Do you shy away from adding new plants to the landscape because you’re uncertain of how it will look? Have you learned to live with the jungle in front of the house just because you don’t want to spend the money to get a landscape designer to help? If you answered yes to either of these questions, read on.
When I was fresh out of college, I thought I had a handle on good design and knew which plants could not coexist within that criterion. For example, golden privet and red barberry had no place in my good designs; they were just too common. Luckily, it didn’t take me long to learn that good design is what the garden owner likes, not what my own impressions are.
The most common concern gardeners have when planning a landscape is how to visualize it before it’s in the ground. Luckily, this is the easiest obstacle to overcome, and it does not require a drawing table and drafting instruments. A trip to a hobby store and a 10 dollar bill will give you enough material and instruments to create myriad designs.
Measure Twice, Draw Once
The most important item I use when creating a landscape design is a tablet of graph paper. I like to use paper that’s ruled with 10 squares per inch; each square on the paper then represents one square foot in my design. This scale is very important in determining how individual plants will fit in a planting and helps estimate the amount of mulch and other materials needed once the design is complete. If a garden area is too large to fit on one sheet of graph paper, you can make each square equal to two feet or more if necessary. You can also tape two or more pieces of graph paper together if you prefer to use the one-foot scale.
Once you have your paper in hand, carefully measure the area you plan to landscape with a tape measure or measuring wheel and use them to create your scaled drawing. By using this scaled method, you do not have to include written numbers, which only add confusion to the design process. Don’t sweat the fractional measurements – in most designs you can just round to the nearest foot.
In addition to the graph paper and measuring tools, I would recommend purchasing a circle template for your home design work. These drawing aids allow you to trace perfect circles on the graph paper to represent the plants you intend to install. Find the template that approximates the scaled diameter of the mature plant and draw in the circle. I typically draw the plants in the design at two-thirds of their listed mature size. There are two reasons for this; first, some plants such as trees may never reach their listed size in my less-than-favorable climate, and second, especially for shrub plantings, I do not want to wait until they are completely mature for the landscape to look full.
As the first doodles of the new design are transferred from measurement to mind to paper, it is nice to use a tracing paper that can be placed over the top of a scaled drawing of the area so you can sketch ideas out without having to redraw every time you want to start over and try something new. The tracing paper also helps avoid mine fields caused by an eraser. Once you feel happy with your design, you can transfer the concept to the original drawing. If you don’t have any tracing paper, you can steal some parchment paper from the kitchen.
Shapes of Color
When filling in your design, it is useful to begin with the plants you know you want to use. For example, if you are redoing the front landscape and know you want a small tree at the corner of the house and ornamental grass near the front entry, put these plants into the sketch and then fill in others as they relate to the first items. Draw in your basic plantings and then add the frills of color or other filler plants as they fit. Don’t get caught up with how to fit a single coneflower into the design until the major plants have been situated.
The landscape’s location and purpose are also important considerations in creating a design. For example, the landscaping out front most likely needs to be a four-season planting, and plants that provide year-round interest, such as evergreens or others with color during the dormant seasons, make good choices. In contrast, a perennial border may not need winter color if it is only to be enjoyed while you are out walking in the garden.
Keep in mind that plant colors and shapes can hurt a design relatively easily. Bright colors draw your eye, so a colorful planting isn’t the best choice to camouflage the gas meter. Vertical lines characteristic of ornamental grasses will stop the eye in a flowing landscape, making them effective at entries but problematic in the middle of a foundation surrounded by smaller rounded plants. In any case, if your initial design doesn’t work, you can always move things around later.
Summer is a great time to take a few measurements, pull out the drawing tools and do a little designing on your own. With a bit of care and a little patience, you will create a landscape design that suits your sensibilities. Better yet, if you finish it in time, you can begin the installation this fall.
Mike Lang is a lifelong Kansan, and he is currently the landscape manager for a 1,000-acred university campus by day and caretaker of his own quarter-acre piece of the world the rest of the time.