When it comes to landscape design, figuring out what you want is the turning point to all good things. If you don’t have a lot of time, a low-maintenance garden should suit you well. If you have an active family, a landscape that takes everyone’s needs into consideration (think play areas, gardening areas, grilling/dining area) is probably more your speed. If you just love to garden and constantly seek new challenges, you need space to let your imagination grow. Whatever your situation, getting your garden’s design down on paper will help you plan for its future.

Basic garden sketch

Start by sketching out your property as it is, noting windows, doors, paths and the driveway, as well as any important dimensions.

Photo Credit: Lynn Means

Garden design tools

It just takes a few simple tools to get your garden design down on paper.

Photo Credit: Lynn Means

Aerial photo

If it’s available, download an aerial shot of your property from your county’s Website – the property dimensions make starting this project a breeze.

Photo Credit: Lynn Means

Garden plan

Once you’ve got the basics down on paper, you can plan for all kinds of new additions to your landscape!

Photo Credit: Lynn Means

Backyard path

Use your plan to figure out where to include paths and seating in the garden.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Organizing the facts is as simple as making a drawing that shows your landscape’s current state of affairs and allows some plans for the future. Your sketch doesn’t need to be a Rembrandt – it’s just a tool to help you see your yard and garden clearly and communicate your ideas to interested parties. Remember, it’s easier to make mistakes on paper than in your garden!

A good place to start is by drawing the exact location of all or part of your house and where it sits on your lot. Grab a tape measure and an assistant and plot a full overhead view of your yard by measuring one or two straight lines from the outside corners of your home to the front, side and back property boundaries. (If you’re only working on one specific area of your yard, just use the side of the house that relates to where you’ll be planting.)

Plot out permanent features on your paper like fences, trees and sidewalks so you can establish a frame of reference. Show any buildings, planting beds, patios and driveways. Include doors or windows that are relevant (so you know what you’ll be looking out at when you’re inside the house), and leave out the garden features you’re sure will be eliminated. Once you start drawing, ideas are sure to flow!

Now take your sketch and transfer the measurements to a sheet of graph paper using a scale that fits the size of the page. Using a ¼ inch to equal 1 foot or more is a good scale to start with. (Of course, you can use a landscape design software program, too – either way, you’ll develop an existing framework or basic plan.) Once that’s done, it’s time to give your plan some direction and style! (Make several copies of your basic plan so you can add all kinds of different ideas without having to start from scratch each time.)

Next, take one of your plans and a pencil and walk around your yard to sketch in the natural paths of movement. How do you get to your shed, gates, play areas and entrances to the house? Use curvy paths to separate areas, and denote activity zones like “kids and dogs” or “future vegetable garden.” See how well various ideas work with your different basic plans.

Scribble, doodle and most importantly, make a personal wish list of things you’d like to include in your new landscape – sure, some ideas may seem extravagant, unreasonable or even impossible, but this isn’t the time to limit yourself. Get input from family members so they can get involved in the process, too. There’s no shame in saying you want an inground pool with a blue bottom and cascading waterfall. Maybe someday you’ll get your wish! Try out different ideas and give yourself the freedom to wad up a few plan concepts and throw them in the trash – it’s all part of the process.

No matter which plan you like best, clearly identify what’s necessary in your final drawing. From a practical standpoint, it’s wise to note items that need replacement or repair. And pay attention to safety hazards like weathered deck boards you can put your foot through or a sidewalk with cracks large enough to grow cabbages. Don’t let these problems slide – plan for repair so you can turn your attention to projects of substance, like a new patio with pergola or an outdoor kitchen.

Also look for worthwhile changes to improve the use of your space and encourage all your family to spend time there. Consider everyone’s interests: an outdoor dining “room,” a play area or even a private putting green. Is there a need for shade, privacy screening or storage for lawn equipment? Even small changes like widening a path, pruning trees or moving a gate can be huge upgrades. And don’t forget to include a calm, quiet place to sit and contemplate your personal desires!

Once you’ve got your priorities sorted out, highlight what you want. It’s all there, waiting for you to put it into place. Just because you might not be able to afford your heart’s desire this season doesn’t mean you can’t save space for your dreams to come true a year or two from now.

Trace your final plan onto another sheet of paper, adding any new areas along with labeling materials and new structures. Be sure to sketch in plants that fit your landscape and are compatible with your site. If you’re not sure what to grow, check out various featured plants in other Learn2Grow articles or in the Plant Database for some ideas, and ask a nursery specialist at your local garden center what would work best for your specific location.

Now that you’ve got it all down on paper, congratulate yourself – you’ve made the leap from gardener to landscape designer!