Choosing how to design your outdoor space can be a challenge at best. If you don’t have much landscaping or gardening experience, then the challenge is tenfold.
Whether you are working with a blank canvas or existing structures, analyzing your space is first and foremost. When that step is finished, you can then decide which plants and shrubs and types of seating/play areas are needed. To help you get started on your way to your own landscape design, we have put together this detailed guide.
Now, let’s get started on each stage of your landscape design so you can enjoy your space to the fullest.
Table of Contents
- 1. Assessing your outdoor landscape design
- 2. The landscape design outline
- 3. The design
- 4. Garden Design
- 4. Sloping Ground
- 5. Deck/Patio Design
- 6. Seating for the landscape design
- 7. Pathways
- 8. Structures
- 9. Water features
- 9. Focal Points
- 10. Simple is best
- 11. Formalizing the sketches into a more precise computer program
- 12. Final Layout
- 12. Enjoy your design
1. Assessing your outdoor landscape design
The first thing you’re going to have to do is assess what space, structures and natural features (water, hills, soil type, etc.) you have. The best way to do this is to take a walk outside.
Make notes on existing structures, shady/sunny areas and any natural water sources. As much as it would be ideal to base your findings on the time of day you go out, keep in mind how it changes throughout the day and the seasons.
To begin with, we suggest starting with a blank sheet of paper; the bigger the better. A large sketch pad is great, because it is big enough for the information you’ll be adding to it, but small enough so you can take it with you. Working on a hard, flat surface such as your kitchen table is ideal, and I suggest this spot for the majority of what you’ll be doing. However, if you need to clarify something, having some portability is an asset.
Sketch out your existing structures, such as your house, walls, gates, fences and even where your windows and doors are situated. It doesn’t have to be precise at this point; having a rough estimate is fine. You could use a tape measure if you choose, but simply pacing it out works just as well. A long stride is a metre, so roughly marking the distances on your sheet of paper will work in the beginning. Mark out any log storage areas, porches and other immovable features; both above and under the soil level.
2. The landscape design outline
Now that you have the sketch of your property done, it’s time to list the features you have, want to keep, want to eliminate and want to avoid (such as a certain colour of plant or medium). An easy way to do this is to take another sheet of paper (preferably the next page in your sketch book) and divide it into four (intersect a horizontal and vertical line in the middle).
The top half will be referencing what you already have in your space, and the bottom half will pertain to the features you want (bottom left) and the ones you don’t want (bottom right).
Listing each feature in the appropriate section on your sheet will make it easier to plan your final landscape design. For example, if you have an existing boggy area, it is better to work with it than against it. You could incorporate a pond design for that space instead of filling it with soil or concrete. The concrete might look nice for the first little while, but soon the natural lay of the land will destroy your dreams of a perfectly smooth skateboarding track.
Moreover, it’s of prime importance to provide plants with the best conditions for growing. While the weather peculiarities are out of human power, it’s up to you to minimize the harmful influence of pesky weeds. It’s a cool idea to apply weed control cloth. It has several advantages. It’s easy to install. It prevents weeding but allows air and nutrients to go through. Moreover, it creates the optimal moisture level that is necessary for successful gardening.
The bottom left space can be your wish list of what you want in your design. Perhaps a bigger seating area, a gazebo, a raised vegetable garden, a BBQ area and so on. The bottom right space can be a list of things you don’t want, such as straight cut lines, concrete or a certain type of tree.
3. The design
This is the part where the fun really starts at Elementa Design and where the remaining pages of your sketch book will come in handy. It’s much easier to change things on paper than it is to dig up the ground or move two metre high statues. Consider:
How well does one area flow to the next, and is there enough seating for everyone?
What about focal points and privacy?
Before we go any further, let us point out you don’t have to be a professional artist to draw out your landscaping plans. Rough sketches of trees, flowers, pathways and other structures are all that’s needed. It is a good idea to make some sort of reference key, so you know which squiggly line represents a path and which represents a row of shrubbery.
4. Garden Design
There are two aspects to designing your gardens within your landscape design.
First, there’s planning out the shape and dimensions of your garden spaces, whether vegetable, flower, shrub, tree, plant and, or bush gardens. Add these spaces to your sketch.
Second, you can also get very detailed within each garden with respect to which plants, flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees you will plant. Or in the case of a vegetable garden, which vegetables will be grown where.
It’s not always easy visualizing what types of plants, flowers, trees etc. will look best in any individual garden. However, a good way to start is to identify types of vegetation you want in specific parts of each garden space. Consider:
- Annuals vs. perennials: Do you want permanent vegetation that comes alive each year or do you want flexibility to recreate the space with annuals each year?
- Sun/Shade: Amount of shade/sun each space receives (this will very much dictate what you plant in each space).
- Water: If you live in a rainy area, consider vegetation that does well with more water. If you live in a dry area with watering restrictions, opt for vegetation that doesn’t need much water.
- Soil pH: If you want to get very particular, assess your soil for pH and opt for vegetation that thrives in that pH.
- Your hardiness zone: What’s your hardiness zone? Opt for vegetation that thrives in your hardiness zone.
- Aesthetic preferences: Do you like lots of colors? If so, opt for flowers. Do you want to create a privacy barrier? If so, opt for hedge trees or large bushes.
- Tier it: Create multi-dimensional gardens with low-lying flowers at the front with taller plants and bushes towards the back leading up to tall hedge-like vegetation at the rear.
- Symmetry or random: Do you prefer symmetry or geometrical shapes or clean lines or do you like a more random look?
There is not one way to go about planning a specific garden space because you can create it any way you like, but it does help to have a plan for when you buy the vegetation (which isn’t cheap).
4. Sloping Ground
While you need to plan out the footprint, if you have slopes on your property, you’ll need to include plans with how you’ll deal with the sloping landscape. Options include:
- Leave it as a slope,
- Built retaining walls, or
- Terrace it.
This adds more complexity to the design, but must be planned out.
5. Deck/Patio Design
Most landscape design blueprints include a space for a deck or patio. Usually these butt up against the house. Your plan must accommodate for your deck or patio. While deck and patio design is another topic altogether (you need separate blueprints for this), it needs to be visually represented in your landscape design blueprint.
FYI, you can get deck design software to help with any deck you wish to build.
6. Seating for the landscape design
One feature we tend to underestimate is seating. An area may appear to be big enough for a dozen guests, but once the tables, chairs and actual people are there, it could become quite crowded. When determining the size of the seating area, take into account how many people you plan on having at most, how big the table you’re planning on using is, and how many chairs you can fit around it. Plus, you’ll want to have enough space so the chairs can be easily pushed back and there is room to walk behind them. Although it would be comical, you don’t want to see your guests pushing back their chairs and falling into a hedge.
How much space should you leave around an outdoor dining table to comfortably accommodate chairs and guests?
A good rule of thumb is to leave at least 36 inches on all sides of an outdoor dining table. That equates to 3 feet on all sides.
Example: If an outdoor dining table is 42″ wide by 72″ long (3.5′ x 6′), that’s 21 sq. ft. When you add the 3 feet surrounding space for the chairs, that’s an 18 + 18 + 28.5 + 28.5 sq. ft. which is an additional 93 sq. ft. The total square footage you would need for the outdoor dining space is 21 sq. ft. + 93 sq. ft. which totals 114 sq. ft.
Once you have the size and location of your seating area figured out, it’s time to pencil in the pathways. Consider:
- Do you want a direct line from your house, or do you want to take your guests on a meandering stroll through the flowers and shrubs?
- What about placing seating along the pathways, such as a bench or a bistro set in a little nook? And what about your vegetable garden?
- Is your pathway going to circle it or go through it so you can pick some salad greens along the way?
- Or, do you want your seating area close to the house with your pathways leading to secret alcoves?
When you draw it out on paper, it’s a good idea to play around with different settings. Don’t erase. Instead, compare the changes you make on separate sheets. You will find one part may not look right with the other once you have a visual. A curved path leading to a square or rectangular paved area may look out of place, whereas it would fit right in with a round seating area.
Drawing it out also gives you an idea of proportions. How much lawn do you want in relation to seating area, garden space and shrubbery? Also take into account the mature size of any trees or shrubs you plan on planting. And, how well does it all flow together in your allotted space?
You will need to consider any outdoor structures such as a fence (see fence design software here), shed, playhouse, kid stuff, gazebo, pergola or any other structure. It’s not easy planning around structures because they have a defined size.
Even if you don’t plan on adding a structure immediately, if you think you’ll put one in at some point, plan for it.
9. Water features
It’s something to consider and if you do decide to incorporate a water feature, you will need to plan it accordingly. It’s not merely digging a hole and putting down a tarp. It needs some form of system to prevent water stagnation. In the case of a stream or waterfall, you’ll need a pump system.
As for a swimming pool, that requires a plan unto itself along with hiring professionals to design and build it.
BUT, for the purpose of this article, which is putting together a landscape design, you should incorporate your water feature(s) in the blueprint.
Tip: When planning the dimensions of your water feature for your yard blueprint, contact a professional to get some ideas on how much space to dedicate to your pool or pond. You might be surprised how big or small they should be in relation to your yard. It always helps to get some general size ideas so you can plan the rest of your property.
9. Focal Points
Along with your seating and pathways, you’ll want to add some focal points to your landscape design. That’s not to say you should clutter your space with statues or potted topiary, but having the eye drawn to different parts of the space is appealing.
Remember the pond in the boggy area of the property? Adding a waterfall to it would be a great focal point. Not only would it add interest visually, but the sound of running water would mask the sounds of traffic if you live in a busy area.
Perhaps placing a wooden bench or two close by would entice the visitors to sit awhile. In this case, the waterfall should be high enough to draw attention to itself, but not so high as to interfere with zoning codes.
10. Simple is best
In all of your landscape designing, one thing to remember is to keep it simple. Elaborate paving patterns on your walkways are often a waste of time and money. A simple curved gravel pathway is often more appealing, as guests aren’t afraid to walk on it. When a design is too fancy, it becomes a chore to maintain, which contradicts the very reason we are building something that is supposed to give us pleasure and relaxation. And for those who like having a lot of lawn, a gradually curved border is much nicer (and easier to mow) than one with sharp angles or small wiggles.
11. Formalizing the sketches into a more precise computer program
I definitely recommend putting together your initial sketches and plans on paper with pencil using grid paper.
However, once you have some sketches and plans done this way, you might want to invest in garden and landscape design software to get a precise landscape design blueprint with exact dimensions, vegetation types as well as a 3D representation of what it will look like.
Once this is done (either you can do it or hire it out), you can fine-tune your entire design. The fine-tuning should be done in the software.
12. Final Layout
As you decide on your final layout, you may want to add more details to your sketch. Adding some colour to the page will help with visualizing the look you wish to achieve. Another thing you may wish to do before the actual construction process begins is to mark your layout with powdered chalk, sand or marking paint. This way you will be able to tell if the shapes and sizes of furniture, trees and garden beds are going to work within your allotted space. There would be nothing more disheartening than to have the work half completed only to realize your main feature isn’t going to fit, or that you have a path leading to nowhere. And as I said earlier, it’s much easier to change it on paper.
12. Enjoy your design
Now, last but not least: use your space and enjoy it. You have spent hours planning, digging, moving, buying, planting and even possibly crying; now it’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labour. What is the point of all the work if you are not going to sit back and relax, with your choice of beverage in hand?
Next: Check out our epic backyard ideas guide which covers everything under the sun when it comes to landscaping and creating a great front and backyard.