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The First Step in the Landscape Design Process: The Big Picture

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Back in my university days one of my horticulture professors talked about plunkers and planners. The plunkers were gardeners who seemed to plant everything whilly nilly wherever they could find space. The planners plot, plan, and diagram everything. Both of these methods can be successful and brilliant, and both of them can be utterly unsuccessful. The remarkable thing is that when both systems are successful it’s because they share a big picture plan. This plan may be only in the head of the designer, and it does not need to include every little detail, but it is always there.

Think Big Picture, Avoid Details for Now

The big picture plan, or master plan, is created by putting together a list of assets, liabilities, needs, and wants. A good master plan also needs to avoid too many details and specifics. Details will sink a master plan by saddling it with too many expectations up front. Yes, there is a time to get all the details down but you will have plenty of time to add them later as you get closer to building and installing. This is especially beneficial to a homeowner creating his or her own plan. By creating a large general plan early on, a homeowner can then divide it into chunks so that those small portions can be done over a number of years.

Example Plan

What does a master plan look like? Here is an example of a written plan:

  • Shade plants along the north side of house.
  • Shade plants on east side of house, 3-4 feet out.
  • Southside of driveway, two foot strip of sunny, bee-feeding perennial wildflowers.
  • Along inside of south fence, cool loving annual vegetables.
  • Back thirty feet of lot, chicken run.
  • Dwarf fruit trees in chicken run.
  • West side of house, tall fruit trees to shade from afternoon sun.
  • Twenty foot strip on west side of chickens, made into a vegetable garden.
  • From the north property line to ten feet in is the apiary. This is directly north of the new vegetable plot.

Master Plans Should Be Flexible

This describes 75% of what my plans are on my small lot. They are not complex or detailed; even the measurements are only approximations. The plan does not have all of the details needed to finish everything, and you can’t fully understand it if you have never seen the property, but I understand everything because I know the property well. If I end up needing to get professional help I will likely need to get a more formal plan in the way of a drawing, but really, for all the work I am intending this will be all I need to do until I am ready to plant a particular area. This type of plan is also very flexible. If you learn new things about your property you will quickly and easily be able to make changes. Even if you have to start from scratch, you will not go through a long laborious process. And it won’t hurt to create a few different master plans. The practice will only make your garden and landscape better.

So go ahead and design to your heart’s content!


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