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The Landscape Design Process: Observation Key to Understanding the Big Picture

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For avid gardeners and landscapers, one great way to avoid the winter blues is by planning for next year. In my last blog post I discussed the importance of the big picture in the development of a master plan for your landscape. In this post I’d like to elaborate on an important and often overlooked way to help understand the big picture – observation.


If you want to be a good designer and a good gardener you need to spend time watching things. For a garden the first thing you need to do is step outside, rather you need to be willing to sit outside during all times of the day and all seasons. Here are just a few of the things you need to look for:

  • The amount of sunlight and the direction it comes from.
  • How water flows over, around, and through the property.
  • Where the winds come in each season and what they bring with them.
  • What insects, birds, and other animals come on or near the property.
  • What environmental or human made risks might harm the garden or property.
  • What human made or environmental assets might help the garden and property.
  • How much natural precipitation the property receives.
  • What and where any microclimates might be found on your property.
  • What trees, shrubs, and other plant assets are already on your property and are worth saving.

At my own place I have charted:

  • Where the sun rises and falls in the summer.
  • I have high school students walking by the front during the school year.
  • I have a cold sink on the south side of the property near the fence line.
  • Water rarely sits on my soil long enough to run anywhere, although the gutters are not straight and one of them dumps water all over my driveway.
  • The winds are chaotic and will take at least a full year to start predicting.
  • I have a surplus of root weevils, a hawk that perches on the power poll, more spiders than I have seen on any property, and a snake that may have just been moving through, but I hope decided to stay.
  • I have a walnut tree that is 50 feet across in an area that really only has 40 feet for the tree to safely grow.

Prioritize Goals

Once you have a good idea what problems and assets your land provides you can sit down and write a list of things you would like to do with your garden. Then take the two lists and see where things match. Keep in mind that the activities and plants that need the most attention each week will likely get the attention they need when they are close to the door or routes that are used regularly. Fruit and nut trees do fine with little weekly care and are great a bit further from the house, unless of course you are using them to shade the house from the south and west summer sun. You also need to remember that not every property can meet all desires, so you will need to keep in mind what your priorities are and why they are priorities. With good planning and a good understanding of what the needs are of your plants, along with some flexibility on how to meet those needs, you can fit a lot of good productive plants into a small area.


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