Tips on Landscaping A New House

Janet K. Larkin
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

This is a great time of year to play with the design of your property. You have plenty of non-gardening time. Your shovels and mowers have been put away. Weeds have slowed up. It's finally raining!

The first step is to draw what you have. If you're not sure what tools you need, check out this website for some good ideas. Then you will have a base to draw many versions of a design to compare before you decide on a final plan. You may have tried this in the past. You bought some graph paper. You started to measure the house. Then you got to the yard. Landscapes don't normally have 90' angles so how do you make all those irregular measurements? Can you remember old geometry formulas from high school? You probably decided to draw a plan but not draw it to scale. Well you don't have to give up that easily this time.

The first step is to gather some supplies. You will need a large clipboard the can fit a 18" by 24" piece of paper, 18" x 24" paper, and a 25 foot tape measure (100 foot is better if you have it or can borrow it). First make a rough sketch of your property on a large sheet of paper. This will be used for recording measurements. If you make a rough sketch at the beginning you won't run out of paper halfway through your measurements.

Now measure the perimeter of your home, starting from any corner. Note the locations of doors and windows. Next measure the distance from the corners of the house to the edges of the property. Try to measure lines that are perpendicular to each other starting from the same point on the house. Use your arms stretched out in front of you to line yourself up with walls. Then measure the perimeter of your outside property lines. Make a note of existing trees, planting beds, and other permanent structures. The best way to record these distances is to mark a line from the corner of the house to the property line. It is helpful to have two tape measures here. Then take measurements from that line at right angles to the corners of the structure, recording both the distance from the corner of the house and the distance from the corners of the structure to the line. For curved beds take measurements every ten feet or so. Don't give up here. Remember that once you record these measurements you can use your drawing for years to come and countless outdoor projects! You can also measure changes in grade but I will not get into that here. For now just use arrows to indicate downhill directions on your drawing.

OK. Now that you have taken more measurements than you ever thought possible, you are ready to begin your drawing. This is the fun part. I suggest buying a few inexpensive supplies to make your drawing more professional. You will need a large flat surface to work, large (18"x 24" or even 20"x 30")pieces of vellum paper, masking tape, pencils, eraser, two drafting 90 degree triangles, and a special triangular ruler called an architects scale. You can find all these supplies at an art supply store or even an office supply store. Drawing Board Plus at 926 East Street in Frederick is helpful and has enough supplies to make you want to become a professional! Vellum is recommended because it is see-thru like tracing paper but official blue print copies can be made from it.

To determine the appropriate scale for your drawing, divide the working length of the paper by the length of your property. For instance, to fit a 100 ft property on a 20 inch paper you would divide 20 by 100 which equals .2 or 1/5th. Since the architects scale doesn't have a 1/5th scale you chose the next size smaller which would be 3/16th scale (.1875 on a calculator). Then for the whole drawing you would use the 3/16th side of the ruler to draw your measurements. Using this scale every 3/16th inch is equal to one foot of your property. The smaller increments on the ruler between the zero and the scale number represent the twelve inches in a foot on this scale. Don't give up, it is easy to understand when you are holding the scale/ruler in your hands. Basically you want to use the biggest scale that will fit on your paper. Maybe trial and error will work best for you, so start with your largest measurements first, before you discover that your sidewalk goes off the edge of the paper!

Next, tape your paper down to your smooth drawing surface. It is helpful to have a few layers of poster paper under your drawing paper to give you a softer surface. Tape the corners diagonally so the paper doesn't curl up at the corners. Then transfer the measurements, drawn to scale, to your paper. Use the triangles to make straight lines and right angles. You can hold one edge of the triangle along a drawn line and abut the other triangle up to it to draw other perpendicular or parallel lines. Use the scale to mark off the correct distance. This will take some time, so have patience. Do not attempt to draw a design on this drawing. This is just your starting point. You can tape down another piece of tracing paper or vellum on top of your drawing to work on the design after you are completed. Landscape architects will often have many layers of tracing paper in top of each other before they decide on a final plan. You can use your drawing over and over again for many projects. If you find that you would like to make a design for just one area of your property you can use your original measurements to draw a section, such as the front yard only, at a larger scale. Once you learn to use the scale you will find yourself designing rooms in your house and patios and decks. The possibilities are endless! It makes so much more sense to try designs out on paper before digging holes.

You can find many helpful books about landscape design. I recommend "Landscaping Your Home" a Fine Gardening Design Guide by Taunton Press.

Be sure to take into consideration:

  • Rain water flow and drainage

  • Soil composition and quality

  • Sun exposure-north, south, east, west

  • Shading from buildings and trees

  • Who will use the yard---kids, pets, party guests…

  • The time you want to spend on maintenance

  • How people move through the yard

  • Views to hide

  • Style of the house

  • Style of the locality or region

  • Practical considerations such as storage, compost, garbage cans, hoses

  • Budget

  • Time frame

  • Views from inside the house

  • Your planting zone

In general it is best to build your hardscape first, items such as patios, decks, and paths. If this is not possible, plant away from future sites of construction. Pick up ideas from other homes and gardens that you see, from books and magazines and from your own imagination. Once you have started a plan you will begin to notice details that you never paid attention to before. Be sure to consider mature sizes of plants when making your design and pick the right plant for the right place. For example, don't plant a cactus in a swamp!

Try to have fun. But if it seems like too much work, now the architect or designer's price might seem like a bargain!

Read other articles by Janet Larken