How to Be Your Own Landscape Designer

Like any major home-improvement project, landscaping calls for advance planning. Even a small lot is surprisingly flexible and warrants a systematic weighing of the design options that are available.


Begin by creating a map of your property—the more detailed the better (page 21). Include such factors as pleasing views and existing plantings. Note the locations of underground obstacles such as electric, water, and sewer lines, or dry wells, septic tanks, and cesspools; they will prevent or limit digging in certain areas.


Look at your lot as a whole and list all the important intended uses of your outdoor space—relaxation, storage, gardening, and so on. To some extent, the orientation of the house on the lot will define these areas: Traditionally, the house divides the lot into an approach area in the front yard; a private living area in the back; and an out-of-the-way service area, perhaps at the side of the house, for a set of trash cans or a toolshed. You may want to distinguish other areas—for games or work, say—and perhaps set them off with their own design elements.


Once you have outlined these areas, experiment on paper with the look of each one, keeping in mind the design principles explained at right and on the following two pages. At this stage, think of plantings in terms of their general visual attributes (next page) and such basic characteristics as whether they are evergreen or deciduous, flowering or nonflowering. Consider physical comfort in your planning. Hedges and fences can screen an area from the street or neighboring houses. A strategically placed tree will filter light or create shade and can lower the temperature on a patio by 15° to 20° F. A row of evergreen shrubs will shelter a walkway from winter winds. Choosing the specific plants that meet your criteria is the last step in the design process (see appendix, pages 268-280).



Each tree and shrub in a landscape has a number of visual attributes—shape, color, texture, scale (or size), proportions (the relationship between vertical and horizontal dimensions), and intensity of color. As you plan your design, picture how the visual qualities of the individual plantings will blend or contrast and how each tree or shrub might contribute to an overall feeling.

Design elements need to be considered not just individually but also in combinations. Terms such as symmetry or balance refer to their joint effects on the eye and mind.




Arrange the elements of your yard to create a unified picture—one in which the viewer’s eye travels easily over the various elements, seeing them as parts of a whole. Above, two different borders of trees and shrubs both have a harmonious effect: In the top arrangement, the various sizes and shapes blend together casually; at bottom, the pattern of small and large plantings has a more formal unity.

Focal point

An element that attracts the eye is a focal point; it may be a door, bench, garden pool, arbor, specimen plant, or sculpture. Focal points are often at one end of a central axis, as at above left. The symmetrically planted flowers and shrubs accentuate the walk and draw the viewer’s attention to the focal point—the front door. Another way to highlight an element is to place it in an area where it stands out; this can be off-center, as with the bench at above right. The shape of the garden leads the eye to the bench—the focal point for this view.



All landscape elements have a visual “weight.” Good designs often balance their elements—large and small, light and dark, coarse and fine, dense and open—around a central point. In the asymmetrically balanced view at right, each side is different but the weights are similar: the group of shrubs balance the tall tree. A simpler route to balance would be through symmetry, designing a yard so that its two sides almost mirror each other.



The repeated use of similar patterns or shapes creates a visual rhythm by drawing the eye from one area to the next. Here, the outlined elements—the rectangular paving blocks, the planting beds, and the two trees along one side of the yard—provide a pleasant sense of movement.



Alterations in materials, plants, textures, or lines can enliven a design. In this example, the stone path adds a new texture, and its curving shape breaks up the yard’s straight lines. The vine-covered screen provides some variety because it contrasts with the rest of the fencing, and the different shapes of the trees also add interest.


Designing with geometry

Geometrical arrangements of plantings and paving can play a major role in a landscape design. In the top example above, rectangles and squares (highlighted) reflect and extend the straight architectural lines of the house. Curves (top, right) do the opposite, posing a strong and intriguing contrast to the house lines. Triangles (right) direct the eye to a focal point—here, the expanse of lawn in the center.




Mapping the site

On a sheet of graph paper, draw a map of your lot to scale. Then add a floor plan of the house’s ground floor. Indicate good and bad views both from the windows of the house and from points within the yard; also note views into neighboring yards. Draw in existing trees, shrubs, flower beds, downspouts, and underground utilities; label steep banks, level areas, and spots with good drainage. Show the sun’s morning, midday, and afternoon positions, as well as the direction of summer and winter winds.

Outlining use areas

Tape tracing paper over the lot map and outline some use areas for the major sections of your yard. In the plan at right, the lawn near the driveway is designated as the main approach area; a path has already been worn there. The plan calls for decorative plantings that will screen the street view from inside the house. The space behind the living room is defined as an outdoor living area. A well-drained, sunny corner of the yard is envisioned as a vegetable garden, with an adjacent utility area for tool storage.


Experimenting with designs

Put a fresh sheet of tracing paper over your map, and experiment with designs for each of your circles on the previous map. Try to think of two or three different options for each area, remembering that you can remove things as well as add them. In the example at left, the old front steps are gone; instead, a paved walkway runs from the driveway to the front door. Decorative ground cover replaces hard-to-mow grass on the bank facing the street. In the back yard, the outdoor living area becomes a paved patio, and new shade trees and a high hedge block the afternoon sun and the neighbor’s yard.