Every gardener needs a site plan — a drawing with as much information as can be collected on the property, from the potholes in the driveway to the direction of the prevailing winds, correctly noted for each season.
A good time to draw your site plan is fall to early winter, when deciduous greenery has faded, making it easier to see the outlines of the landscape. Then, over the winter, while your garden is asleep, you can make your assessments and prepare plans for spring.
You can hire someone to draw a plan for you, of course, but to save some money, try doing it yourself. A site map doesn't have to be elaborate or artistic; it just has to be of use to you.
The first step is measuring. You should have been given a site, or plat, plan when you bought your home. This document is a good starting point. It should have the property measurements and the dimensions of the house and other large structures.
However, you'll need many more measurements. It helps to have two people for this task — one at each end of a measuring tape. Or, if you use a measuring wheel or laser measuring device, you can accomplish this on your own.
Copy the plat, or a version of it, onto erasable paper to form a rough outline of the property's dimensions. From there, you can start adding more elements, including driveways and walks, patios and decks, and trees and planting beds.
Some of these components are obvious, but others will require some research — wind direction and drainage, for example. The wind across your property may change seasonally, so this is something you may have to monitor over time.
If your home sits on an incline, you may be fortunate enough to have a gentle slope that will accommodate a path. Steep areas may require retaining walls to control erosion, as well as steps to get from the top to the bottom. Without a contour map by a surveyor, illustrate slopes with an arrow and labeling.
If you've been gardening in one location for a few seasons, you probably already know the soil characteristics — where the good loam is, and the areas of clay deposits. If not, buy soil sampling kits at a garden center or check with your local Cooperative Extension Service.
Once you have a rough sketch with all the details of your property, you're ready to prepare a finished copy.
I recommend using graph paper with a quarter-inch grid. Set the scale at one foot to one quarter-inch, but adjust the scale if your property is very large or very small. If you enjoy working with computers, there are software programs that help you with landscape design.
Use simple shapes, labeling everything as you draw. Make a key so you will understand your lines and symbols, using dotted or dashed lines, for example, to indicate different types of utilities.
If you're creating a new landscape, you might want to put in all the information except the plantings. Then make several copies of that basic plan so you can trace different design ideas on the copies.
When locating trees, draw a small circle for the trunk, then a larger one to indicate the canopy. If the trees are young, remember to draw them with a mature canopy. This will help you to visualize how much area will be shaded when they grow.
Have fun with your drawing by trying some techniques used by professional designers. For instance, drifts of flowers are indicated by freeform, amoeba-like shapes. Formal or clipped hedges are squared off, and informal hedges are created with interlocking circles. Fences can be lines with tiny circles or squares that indicate posts. Underground features are noted with dotted lines.
Use colored pencils to identify soil types. Fill in the colors of existing or new plants. Color lightly so you don't obscure other features.
Even if your drawing is a little rough, the object is for you to have fun with it. Add a fountain or hot tub. Remove a really big tree that's creating too much shade, and design a sunny perennial garden. Paper and pencils are cheap, and paper plans are continuously changeable. While your garden dozes over the winter, it's your chance to dream about its future.
Joel Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md., and author of the book "Anyone Can Landscape."
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