Makeover Step 4 – Lay it Out

You’re now ready to start experimenting with the layout of the design.  This is the part where you’ll actually start to draw out your vision.  This is also a time when many homeowners decide to hire professional help.  If you make that decision, now you’ll have a well defined goal statement to take to a professional garden designer. Either way, we’re here to help!

Keep it simple

You won’t need to buy design software to lay out your design, especially if you’re going to install your design yourself.  If you decide to hire a professional to install your entire design, then you might want to consider making some precise, detailed drawings, but let’s start the process with good ol’ paper and pencil.

First, prepare by getting yourself that paper and pencil.  I find that even if you prefer to make drawings on the computer, it’s easier to start with paper and pencil.  One trick I’ve learned is to start by drawing your property and your house along with any existing structures or features that will be staying.  Just use rough outlines, no need to make it perfect just yet. You can make copies of this drawing and then use them to try different versions of your layout.

It can really be that simple.  It’s just for ideas at this point.  Next we’ll have to place our features into the layout.  Place all of the features! Try several different locations for your features.   At the end of this exercise you should have lots of different layouts.  you can then choose the best one.

Here are some tips to help you along the way:

Make it easy!

Remember to make your design serve you , not the other way around.  Avoid putting features where they are difficult to access.  Think about how you currently use your home and how your new design can work into your existing routine. The more difficult a feature is to access and use, the less likely you will be to use it.

Position your hardscapes first!

When you’re making your layout, you should always layout the hardscapes first.  Hardscapes are the solid structures of your design like patios, stone walls, fire pits, pergolas, etc.  Plantings will be adapted to fill spaces between and around the hardscapes.

Get out there!

You’ll need to spend some time out in the property.  Take a chair and sit in the proposed relaxing and dining areas.  How does each one feel? Where does it feel best?  If you can’t decide, always refer to the goal statement.

Don’t rush this process.  Take as much time as you need to feel right about it.  And remember to refer back to the goal statement as much as you want.   You can also refer back to the Five Laws or previous sections to help you out.

Design around your septic system

If your home has a septic system, you MUST design around it!  This is very important!  Septic systems can have a large drainfield (sometimes called a leaching field) that cannot be disturbed by your design.  Unfortunately, this could have a big impact on how you lay out your design.  You should not plant or lay hardscapes over your drainfield.  You will also have to allow access to your septic system in case it ever needs repair.

If you are connected to a city or town sewer system, you probably don’t have a drainfield in your yard, but it’s always good to check.  If you’re not sure talk to your local building inspector or get a plot plan of your property at your local registry of deeds.

Here are some links to help you understand how septic systems may effect your design:

Septic Drainfields by

Properly Landscape Your Septic System by Washington State University

You also need to be aware of any underground water or electrical lines on your property. Do you have any outdoor electrical outlets in the area you are designing?  What about water spigots or irrigation systems?  These all need to be taken into account for your layout.  If it’s important enough to you, water and electrical lines can be moved to accommodate your design, but septic systems are not easily moved.

It’s all about the water!

Another very important aspect of your layout is water runoff.  Planted beds and hardscapes may create high spots or burms in your yard.  These can easily act as dams that prevent water from running off of your property.  Water needs to run away from your house and have a way to get out of your property.  Be careful not to create an unwanted pond in your yard!  When you’re laying out your design, think of how water will move through your property in a very heavy rain.  It should not collect anywhere.  Be aware that most planting beds are higher than the surrounding lawn.

Creating Styles and Moods in your layout

Your  layout can effect the style and mood of your yard more than you might think.  Here are some tips for setting the mood:

  • If you’re looking for a very open and social style, use large open spaces and position dining and cooking features close to the house.
  • If you’re looking for intimate or cozy, your gathering areas should be a little farther from the house and more closed in with plantings, stonework or structures like pergolas.  Be careful not to put gathering areas so far from the house that they’re difficult to get to or carry food and drinks to.

OK, now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, let’s start laying out your design.  Remember that we always position hardscapes first and then position plantings around them.

For now, we don’t need to worry about scale or exact size, just start by drawing in the hardscape features as you first envision them.  Don’t worry about it being perfect. Try a few different layouts and see how they look.  Just use simple shapes to show the features.  We haven’t designed the details of your features yet, so they can’t be much more!

This is where you can really start picturing the transformed yard.  Move things around in your mind.  If your designing your own yard, walk out into it while you’re imagining it.  Picture yourself inside the design, not looking at it from a distance. Remember to design from the inside out!

The idea is to create a feeling that lives up to the goal statement.  Go ahead and picture yourself walking around your proposed layouts.  Do these proposed layouts live up to the standard set by your goal statement?

Once you’ve created a few different versions of the layout, present them to your family or others who will be enjoying the finished yard.  Make a group decision involving all those with a stake in the property.  The process will be smoother if everyone involved buys into the design.  If it’s just you involved, use your goal statement to make the decision.  Which layout serves the goal better?

Traffic lines and lines of sight

Think of how people will move through your design.  Traffic lines should be smooth and easy.  A good design should not have a lot of intersecting traffic patterns. Also remember that if you have parts of your design that are there to add aesthetic beauty (like flower gardens or statues, etc.), make sure they are visible from key points in your design where people will be able to see them easily.  People will generally not go out of their way to look at a planting, it has to be where they will see it as part of their natural path through your property.

When designing for kids play areas, make sure there is a direct line of site from where the adults will be to the play area.

Walkways and access points

When you’re rough layout is complete, you can go ahead and add walkways and access points.

Walkways are usually necessary for high traffic areas where the traffic would damage a lawn.  They can also have other purposes.  For example, they can encourage traffic to go in a certain direction.  They can also be added purely for aesthetic value.

First, look at your layout and draw lines where the traffic will flow.  Start from where people will  enter the the landscape.  Anyplace where these traffic lines go over grass, you should consider some sort of walkway.  Traffic will eventually kill a lawn and you will end up with a dirt path that becomes muddy in the rain.  Traffic over grass can only work if the traffic very light and infrequent.

Avoid trying to create traffic patterns that are not natural.  In other words, do not expect people to walk in  traffic patterns that  require extra effort.  People will always seek out the easiest and most natural path to get where they’re going.  If you want to coax people into a specific traffic pattern that is not natural , you will need to make it almost impossible to stray from the path.  This is usually done with plantings or other barriers to guide the path users.  Do not underestimate the tendency of visitors to find the quickest way between two points (especially children).   I find it’s always best to adapt to the natural paths people choose, or create  impenetrable barriers to direct them where you would like.

Also, you’ll need to look at how people enter and exit your layout.   Do you need to add gateways or openings in a fence or hedge?  Give some serious thought to how people enter and exit your layout.  I’ve found it’s better to have more access points than less, so, if you’re not sure, add access points generously.  Access points can be as simple as an opening in a planted area or as specific as a lockable gate or door.  Check out our Landscape Features section for ideas on walkways and access points.  You won’t need to design them fully just yet.  For now, just locate them on your rough layout.

When you’re done adding walkways and access points, go ahead and add them to your landscape features list as necessary.  Not all access points will become features.  For example, an opening in a planted hedge is not a landscape feature, but an arbored entranceway certainly is.

Once you’ve created your final layout, you can start designing the detail of your landscape features.

Next: Design the Features