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Landscaping from Scratch – 7 Steps to Designing a Garden Plan
Overwhelmed with figuring out your landscaping from scratch? Here’s 7 steps to get your landscaping project on the right foot… even if you’re a beginner! In this post, I’ll guide you step-by-step through the 7 steps to landscaping your yard from scratch:
- Gather garden and landscaping inspiration photos
- Determine your garden style
- Create a scale plan (drawing) of your landscape
- Take a site inventory of your yard’s conditions and features
- Create a garden wish list
- Draw out some designs on your scale plan
- Research plants and features that fit your style
My name is Amy, and I help beginner gardeners create landscapes that are uniquely you. I have diploma in garden design and maintenance and I’m also a professional graphic designer and I teach garden design online through my four season garden design course.
Design/Planning is the Home Gardeners Biggest Obstacle
Pretty Purple Door’s qualitative response survey asked 421 home gardeners: When it comes to your landscape, what’s the biggest problem, frustration or obstacle you’re currently facing?
Results were analyzed and coded into 6 major categories.
The survey revealed that 57% of home gardeners struggle with design and planning. The design/planning category included responses related to turning a vision/idea into reality, determining a gardening style, arranging plants in garden beds, pairing plants together and issues/concerns expressed about getting started with a new project.
Other problems faced by home gardeners are:
- soil/weeds/drainage (11.9%): dealing with poor soil, rocks, weeds, invasive plants or drainage issues that are causing their plants to die or their plans to change.
- labor/care (11.9%): not having enough time to dedicate to gardening, dealing with overgrown gardens, watering chores and/or the gardener’s age and/or health affecting their ability to manage the garden.
- animals/conditions (9.7%): animals, pests and/or bugs harming plants or specific situations related to the location of the home (like sloped lawns, tree-related issues or privacy issues).
- other (5.2%): miscellaneous issues such as hardscaping, overwhelm due to too many projects, new home style, new gardening environment, lack/abundance of space and all other issues that wouldn’t fit into the other categories).
- cost (3.8%): financial situation is creating stress in designing and/or maintaining landscape (see: gardening on a budget).
Since design/planning is the #1 obstacle, I created this 7-step guide to take you through the process of designing a landscape plan from scratch.
Side note: I also have an article about improving your existing landscape, if that sounds more like you.
1- Gather garden and landscaping inspiration photos
So the first thing that I would suggest if you really don’t know where to start, is to go on a website where you can start to curate photos of landscapes that you like. Websites like Pinterest.com and Houzz.com are great options for this.
Just type in some keywords and start to collect photos that you are attracted to.
Then, review your saved photos and look for patterns and trends in the photos you chose. Do your photos have anything in common? Like…
- the colors of the plants or features
- the styles of the gardens you tend to like (modern, traditional, cottage and naturalistic are common garden styles)
- the types of plants used (maybe they all use roses, succulents, structural evergreen shrubs or beautiful flowering trees?)
- the types of features used (brick pathways, bird baths, water features, stone edging, etc.)
Using this simple trick will give you far better results than blindly posting into a public gardening group and asking for advice from strangers.
2- Determine your garden style
As you start to curate photos that you like, you’re going to start to see what type of style you like. When you start to collect your photos, you’re essentially curating your garden style. Whether it’s messy, really formal, modern, cottage or somewhere in between… collecting photos is the easiest way to figure this out.
The cool thing about determining your garden style is that there are certain plants, materials and features you can use to bring that style to the forefront. It takes a lot of the decision fatigue out of the process for you (more on this later).
Quick Tip: If you’re having trouble with this step, head over to my Garden Styles post to determine which style is right for you.
3- Create a scale plan (drawing) of your landscape
The next thing that you want to do after you curate some photos and determine your garden style is to actually measure your yard and draw it out. It’s called drawing a scale plan.
And I know this is daunting. Most people don’t want to do this. And, that’s why they can’t have the garden they’ve always dreamed of. Believe me when I tell you that this step is a non-negotiable when creating a landscape from scratch.
To properly plan out your garden, you need to know the size of your garden and what else may play a part in the plants and materials you choose. A lot of times people think they have a rectangular square yard. But then if you look at the actual scale plan, you’ll realize that it’s longer on one side than the other… or there’s a corner of your lot that juts out a bit that you never noticed before doing this. Some of these things are not easy to see without the drawing.
How to measure and draw your yard to scale
Start your scale plan by measuring the perimeter of your property and marking the distances on a sheet of paper. You can use a fiber tape reel which is just a large, flexible tape measure that can measure long distances. Here’s the Amazon link for the one I use by Komelon. It comes in 100′, 200′ and 330′ lengths.
Using graph paper, you’ll be able to scale down that size based on the squares in the paper. For example, maybe one square on the paper is one foot in your garden. So if your yard is 40 feet long, you will draw a line that’s 40 squares of the grid paper in length.
Alternative to hand-drawing a scale plan
If this is sounding way too complex for you, another great option is to find your house on Google Maps. When you type in your address on Google Maps, you’ll get an overhead view of your property so you can see your whole property at one glance! Even better yet, switch to the “Satellite mode” so you can see a real photo of your house, trees and other elements of your property. Right-click on the map to print out the picture of your property and you’re off to the races.
You can watch this video for more information: How to use Google Maps to create a Landscape Base Map.
Lastly, you can also hire a site surveyor in order to do this work for you. Here’s some more information about boundary surveys and what you’ll need to know before you hire a professional.
Don’t forget to make a few copies of it so you can use them in the next few steps.
4 – Take a site inventory of your yard’s conditions and features
In a landscape site inventory, notes are made on the scale plan about the conditions and features of the property.
Why do you need a site inventory? It’s because a lot of the decisions you’ll make in your landscape may be determined by the notes you make! You’ll need to use different types of plants for different conditions. The conditions can also dictate where you’ll put a patio, plant a feature tree or even need a screening wall or fence. Below are some of the things you should mark down on your plan.
Make a note of north, south, east and west on your plan. This will inform you as to where on your property the sun rises (east) and sets (west).
Marking the directional position of your home and garden will also help you to determine the amount of sun that your landscape will get and at what time. For example
- North-facing gardens get the least alight and can be damp. This can be great for shade-loving plants.
- South-facing gardens get the most sunlight. It can be too hot for some plants.
- West-facing gardens get (very hot) afternoon sun and evening light.
- East-facing gardens get the cool, morning sun.
- Your garden aspect can also help you to determine the direction of prevailing winds. Prevailing winds in the US typically blow from west to east.
- When planning the backyard landscape of a north-facing home, your backyard is south-facing. That means it receives sun for the majority of the day.
It’s important to know that every garden aspect comes with advantages AND challenges. There are also many other things that can affect the conditions in your garden… beyond just the direction it faces.
Make note of your garden aspect on your scale plan.
Mark off all areas of your landscape that are in full sun and/or full shade. We already did a bit of this work. But there may be other areas of your yard that are blocked by tall shade trees, or are shaded by a neighbor’s house or even a shed or other structure. So make note of these areas, too.
As a rule of thumb, an area that gets under 3 or 4 hours of sun in an entire day is considered shady. An area that gets 6+ hours of sun in a day is full sun.
Mark places where electrical wires cross over your property. That way, you’ll be able to avoid planting a tall tree right underneath the power lines.
Mark any permanent fixtures or access points on your house, such as air conditioning units, water spigots, electrical outlets, meters, etc. Don’t forget to mark doorways and common walking paths – you can indicate these with arrows.
Mark the direction the wind commonly blows. If you have observed your landscape and have noticed the common direction of wind you can mark that. If you aren’t sure, prevailing winds in the United States typically blow from west to east so you can make a note of that.
Make note of any changes in grade or slope on your property. This is also really helpful so you know where you may need to terrace your property. At the very least, it will help you to determine the areas where water may pool or settle. This can affect where you place certain plants and features.
Mark the views you want to highlight or disguise. If there’s a beautiful view of your neighbor’s old oak tree from your kitchen window, make note of that on your plan so you don’t forget to incorporate the view into your design.
Similarly, if your neighbor has a garbage heap along the side of the house that you really hate looking at, make a note of it so you can block that view with your new landscaping.
Also consider areas where you may need some extra privacy; like near your outdoor dining space or adjacent to your neighbor-with-seven-kid’s pool.
5 – Create a garden wish list
And after you have an idea the overall shape of your yard and have marked any conditions or features that may affect your landscape plan, you’re ready to start the fun stuff! Yay! Start creating an inventory list of what you want in your garden. Your wish list can include anything and everything you want in your yard. Here are some ideas to get your started:
- seating areas / patios
- play areas / relaxing areas (fire pit, etc.)
- BBQ area / dining area
- privacy/screening from bad views
- vegetable patch or areas for your hobbies
- water features, sculptures, focal points, etc.
Make a complete wish list and dream up all that you can dream. Anything goes here. And while you probably won’t be able to include everything on your list… knowing what you really want from your landscape before you start will give you the best chance of actually being able to incorporate more of the wish list items you want.
Planning is everything, as you are probably learning by now :).
Make sure you go back to your inspiration photos for ideas in this step. My enchanted garden Pinterest board had a lot of different features like a tree swing, organic shaped arbor gates and rustic sculptures with colorful stained glass inserts.
6 – Draw out some designs on your scale plan
Now that you have all of your measurements, your site inventory and your wish list figured out, you can start to draw out your ideas onto paper.
I like to make multiple copies of my scale plan and draw the designs right onto that. This way, I know that the drawings are “to scale” and I’m able to draw a lot of different ideas and keep my creativity flowing!
Tip 1: Draw quickly and make lots of different versions
Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a fancy professional artist or designer to do this. You can create a drawing using simple shapes like circles, squares or bubbles. It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece.
Tip 2: Start with 2 interlocking shapes
My ninja tip for this is to start with two interlocking shapes. So maybe a big circle in the middle and then connect a square to that. See where your mind takes you. What shapes make the most sense to fit into the shape of your yard?
Once you have your shapes drawn, the outside area of the shapes can become your planting beds. The inside of the shapes are two distinct areas of your landscape, like a patio and a lawn, for example.
Quick Tip: If you like this interlocking shapes idea, head over to my post about narrow garden layouts and design tips to make each layout work for your space. It will give you a little insight into my thought process when designing for certain types of spaces.
Tip 3: Try a bubble drawing
If this isn’t coming easy to you, you can try creating a bubble drawing. This is basically drawing loose shapes to incorporate different elements you want in your landscape. So, take a look at the site inventory and start to put your items in. If you want a vegetable patch, find the area on your site inventory that gets loads of sun, and draw a little square in there.
Keep drawing your bubbles to see how many of the features from your wishlist you can incorporate into your landscape. Don’t forget to leave spaces for your plants!
I like to draw lots of different versions of bubble drawings to see what kind of configurations I can come up with. It’s kind of like playing Tetris with your landscape.
After a few tries, you’ll probably realize that you can’t fit EVERYTHING into the size of your yard. So, you’ll have to start narrowing things down and really decide what’s most important to you. Then, keep on drawing!
Usually after a few tries you’ll be on your way to a great design concept. Honestly, if you’ve made it this far you’re officially lightyears ahead of most homeowners!!
By the way, if you’re getting a lot of value from this article, you’re going to love my Plant Perfect Activity Book. This activity book is a creative & fun way to get you thinking about your property in a whole new way… all while drawing, coloring and crafting your way through fun, hands-on garden design activities.
You can also head over to this article for more detailed instructions on creating bubble drawings.
7 – Research plants and features that fit your garden style
So after you are settled (or almost settled) on a drawing, you will have a pretty good idea of where you’ll place things in your landscape. That means you’re ready to start choosing your hardscape materials and plants.
Choosing hardscape materials
Hardscape materials are the materials you’ll use for hard surfaces in the garden like patios, walkways and other structures. I wrote an article on different Garden Styles that gives some material examples for each style. This is really helpful in deciding what types of hardscape materials you should use in your landscape.
For example, materials that are very rustic and bumpy lean towards cottage style and the more smooth and sleek they get, the more modern/contemporary the landscape becomes. From my experience, most people will fall somewhere in between the two.
Choosing your plants
Your plant choices will “soften the edges” of the hardscape materials, so it’s important to leave enough space to put your plants in.
Quick Tip: Learn more about arranging plants in your garden in this easy-to-follow post.
First, take a look at your inspiration photos all the way from step 1. See if you can pinpoint any plants or flowers that you really like.
You may also find it helpful to choose a single color to base your landscape around. My article about using color in the garden is really helpful if you want to learn more about doing this.
Your garden style can also give you hints about what plants and colors to use.
I’d also recommend you take a look at my article on researching plants. It’s filled with all sorts of information on narrowing down your plant choices so you can select the right plants for your conditions. And, since you already did a site inventory, you are a step ahead! Now you just need to narrow down the plant choices to fit in those areas. The good news is there’s lots of different tricks and even websites and apps in the article that will make this easy to do.
Did you know that you can have the exact same garden design and using different hardscape materials and plants you can make the garden look completely different? It’s true! These are the two biggest indicators of what your landscape will feel like when it’s all done.
Lastly, I’m really passionate about not asking for landscape advice in public forums and Facebook groups. And I only bring this up because it’s where I see most beginner gardeners looking for advice on how to landscape their yard from scratch. So… if you’re interested in hearing more about this you can head over to this post where I give lots of tips and advice for navigating these public forums as a beginner gardener.
I hope that you now realize that you have a clear path for doing all of the research that will lead you to your perfect dream garden. Before you know it, you’ll be sitting outside enjoying a landscape that is UNIQUELY YOU. And that’s what I’m all about here!
In this article, we went from starting a landscape from scratch, feeling completely overwhelmed with how to get started, all the way through a simple step by step process for making your dream landscape a reality!
Now, I know some of these steps are time consuming and it’s not something you can do overnight… but you CAN do it. Just start with step one and keep on going.
If you’re just starting your landscape from scratch and you’re expecting to find a landscape designer to give you advice and draw you free plans in a Facebook group, you’re going to be disappointed. In my opinion, there are two options:
- Hire a professional and pay them for their work, or
- Take a DIY approach to landscaping your yard from scratch.
Choosing option 2 means you’ll have to take the time to understand all the pieces that go into your landscape and how to make it unique, creative and show off your personality.
I really believe that any home gardener CAN do this yourself and have a lot of success with landscaping your yard from scratch. If you want to take the next steps with me, I invite you to take my free video training that covers the 3 biggest mistakes that home gardeners make that prevent them from getting their dream garden. It’s completely free and will really energize you to start this process off on the right foot!
So remember: you either need to be willing to take the DIY approach, or you need to be willing to pay a professional to help you (at the very least) create a plan and work with you on all the planning and research. But that in between place… where you don’t want to do it yourself OR hire someone to help you… can be a really bad place to be. But, all you need to do get started… all the way at the top of this page… with step one!
More garden design posts you’ll love
- Naturalistic Garden Style: How to Achieve it in Your Own Backyard (Complete Guide)Minimal maintenance, colorful blooms and buzzing with biodiversity: how to accomplish the naturalistic garden style right in your backyard.
- Traditional Garden Style: Create a Landscape that Reflects Classic Charm (Complete Guide)Timeless, classic, and balanced – this complete guide is all about the traditional garden style and how to create one in any space you choose.
- Design a Garden Layout: A Step by Step Guide to Planning Your Dream LandscapeIn this beginner-friendly step by step guide, you’ll learn how to design a garden layout and plant for peace & privacy so you can get your dream garden.
- 13 Pro Tips for a Low Maintenance Landscape (+Mistakes to Avoid)Whether you’re trying to transition your garden into less work, or you’re starting from scratch and you want to start off on the right foot, these tips for a low maintenance garden will help you do just that.