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How to Start a Residential Landscape Design

Updated: Jan 6

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Drafting a landscape design

This right here is my bread and butter. I design residential landscapes through my company, Athyrium Design, and have been designing since I started my BS of Ornamental Horticulture and Environmental Design at Delaware Valley University in the early 2000s. Additionally, I teach a 20 hour workshop on Residential Landscape Design at both Mt. Cuba Center and Morris Arboretum. So I’ve learned a few things in my experience and I’ve found some concise ways to share what I’ve learned through organizing my workshop.


Who are you and who are the site Users?


Are you the homeowner? Friend? Property Manager? Well now you're the landscape designer.


I refer to the people who use the site as the "Users", but the Users may just be you and your family. It may also include guests, visitors, or renters depending on your situation.


Start looking at the property from the eyes of the Users to immerse yourself in the space. Then start looking at the site from the perspective of a scientist, contractor, and yes, designer, gathering all of the information you can to become intimately familiar with the site.


Next, why is this project taking place?


What is the primary issue that needs to be addressed? It may be that the property is just overgrown. Or maybe it’s a blank slate. Maybe water puddles in certain areas of the property or maybe there isn’t enough seating on the patio to accommodate the growing family.


Determine the main “problem” with the site. In the design it’s imperative that we solve the main problem while also incorporating the User's additional "wish list" items. Then we apply design principles to make the site look polished.


Start with a thorough interview of the Users to find out their wants and needs. This may include a specific plant or a whole outdoor living space. It varies drastically from project to project.


If this project is for yourself or your family, sit down and really address what you and/or each family member likes and dislikes about the site. Find out how they want to use the site and how they feel about the existing features. If you're the gardener but your partner mows the lawn, they may have some critical insight into what does or doesn't work for their needs. Your kids may notice tripping hazards that you've subconsciously learned to avoid. If you're the sole/primary user of the site, sit down and write a list of everything you want to change and everything you wish to add.


Gather your tools:


These are all of the tools I actually use with the exception of the drawing paper:

As a professional, I design using a CAD program for ease of making changes, printing duplicates, etc. Even so, I still reach for my drafting supplies regularly- there's just something about putting pencil to paper that helps get my creative juices flowing!


Take lots of photos


Most of your designing will occur at your desk (or kitchen table) so you want to document the site thoroughly so you can reference the space quickly and accurately from inside.


Photograph your site from every angle. Put yourself in the physical location of the Users including, but not limited to, sitting at the patio table or lounge chairs, approaching the front door, standing at the kitchen window looking out, etc. Photograph the site from those perspectives to see how the Users see the site..


Next, take a step back and photograph the site as a whole to capture the curb appeal (or lack thereof). Digital photos are so strong these days that even if you forget to shoot something important, you can usually zoom in to one of the wide frame shots and find what you are looking for.


Additionally, photograph close ups of each garden, patio, and water feature.


Put Together a Base Map


This could be a whole post on it's own. In Pennsylvania, where I do almost all of my work, a site survey is not required at the sale of the home, so where actual property lines fall for many of my projects can often be a mystery. The best place to find site dimensions is from the property tax records in your municipality.


To apply this to your base map, figure out what the longest measurement is (as relevant to your design) and determine the scale you'll need to use to get that to fit on your paper.


Then take measurements of EVERYTHING on your site. Driveways, walkways, buildings, A/C units. Record the location of all trees, any water features, remaining shrubs, fences & gates. The list for each site is unique, but the more accurate your base map is, the easier the design phase will be.

sample title block

Transfer your measurements neatly to your base map at the scale you selected.


Include a title block with all relevant information and, of course, a north arrow.


Perform a Site Analysis


Cut your trace paper to the size of your base map and look at the different aspects of your site, including, but not limited to: sun/shade, slope, drainage, views, and circulation. Some sites may even warrant analysis of soil, wind, or sound. Sketch out how each of the aforementioned aspects occur on the site using your colored pencils or markers to create a descriptive picture of the site.


I always say, the site analysis is only a snapshot in time. With enough labor, time or money, almost any aspect of the site can be changed. But most people don't have unlimited labor, time and funds, so the design will have to work within many of the existing site constraints.


Once all of the site analyses are layered on top of each of each other, you will have a clear picture of what is happening on the site.


Start Designing!


There is so much nuance to how this actually starts and I’ll put more detail about the creative side in another post, but this is where we start applying the needs of the Users with the reality of the site conditions.


I like to start by laying out hardscapes – where the patios and walkways will go. I’ll also add in structures like pergolas and fences at this stage.


Next, I typically put in my structural plants- those that are going to need the most space or really define the views of the site. Evergreens will give year-round color and privacy; deciduous trees will give seasonal screening, shade in the warmer months and allow sun to reach through in the colder months.


Depending on the project, sometimes I’ll lay out bed lines before structural plants if the viewsheds aren’t as important, let’s say if it’s a project that already has a lot of mature trees or a project that is not in close proximity to other buildings.


If I’m satisfied with that layout, I’ll layer in lighting, shrubs and then perennials.


Only once alllllll of that detail is sorted, I get into labeling specific plants. With my experience, I am often thinking of what plant might go where during the layout, but I always reserve the right to change those initial thoughts until I start looking at the planting plan as a whole.


Bee Balm with Pollinator

In the planting plan, I'm considering:

  • Immediate size of the plant

  • Mature size of the plant

  • Seasonal interest

  • Environmental impact

  • Cultural conditions

  • Availability

  • And so much more...

So that's it! Following the above steps will start you on your way to creating a carefully thought out landscape design for a residential property. Stay tuned for posts to help develop that basic design into something more!


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If you don’t have the time to start a residential design or you just need help, it may be time to hire a landscape designer. For reasons why to hire a Landscape Designer and what to expect, check out my [future] blog post, Why Work With an Independent Landscape Designer.

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