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Create a General Landscape Plan

Whether you are developing a new landscape or renovating an old one, it is important to have a plan before doing anything with permanent implications. In the long run, not having a plan may create maintenance problems and reduce the overall appearance of the landscape. The following steps will help you develop a plan for a landscape that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Define Your Objectives and Constraints

This is the most important step of the landscape process. Establishing clear objectives and constraints at the beginning will help you achieve the benefits you hope to receive from your landscape plan. In practice, decide what type of layout best fits the needs of your household, while working within existing economic, social, environmental and physical constraints.

Possible objectives

  1. Low maintenance (reduced watering, pesticide and fertilizer applications, less mowing)
  2. Privacy
  3. Adequate recreation area
  4. Enhancement of appearance
  5. Attraction of wildlife habitat (includes forage and cover for birds and desirable insects)

Possible constraints

  1. Environmental conditions (includes climate, soil and precipitation)
  2. Physical barriers or obstacles on the landscape
  3. Social (includes public ordinances restricting water use or plant selection)
  4. Economic
  5. Physical handicaps

Texas A & M University provides an excellent website on landscape planning that will give more detail on how to assess and site and complete a plan of work.

Gather as much information as possible about your site and the area where you live. Make a preliminary map of your property, drawn to scale, that includes the locations of your house, buildings, sidewalks and driveway. Indicate on the map, or on a separate sheet of paper, the following information:

  1. Regional climate: In Idaho, cold hardiness is a critical factor for determining plant survival. Idaho covers five USDA hardiness zones, 3 to 6, (-50 to -10º F), with temperatures being affected by elevation and latitude. See a map of USDA hardiness zones. Heat and wind can also be considerations in the southern valleys of Idaho.
  2. Microclimates: These zones of sunlight, temperature, humidity and wind that are unique to your landscape and are different (more or less severe) from the regional climate. When conducting a site analysis, look for potential problem areas such as hot spots, frost pockets, wet spots or windy places or shaded areas. Also look for protected places where tender plants can thrive. Mark these microclimates on your preliminary map for future reference.
  3. Soils: Proper soil conditions are critical to plant growth and survival. Consider the drainage, soil pH, texture and organic matter when assessing soil-related characteristics of the landscape. Remember, most urban or residential soils are disturbed soils and probably do not have the good characteristics of native topsoil. It is possible in a small area to improve soil using various soil amendments.
  4. Topography: Lay of the land can affect microclimate and drainage and make some areas difficult to plant and maintain.
  5. Existing plant materials and structures: Show existing plants, sidewalks, driveways, patios and other structures on your preliminary plan.
  6. Access: Besides driveways and sidewalks, plot "traffic" areas around the landscape. Consider ways to improve access to your home or other parts of the landscape.
  7. Easements: Draw these on your map to prevent planting any permanent plant materials in these areas.
  8. Overhead utility lines, sewer lines, underground cables and transformers: Note these on your preliminary site plan and plan accordingly. A simple rule for planning around utilities is to use plant materials that when mature will not touch or interfere with utility equipment. Note: For more information, read UI Extension CIS 991, Landscaping and Utilities: Problems, Prevention and Plant Selection .
  9. Views: Assess views looking from and toward your house. Determine what you want to see or don't want to see.
  10. Available water: Show the location of your water sources. If your property has areas that are difficult to water, you may want to modify your plan to meet the needs of these areas by using drought tolerant plants or hardscape (nonliving) materials.
  11. Local ordinances: Consult state and local authorities for specific regulations about planting trees and shrubs along streets, sidewalks and rights of way.

A site maintained by Mississippi State University provides more information on conducting a site survey.

Define Use Areas

You can divide use areas into three major categories. Note: There are no distinct boundaries on these areas and they will frequently overlap in terms of function and appearance.

  1. Public areas: These are usually associated with the front of your landscape. The primary function of these areas is to provide an aesthetically pleasing entrance to your home.
  2. Private areas: These are the areas used for recreation, family activities and entertaining.
  3. Service areas: The areas are reserved for the vegetable garden, composting, pet and livestock areas, storage sheds, woodpiles and other utilitarian functions. They can resolve multiple problems by overlapping with areas that are difficult to maintain, have limited access to water or have poor soil.
For more discussion on identifying use areas, see this University of Missouri site.

Define Planting Areas

Plot planting zones based on water needs or plant maintenance requirements.

  1. Hydrozone or group plants with similar water needs in the same areas. To conserve water, do not mix plants that have low water requirements with plants that have high water requirements.
  2. Reduce maintenance activities by grouping plants with similar maintenance requirements together. In general, perennials, shrubs and trees generally require less frequent maintenance than annuals. For a detailed descriptions of low maintenance landscaping principles, see the publication Low Input Landscaping .
  3. Design planting areas to meet the objectives of your landscape plan. Consider the need for privacy, security, wildlife attraction, etc.

The house is the focal point of the design. The landscape should complement, not clash, with the house. The landscape is an extension of the living space. Just like the appearance and arrangement of your house affects your personal living space, so does the appearance and arrangement of your landscape. As you complete your design, consider these principles:

  1. Balance: Balance in a landscape can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical. In a symmetrical arrangement, you place equal numbers of plants, plants of equal size or structures or planting beds of equal size opposite each other on the landscape. When using an asymmetrical design, balance plants and structures in terms of volume of space occupied on the landscape. One example might be to plant a large red oak on one side of the yard to counterbalance a mass planting of ornamental shrubs on the opposite side. Also, you could counterbalance a deck with a perennial bed.
  2. Movement: You can create a sense of vertical and horizontal movement on the landscape. For example: Tall, columnar trees or shrubs draw your eyes upward, whereas a low, flat bed of colorful annuals pulls your eyes downward. Also, lines, especially curved lines of walkways or planting beds, create a sense of motion that encourages you to move visually and physically through the landscape.
  3. Harmony: The proper use of space, color, texture and plant materials on the landscape creates harmony. In practice, use plants and structures that are in scale with the house and enhance the overall landscape design with plants and plantings that complement each other with respect to color and texture.

Dr. Leonard Perry, University of Vermont, discusses basic design principles in more detail.

While some elements of a landscape are fixed and permanent, others can be manipulated to create the desired balance, movement and harmony. These include:

  1. Space: Use space effectively by: selecting a mixture of plants that provide an effective transition from the vertical plane (air) to the horizontal plane (earth) to create a better sense of harmony and balance; planting trees that provide filtered shade (e.g., honey locusts) rather than heavy shade (e.g., maples) for a more subtle influence on vertical space; selecting plants based upon their form and structure as well as their color or flowering habits; and using curved lines to create a more natural, informal appearance.
  2. Color: Color affects the landscape design in various ways, giving the landscape movement, accent and depth. Bright colors such as reds and yellows are good for accent, variety and for attracting attention to specific areas. Blues and dark colors create shade and depth.
  3. Texture: Texture is the "visual feel" of the landscape or of landscape plants. Some plants have a coarse texture because of their foliage, branching patterns or bark. For example, a horse chestnut tree with its large, serrated, compound leaves will have a coarser texture than a weeping willow.
  4. Plant arrangement: The individual attributes of the plantings and overall effectiveness of the landscape plan is affected by plant arrangement. Specimen plants draw attention to themselves because of their color, shape or size and should be separated in the landscape. Large shade trees (oaks, maples and conifers) or small trees and shrubs (ornamental crabapples, hawthorns, burning bushes and viburnums) make effective specimen plants. Mass plantings enhance the appearance of plants that may not be as attractive or effective individually. Annuals, perennials, small shrubs and ground covers are generally more effective as mass plantings. Also, on more naturalized landscapes, it is best to plant shrubs in odd numbered clusters for a more natural appearance.

Select plants that meet your design objectives. Important considerations include the following:

  1. Function: ­Select plants that have the appropriate mature size, shape and structure.
  2. Attractiveness: ­Make sure the plants have the desired color and texture characteristics.
  3. Cold hardiness and/or heat tolerance: Check to make sure the plant is adapted to the temperature zone for your area.
  4. Reduction of maintenance: Select species that require less water and fertilizer inputs. Also avoid plants that require excessive pruning and cleanup.
  5. Safety: This is especially important in areas that children will use. Try to reduce the number of plants that may have poisonous fruits, flowers or foliage or that have thorns or spines that can cause injuries.
  6. Plantings near utilities: ­ Make appropriate selections that will not cause interference.
  7. Economy: Make choices of plant material type and size based on affordability. Planting smaller plants will often allow planting of desired species.
  8. Use of native species: If a natural landscape is desired, native plants may be appropriate because they are better adapted to low maintenance situations within their home region. In Idaho, native plants can be more drought tolerant than nonnative species.
  9. Noxious nature: Noxious weeds are a serious problem in agricultural areas. If you plan to purchase or introduce plants from out of state, contact your local Extension educator for information or the County Weed Control supervisor about noxious weeds in Idaho.

Here are a few other considerations when buying plants:

  1. To ensure greater adaptability to your area, purchase plants that local seed sources have produced and
  2. To save money and allow inspection prior to purchase, check local nurseries before purchasing plants via mail order.


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