Whether you are trying to the make the most of a small urban garden, or wondering what to do with the acre of land you just purchased, getting to know your property is a good place to start.
3 Key Steps for Getting to Know Your Landscape:
- Create a Garden Survey
- Assess Your Landscape
- Identify Your Goals
Create a Garden Survey
Familiarize yourself with the conditions of your landscape, and how they impact your daily living, through a site survey! Study the light, water, and wind patterns, dig in the dirt and examine your soils, and identify good and bad views.
A site survey doesn’t need to be complicated. Start with a map of your property. This can be hand drawn (artistic skills not necessary), downloaded from Google maps, or a copy of your property’s plot plan. Mark the location of the house and any unattached buildings such as garages or sheds. Also pencil in existing walkways, driveways, utilities boxes, patios, fences, and other structures. Inside the house, mark the locations of windows where good views of the landscape are desired such as your favorite sitting area. Locate all doors and the kitchen.
Take a Walk in the Garden
Once you have recorded the existing structures, walk through the landscape and take careful notes regarding site conditions. Start by marking the locations of existing plant and garden beds. Make notes next to trees and shrubs as to their overall condition – healthy, overgrown, gangly, weak, etc. Next, take note of environmental and site conditions, which will vary considerably across the landscape. Take notes on a separate sheet of paper if needed and use a number or lettering system to match notes to your map.
Sun. Indicate on your map areas that receive full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight each day), part sun (4 to 6 hours per day), or shade (less than 4 hours of direct sun daily). You may have to watch the garden through the course of several days to get a good understanding of light exposure.
Wind. Some areas are likely exposed to strong winds while others may be protected by buildings, structures, or tall plants.
Topography. Indicate slopes, low spots, areas of erosion, and other variations across the landscape.
Temperature. Identify hot spots in the landscape, such as along south facing walls or near air conditioning units and dryer vents. Areas that receive full sun or afternoon sun will also be hotter (and drier) than more shaded sites.
Water and Drainage. Identify areas in the landscape where water collects. Low spots and areas surrounding downspouts tend to be wet. Mark the locations of downspouts on your map. Other areas may be exceptionally dry, such as beneath the roof overhang. Walk the garden after a rain to see where water collects. Also consider and record any existing irrigation systems.
Soil Type. Soil type will greatly affect the drainage of an area. Sandy soils drain very quickly, while clay soils are slow to drain. Some plants have specific soil requirements. Dig holes to study soil texture and record this information on your map.
Service Areas. Every landscape has dedicated areas for storing tools, placing trash bins, or managing debris. Perhaps you have a compost pile or firewood stack. Also note the locations of utility meters and units, as well as primary access to these.
When surveying the landscape try to be objective - look with a fresh set of eyes. It is a good idea to survey the landscape at different times of the day and throughout the year, as some conditions shift with the sun and seasons.
Analyze Your Landscape
Once you have a good idea of the existing conditions in your landscape, you can now make a thorough assessment. Time to think critically. Grab you map and notebook and start recording your observations.
Views. Consider your landscape from a variety of viewpoints. Look through windows from inside the house and sitting areas outside where you like to spend time. Are there good views you’d like to enhance or frame? Bad views to screen? Areas where more privacy is needed? Also consider the view of your home as you approach from the street. Identify areas where you can make a good first impression upon visitors.
Plants. Review the existing plants on your map. Which ones do you want to keep? Do some need to be moved or removed? Are there holes in the landscape that need cover? Or plants that have outgrown their space?
Problem Areas. Did you notice any drainage or erosion problems during your survey? Perhaps a damaged tree poses risks of injury. Is there a heavily shaded area where nothing seems to grow. You might need to hire an arborist to thin the canopy a little. Noise is another consideration; do you need to screen out traffic or other loud noises?
Service Areas. IS there good access to utilities, storage, compost, and other service areas in the landscape? Are trash bins and utilities well-screened or highly visible. Are there items you wish to relocate or better screen? Do you have good access to water faucets?
Flow. Think about the paths and other hardscape in your landscape. Is there a good connection between the kitchen and outdoor cooking areas? Can you access your trash bins easily? Is there an easy path or level lawn connecting the front and back yards?
Environment. While you can’t change your climate, you can take steps to create a more livable landscape. Strong winds can be screened with evergreen trees, piercing sun shaded with trees or vine-strung arbors. Identify areas in the landscape where you’d like to make some changes. When it comes to water, think about the broader environment in addition to sire considerations. Is your area prone to droughts and water restrictions? If so, you may focus on water-wise plantings.
Once you’ve surveyed the property, think about what you want your landscape to do for you. Do you want to grow vegetables? Attract hummingbirds and butterflies? Read and relax? Make a list of goals. Once you have an understanding of the existing landscape conditions and a list of goals for the garden, you can start to match activities to different areas of the landscape.
You wouldn’t remodel your kitchen without identifying the important components desired. Planning a landscape is the same. Make a list of the types of outdoor spaces or “rooms” you would like. Consider everyone in the family, including children and pets. Write all of the ideas down on paper; you can decide later which ones will realistically fit into your landscape plan.
Once you have a good understanding of how your family wishes to use the landscape, you can start to identify areas for your favorite outdoor activities. This is where your landscape survey and assessment come in handy. A steep slope is not an ideal place to plant vegetable garden, but it is perfect for a stand of tall grasses and wildflowers, which can help keep erosion in check while attracting birds and butterflies. And that low spot might be perfect for the bog garden you’ve always dreamed of planting.
Thoughtful consideration of your landscape’s opportunities and challenges will help you in creating ideal spaces that meet the needs of the family while also improving problem areas. Perhaps you wish to locate a seating area for relaxation beneath your favorite tree, but your survey identifies a lack of privacy. You can focus planting efforts on enclosing the space and creating the desired level of intimacy.
Download our printable landscape assessment worksheets to begin your own site survey, evaluation, and wish list.