The question for most homeowners is where to start. The average person does not know a lot about landscape design or the things that ought to be considered. The following section will briefly describe much of what goes into planning and design. Beyond what is here, you are strongly encouraged to visit your local library or bookstore where you will find a good deal more information about landscape design that will prove most useful.
The first step is one that no one can do for you; that is to determine, at least generally, what your preferences are. What types of effects attract you? The best way to do this is to observe what others have done and notice your reaction to them. Magazines and catalogs can be helpful; observing landscapes that you visit is your best source of ideas because you can see how various techniques actually work. Use all of your senses; note fragrances that you do and do not like; and listen for the sounds of birds or dripping water. Texture can add or detract from what you experience as can shadowing and color combinations. You may find some that are interesting, but not what you would have done. Some you may find distasteful; others quite appealing. This is not a time to limit yourself by what you think may or may not be doable; think of it as collecting ideas, much of which will be discarded later. Lists and possibly rough sketches may be helpful to jog your memory later.
Part of your initial thinking should be about how you use the outside area. Successful landscapes are designed to be an integral part of your living space, and as such, must have a practical aspect to them. Play areas for children, a storage section for tools or compost, places to entertain guests, a spot for intimate conversation, or others may be appropriate. This is still not a time for limits, though once your list is complete it might be helpful to note the relative importance of each. There may well not be room for all of the areas you might like to have.
These two lists can be done at the same time. Often people have ideas for starting them already. It can be helpful to note how others have provided for the similar needs and how they do or do not work and why.
Use What You Have
The next step is to evaluate what you already have. There will be some existing plantings, fences, walks, or other features, unless you have moved into a new house with a bulldozed lot. Even then, the house itself will provide a starting point. These may or may not be useful. Some parts of your yard may not need to be changed at all, others may provide a base for change. The trick here is to envision how the raw material you are provided with can be used to maximum advantage. Some of it may need to be removed, some of it may be what makes a particular spot unique.
Broadening your view is important at this point. Notice the whole neighborhood. Is there an overall feeling or theme, planned or not? Whatever you do in your yard will be a part of the whole, so you will need to ensure that your additions are an enhancement. The flip side of this is that what exists around you influences your personal space. Unless you construct large barriers completely enclosing yourself, the surrounding community will be a part of your environment. This can be an advantage, making your lot appear larger than it really is. Alternatively, there may be parts of the neighborhood that you would just as soon not see. Fences and screens can be used to provide privacy; they also mark boundaries, telling the world that, for you, nothing exists beyond.
Another important frame of mind is continuing to keep a fresh perspective, continually look around as though you are a visitor, seeing things for the first time. Without some effort, the longer we live in a place, the longer we look at it, the less we notice, getting into ruts of concentrating on the same focal points, missing everything between them. Often it is in the “in between” spots that contain inspiration, change, and potential.
This is also the time to note the larger surroundings in which you find yourself. What environmental considerations has nature given you? What was here before man changed it? Do you live along the coast where moisture is plentiful, but salty breezes an issue, or do you find yourself in the dryer grasslands? Working with the natural processes will always be easier than against them. An overview of the California plant community types appears in a later section. With this information in mind, visit the wild places in your vicinity. Here you will discover some of what nature provides without assistance. If you look closely, with an open mind, you can find a plethora of ideas and inspiration.
Style and Design
Only with the above steps complete are you ready to begin the design phase. The first decision to be made here is to decide what overall style you will use. Keeping in mind your personal preferences, a trip to the library may be needed here. You should find all manner of discussions, descriptions, and pictures of the multitude of landscape styles from the most formal designs to the most casual “wildscape”. Each has a unique look and feel to it. Generally what you will find will fall into one of three categories: formal, informal, or naturalistic. Formal gardens consist of strong lines and symmetrical shapes, sometimes including heavily clipped shrubs. Informal gardens can include some of these elements along with flowing lines and plants growing in their natural form. The majority of what is implemented is in this group. Natural landscapes are, to the extent possible, copies of what is found in the wild. Many think of this as an extreme of the informal style. The discussion and plants in this book are generally geared toward more the more informal styles, but can be useful in all.
Put It On Paper
Putting your ideas down on paper, at this stage, is critical. This is the only way to see how the various aspects of your property will relate to one another and tie together into a unified whole. The different areas may seem isolated, but adjacent sections will normally need to blend into one another, unless separated by some type of wall or screen. The best place to begin is to create a scale drawing of what currently exists. Place the house, driveway, walk, and so forth. You should indicate on the drawing where the sun rises, the prevailing wind direction, and any slopes that exist. The more accurate and detailed, the better, as this will be your base drawing. Large paper, eleven by seventeen or larger, will allow you to use a scale large enough to show adequate detail. Normally an eighth to a quarter inch equals one foot is good. Obviously, the scale and size of paper is dependent on the size of the area you are dealing with.
If you have a deed map, plot plan, or architectural drawing of the house, they can be used as a guide, saving time in actual measuring your lot. You may still have to add plants, decks, and so on that are not on the original drawing. If there is no existing drawing from which to start, you will have to use a tape measure (50′ or longer), and start from scratch.
Your ideas can now be superimposed onto photocopies or tracings of your base drawing. You may regularly find it helpful to mark your sketchings on the ground using stakes and string or buckets and hoses to envision the actual scale. What looks good on paper, may need adjusting in practice.
This is a good time to begin laying out the use areas that you need or want. Initially, do not be too concerned about exact size, pay more attention to relative placement. Be sure the tool storage area is close to the garden, the kid’s play area just beyond the side door you want them to use but away from the small master bedroom patio. Keep in mind that one area may serve several functions. This can be important, as a yard that is broken into too many pieces will be difficult to unify.
The general size of your areas will become important, if for no other reason than to determine what will fit where. Stay flexible, though, as sometimes association with other types of areas can be as important as the actual sizes. As a rule, outdoor space should be roughly the same size as indoor rooms used in a similar fashion. Should an area be too large for a particular purpose, smaller ones can be temporarily created with groupings of furniture and/or container plants.
You will also need to consider the connections between your areas, that is, how people will get from one place to another. Walks and paths tend to direct traffic patterns, but they must be convenient to be used. People tend to take the most direct route; should you discover an unplanned path wearing into your yard, you might consider formalizing it. Otherwise, you may find it necessary to install some type of barrier.
Imagine how you would like your path used when you design it. Three feet is normally the minimum path width for one person; should you envision two people strolling abreast, the path will need to be at least five feet wide. Direct routes are not necessarily straight ones. Curved or broken lines are generally more visually appealing than straight ones. You can vary the path width or texture, to make it more interesting. A path that leads past a few focal points, then turns behind something out of sight promises more, beckoning the viewer to investigate. The addition of a few features like mystery can enhance the depth and interest to your design.
Several aspects of your design should start to become apparent as the arrangement solidifies. Utility areas may need to be screened from the rest of your yard; privacy may dictate buffers of some sort; playgrounds will a need tough lawn; a hot tub or barbecue might call for a patio or deck.