Whether or not you consider yourself creative, the thought of designing your landscape can easily overwhelm you. The secret is to do what professional designers do — break it all down into manageable elements and only then reassemble those elements with a common theme. With a little practice, anyone can do this. All you need is to follow a few important rules and resist the urge to jump ahead or skip steps. The most important steps don't even involve designing! They're all about getting to know and understand your property better than ever before, especially its limitations. You WANT limitations. They help to narrow your options and focus your attention. Constraints are the key to stoking creativity. Take heart, you can do this!
- Unifying your theme - Landscape is an extension of your house's architectural story. The first major step in making a landscape design manageable is determining your theme. If your house is trying to be an English Tudor, then an English garden makes a lot more sense than palm trees or cactus. As soon as you choose a theme you eliminate thousands of choices.
- Make a study of your property - Good design accounts for everything from compass bearings to sunlight to sightlines. Here's what you want to know:
- Get out your compass, or compass app, or find your home on Google Earth, and determine its directional orientation. The Southern California sun rises in the east and makes its journey across the southern sky. That means south-facing elements get lots of sun, while stuff on the north side of the house will get a lot more shade.
- Track shade hourly. Set an hourly timer on a day when you're home and mark or photograph how the shade moves across your property. When you eventually get around to choosing plants you'll want to know how many hours of full sun and shade each planting zone gets.
- Build string structures. If you're thinking about building a trellis, arbor, or other structure, check it's sightlines and shade patterns by pre-building it in the form of a temporary placeholder with thin wood poles, string and ribbon. These will outline the structure visually for you and also cast shadows exactly where it will eventually do the same.
- Study every sightline. In real life you don't experience your property from just one fixed angle like a photograph taken from the street. Force yourself to really see how, where and when you see it. Get in the car and drive up to your house from both directions. What's the first part of the property you see? Photograph that angle. Do the same as you walk along the sidewalk, and again as you walk from the sidewalk toward the front door. Take pics of all those angles. Now go inside and take pics out every window from the places you'll be sitting or standing in every room. These are your sightlines. As you study your pics you'll soon discover certain areas of the yard are in nearly every single one while other areas are barely ever seen. Congratulations! You've just discovered your high and low priority zones.
- Identify focal points. There always should be—and probably already is—a certain hierarchy of visual elements on your property. Not everything receives or deserves the same amount of attention. Focal points are anything at the top of that hierarchy that draws your attention first. Sometimes we create them. Sometimes we want to eliminate them so they don't distract us. But unless you're standing in an empty lot, almost always every property has some already. Take note of them.
- Notice regulating lines. Regulating lines are just what they sound like—lines,real or imaginary, that criss cross your property and regulate your sense of space, distance or balance. The edges of your house usually form a regulating line. More obvious are the sidewalk edge and the driveway. Less obvious but just as important may be a line from the house to a large feature like a tree.
- Search your own desires to discover what you want out of a space - This is where you do some serious personal home design therapy. Time and again one of the most difficult questions for us to answer in life is: What do you want? And it's critical to the design process. But don't be confused. We're still not designing yet, so you don't need to answer with a specific landscape element or know what plants you want to use or anything specific like that. We're going for more of a sense of experience.
a. How do you want to use this part of the property?
b. How do you want this part of the property to make you feel?
c. How do you wish to move through it?
Ok, you know your theme and you know your property better. The intersection of sightlines, regulating lines, and focal points have located certain priority zones for you to focus on without being overwhelmed with everything all at once. And you've considered how you want to use and move through those zones, and how you want them to make you feel. Now you're ready to start designing! As you begin you'll want to give thought to these final four rules:
- Destinations & division of space - Good landscape is made of the exact same elements as are inside the house: rooms, halls, walls, doors, floors and ceilings. They just look different. A pathway is a hall. A tree canopy is a ceiling. A secret garden is a room. Especially outside, today's ever popular "open concept" fad is often the wrong choice. A yard without any division of space can seem smaller than it really is, and as uninspiring as your house if it had no walls between the bedrooms, family room, dining room and kitchen. Think about creating "destinations" and interesting paths of travel to reach them. If I come over and walk those paths, think about how you might control my pacing. Do you want me to get there directly? Quickly? Should I stop and linger? Do you want me to have the option of getting distracted and heading off somewhere else? Are you building my anticipation of arriving? Nowhere is the old cliche more true than in good landscape design: life is the journey, not just the destination.
- Thinking in all 3 dimensions - Inexperienced designers tend to think in two-dimensional terms, like moving pieces around on a flat chessboard. Always consider including differing levels and ground contours in your planning. Never forget up/down in addition to front/back and left/right.
- Rules of proportion and scale - You want to create a space, a small garden enclosure, a patio, but don't have a clue where to start in terms of shape or proportions? Start with something that follows the Golden Ratio: 1:1.6. This is a ratio of proportion deeply imbedded in all of nature, including human nature. We naturally find it pleasing to the eye. So if a patio area is going to be about 7.5' wide then 7.5x1.6 means it will look and feel great if it was also about 12' long. Want to "enclose" that same patio just enough to make it feel like it's own space? How high should the enclosure wall be? The rule of Significant Enclosure says the vertical enclosure should be 1/3 the horizontal space. So your 12' patio could use a 4' high fence. Anything significantly less and you won't feel so wrapped up and snug.
Follow these proportion rules, at least as a starting point for your design. If you break them, do it on purpose.
a. The Golden Ratio — 1:1.6
b. Law of Significant Enclosure — 3:1
- Rules of Planting - Have you noticed we've come all this way in Landscape design and haven't really talked about plants? That's because plant selection should almost always come last! If landscape design is just like designing a house (walls, rooms, hallways, etc.) then plants are the building materials we'll use to create some of those elements (ceilings, floors, doorways, etc.). First, figure out the structures and shapes you want to create. Then select plants that achieve those goals. And when you start to plant, take into consideration the following:
a. Plant big to small.
Always place the largest elements first then work your way down to the smallest.
b. Plant in masses.
Avoid using just one of anything. Instead, create a mass, a group, a clump of the same plants. Their impact will be far more dramatic.
c. Plant a variety of materials but choose a recurring element.
Weave together a cohesive theme by sprinkling one particular plant or design element through the whole design.
d. Use drip irrigation for everything you can, and deepwater any trees.
This goes without saying.
e. Take time to plant well.
There's an old saying: It’s better to plant a 50 cent plant in a $5 hole, than a $5 plant in a 50 cent hole.