by Douglas Owens-Pike
There are four steps to accomplish, when working toward a landscape plan,before making decisions about what plants to add.
First is to map what is present. This includes property lines, known utilities, soil type (texture or particle size and tilth or structure), existing plants, important views, neighboring distractions (views to screen), direction water flows across site, and any unusual features that could impact the future landscape. Often it is critical to include on this base map trees and other elements beyond the property line that influence sunlight available, water flow, and sight lines. Don’t restrict your inventory to elements only on the land you are designing.
Second step is to take time to visualize your desires for how you want to make best use of this land. This may include your favorite place to stop to contemplate the world. That location may require radical change to frame the view and claim it as your own. One way to find this spot is to physically wander the property. Another method is to travel in your mind until you reach a spot that feels most welcoming. It may help you feel more grounded or allow you to cast off daily concerns. The garden design can radiate out from this special point to help determine paths, screening, and how to shape the land to guide surface water flow.
A small amount of surface shaping can dramatically improve where storm water travels and where it collects. This water is an important resource as our weather becomes increasingly erratic, with long periods of drought that end with too much water coming too quickly. Hard surfaces like roofs and pavement can be sued to guide this flow toward a slight depression where you want water to soak in deep into the soil. These temporary pools, with no standing water two days after a rain event, are called raingardens. Plants selected for these depressions are ideally adapted to both drought and flooded soil. They can range in size from low perennials and showy grasses and sedges to trees and shrubs, depending on your goals for views in that area, either open or private.
The third step, which will bring your vision into focus, is to identify which existing plants are worth saving or require removal. This decision could be a product of poor placement or changing goals, or due to invasive properties and are not appropriate for your habitat. It may be the right tree species, but poor pruning or care have allowed it to grow into a form that does not fit with your new vision. Once undesirable plants are removed, you can more easily see and walk your land to confirm the desired views from your home or your favorite spot in the landscape.
The fourth step is to determine the best flow, how you want to move through the space, both where paths will be built and the routes to move surface water flow, guiding it to the best raingarden locations. After these primary routes are established you can determine if existing soils will support the plants desired or if any soil amendment would be helpful. Compost can be an important amendment, tilled into the raingarden basin after removing topsoil to achieve the depth for best water collection. Compost can also be helpful to loosen compacted soils and make it easier for new plants to become established. Soils, either heavy with clay or extremely sandy, will be improved by tilling several inches of compost deep into that parent soil. After adding these amendments it is possible to do final grading to achieve the best water flow results.
The final design step is to decide what plants could be added to create the views and structure your early design steps predicted. Deciding the right plants is a process of knowing your site. Successful plant choice evolves from knowing your soil texture, sunlight and water available. The first four design steps predict locations of garden beds vs. trees and shrubs or lawn and spaces for entertaining. Most important is to enjoy this process and be patient knowing that the best results come from taking time for more deliberation.
Please enjoy the other Garden Design Round Table perspectives on design basics by following the links below.