relation to the rest of the objects in a design.

Step 3: Sketch Out a Design

After you’ve decided on a plan and understand the basics of landscape design, you’re ready to sketch out your design plan. Using a pencil, ruler and graph paper, sketch out a basic diagram of what you want your landscape to look like and the approximate dimensions. Try to measure by feet. If you have the exact dimensions, even better. Don’t stress over this step; you don’t have to be an artist. However, by doing this you’ll have a better plan after you’ve visualized the design.

Try to think of anything that might impact your design. Here are some things to consider:

  • Where your property line lies or the boundaries of your work space
  • Your house
  • Existing features you can’t or don’t want to change, such as driveways, walkways, patios, gardens or large trees
  • House utilities, including air conditioner units and utility poles
  • Downspouts and drainage areas
  • Grades or slopes
  • Existing irrigation systems or the location of potential systems
  • Location of potential landscape lighting (focal points)
  • Any areas of your yard that are unusable

There are a number of features that are commonly used in landscape design. Plan to include any of these in your design, if desired.

These features include:

  • Decorative Ponds
  • Garden-bed edging
  • Tree-created “privacy fences”
  • Retaining walls
  • Compost areas
  • Fencing
  • Gazebos
  • Water or rain gardens

Step 4: Lay Out Lighting and Hardscaping

Don’t forget to include any landscape lighting and hardscaping features (walkways and patios) in your plan. Think about what you want your outdoor lighting to do. Common uses include emphasizing landscape formations, shedding light on walkways and adding security.

Helpful Tips

To add interest to your lighting plan, think about mixing up spacing and patterns.

Remember, less is more. Don’t add so many lights that they end up competing with each other.

Be careful not to choose lighting locations that will get in the way of lawn mowers or foot traffic.

Make sure your lighting won’t beam directly into your home.

Try to plan your light installation when you’re landscaping your yard or garden. When it comes to planning, it’s much easier to do both tasks at the same time.

Accent lighting near walls or underneath trees can create great highlighting effects.

Placing lights in front of trees or statues and other features can create dramatic shadows on fences and walls.

Light up dark walkways or paths by placing lights close to each other so the illumination from each overlaps.

Add a lighting plan to your design sketch. Your lighting should accent the trees, shrubbery, walkways, fountains and other landscaping elements of your plan. Also, include the location of your home’s exterior outlets.

Helpful Tip

Don’t forget to check with your local municipality to determine if building codes will allow you to do what you want with your lighting. Depending on what you have in mind, you may need a permit.

Hardscaping is basically anything that is made of inanimate elements, such as stone walls, tile paths, concrete or brick patios, wood decks or wood arbors. These should be included in your plan, even if you are going to defer to a professional to install them. Using a professional is recommended to do the actual work, unless you’re positive you know what you’re doing.

Step 5: Choose Plants

There is quite a bit to consider when choosing the plants and other features you will use. Several factors come into play. First, find out what works best in your climate. The plants you choose must be able to survive your seasons. Your local nursery is a good place to check. Generally, everything they stock will be something you can grow in your region. Also, take into consideration how plants might be affected by environmental conditions, such as the amount of sun and water your yard gets, and the condition of your soil. If your yard is too wet, or if the soil is too sandy, you could have problems bringing your landscape design to fruition.

Use a soil-testing kit to determine if it has enough nitrogen, phosphorous or potassium for your plants to thrive, depending on what you’re growing. Nitrogen helps plants have strong stems and healthy leaves. Phosphorous helps flowers and fruit grow well. Potassium makes roots and stems healthy. When it’s time to plant, plan on first using fertilizers and organic amendments such as peat moss, compost or manure to ensure a healthy landscape.

If you’re planning a flower or vegetable garden, and have planted one before, jot down what worked well previously and what did not.

It may be time to try growing a different variety of plant this year to replace plant types that may not have fared so well the previous garden season. Taking note of which plants worked and which plants didn’t is important. Rotating plants in and out every year, or at the very least, moving plants to a different part of the yard or garden will help keep soil healthy. The soil can “wear out” after repeated planting of the same plants in the same location year after year. Changing them out helps the soil replenish necessary minerals.

Helpful Tip

Many gardeners keep notes or a garden journal to track previous seed or plant purchases, successful and not so successful crops, articles and clippings, planting dates and ideas for their garden. You should do this as well.

Trees are a great addition to any landscape and each time you plant one, you’re doing your part to help Mother Earth. Trees improve our environment every day by moderating climate, improving air quality, conserving water and harboring wildlife. The more you can plant around your home, the better. Not only do trees provide summer shade and shield against harsh winds, but they also improve air quality by releasing oxygen and absorbing harmful pollutants such as carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. Trees also reduce storm runoff and inhibit flooding.

Helpful Tip

Plant deciduous trees on the south side of your home to provide maximum shade for your landscape during the summer. Plant evergreen trees on the north side to protect your landscape from prevailing winds during the winter.

Way to go! You’re on your way to a landscape that looks professionally designed, without paying for the professional designers. You’ll also have the satisfaction of knowing you designed it yourself.

Project Shopping List

Here’s what you’ll need to complete this project successfully.