Getting started with a landscape design

January 23, 2017

The most important aspects of successful landscape planning happen long before the first planting hole is dug. A lot of careful observation and thoughtful planning go into creating a landscape that will be a functional and pleasing part of your home. Whether you are landscaping a newly built home or improving an existing landscape, you might want to consider taking one of the courses offered by The Morton Arboretum, reading more extensively on the subject and, perhaps, consulting with a landscape architect or designer. To help get you started, this publication offers a simple overview of some of the questions to ask yourself and some of the considerations that go into developing an effective landscape plan.



One of the first steps is to look around…and take notes about what you do and don’t want to see. A key point is to identify good locations and choose among the possibilities to establish main focal points.

  • Stand inside your house and look out the windows and doors. What do you see? Which views do you want to keep? Which would you like to screen? Where would you like a little privacy, and where do you want an unobstructed view?

  • Go outside, stand with your back to each side of your house, and look out. Again, what do you see? Does your neighbor have a gorgeous rose garden you love to look at? Does your property back up to a park? Or do you see a neighbor's garbage cans behind their garage?

  • Stand in the street and look back at your house. Stand on the back property line and look at your house. Do you need some large trees to shade, “anchor,” or frame your home? Are there corners that need softening? Is there an air conditioner or utility box you want to hide? Do you need to create barriers to noise or prevailing winds? Do you need some privacy?

  • Location of air conditioner and utility hookups as well as any overhead wires for electrical, telephone, or cable service (You will also eventually need to know the exact location of all underground utilities. Call J.U.L.I.E. (1-800-892-0123) to have all buried cables marked. It’s helpful to do this in the planning stage. It’s essential to identify all buried utilities before starting to dig.)

  • Low-lying areas in the yard where water can accumulate or areas with poor drainage

  • Neighboring eyesores or views you’d like to screen as well as views you’d like to keep

  • Existing plantings, particularly mature trees, you’d like to incorporate into your new plan.

  • Food preparation and eating

  • Relaxation

  • Storage

  • Play, including playground equipment

  • Work/projects (This might be where you put your potting bench and compost pile or where your teenager does special projects.)

  • Gardens (These might include vegetable, cutting, herb, or perennial gardens.)

  • Welcoming or intimate entryway Some of the activities will suggest a convenient, functional location for your outdoor rooms. It makes the most sense for the outdoor area designated for food preparation and eating to be located near the kitchen door. Storage areas might be located near the garage or at the back of the property. You may want the children’s play area in plain view from certain indoor rooms of your house, while the work area might best be planned in a screened, remote area.

  • Sketch the locations of your outdoor rooms. How big will they be? How do they relate to the house and to each other?

  • Will you be adding any “hardscape”—a patio, deck, walk, gazebo, fencing, trellis, arbors? Where will these go?

  • What are the general shapes or outlines in your landscape? Will the planting beds, deck/patio, and walkways be gently curving or angular? Some things to think about include:

  • True geometric shapes (circles, squares, rectangles, and triangles) make the boldest statement. Consider, for instance, a circle of grass in the middle of the backyard for the play area

  • Formal houses and gardens often use straight lines (squares, rectangles). If your house’s architecture is formal, you may want to complement this with a formal landscape design

  • Nature makes great use of curving lines. If you are planning a prairie or using a naturalistic landscape style, you may want to take your cue from nature

  • Make lots of sketches. Be messy. Try out every idea that comes to mind. Don’t worry about the details at this point. You’re just looking for a general idea that incorporates your earlier thinking and appeals to you.

  • In front of or beneath windows

  • Beneath power lines

  • Along the driveway and walkways (Think about whether branches will eventually block these areas and whether roots may cause paved surfaces to heave.)

  • Around the foundation or around decks and patios.

  • Plan to rectify or accommodate drainage problems before you install plants. (You may need professional help to do so.)

  • In all likelihood, you will need to amend your soil by adding organic compost before planting. As organic matter decomposes, it provides nutrients for plants and enhances the soil by improving texture, structure, and water-holding capacity

  • After planting, apply a 3-4-inch layer of organic mulch, such as woodchips, around the base of plants to conserve moisture, keep down weeds, and moderate soil temperature fluctuations.

  • To learn more about home landscaping courses offered at The Morton Arboretum, please call the Registrar at 630-719-2468.

  • Residential Landscape Architecture: Design Process for the Private Residence by Norman K. Booth, James E. Hiss, Prentice Hall Career & Technology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1991.

  • Designing Your Gardens and Landscapes by Janet Macunovich, Storey Books, Pownal, VA, 2001.


As you look around, start making a list of things you’d like to include in your landscape. Why do you want this garden? Maybe you’d like fragrant, flowering shrubs under the window or along the front walk—two locations where the breeze might carry their scent to you. Maybe you’d like to look out your kitchen window and see the welcome green of stately conifers in every season. Would you like to have a potting bench and compost pile tucked in some hidden spot? Would you like a wide, grassy playing area for recreational activities? How about lighting along the path or around the deck? Do you want have an irrigation system? Write all your ideas down so you won’t forget.



You don't have to be an artist to do this. Start by creating a plan. You’ll need to know the size and shape of your house and where it sits on your lot, as well as the location of your lot lines. The easiest way to make a base map is to photocopy your plat of survey, perhaps reducing it to 8 1/2 x 11" or any other size that’s easy for you to work with. If you don’t have that, you’ll need to draw your lot lines on graph paper and then carefully measure your house and transfer its exact shape and location onto graph paper. Record all the features, such as location, size, and height off the ground of all doors, windows, and paved surfaces. Here are some other things to include on your map:

Create Outdoor Rooms Just as you have rooms inside the house that serve various functions, you can also divide your outside space into functional areas. Think about the ways you want to use your yard. Some areas you might want to include are:



Now it’s time to start pulling the pieces together. To do this, make lots of photocopies of your base map or use tracing paper. (If you use tracing paper, lay the paper over your base map and trace the lot lines, house location, and other items you’ve noted.) Let your imagination go.



Once you’ve got a rough sketch you like, start to refine it. You may find it useful to outline any new hardscape and planting beds with a garden hose. By simply moving the hose around on the ground, you can easily outline the space until the organization and scale appeal to you. Then, commit your idea to paper. You can measure the areas outlined by your garden hose and transfer this to graph paper, or use an architect’s scale to translate your rough sketch into a drawn-to-scale design.



The secret to gardening success is to select the right plants for the location. To do this, you’ll need to carefully observe each area of your landscape throughout the day. How many hours of sunlight does each area receive? Is it morning sun or afternoon sun? Are prevailing winds a factor? Will some of your plants be subject to automobile exhaust (or other pollution) or deicing salt spray? Are some areas of your landscape chronically wet or dry? What kind of soil do you have? Is it rocky? Sandy? Clayey? Or just right? All these factors are known as cultural conditions. Each plant species has its own cultural requirements, although some are more adaptable than others. Do as much research as you can to familiarize yourself with the plants you like. You’ll want to match the plants you select to the sites where you’re planting them. If you put a sun-loving plant on the shady, north side of your house, it won’t do well. Consider, too, the plant’s mature size. The 1-inch diameter maple you plant three feet from your house might work well this year, but soon, its branches will be scraping your windows and its roots will be tapping at your foundation. Here are some other places where mature size is an important consideration:

Plan a landscape that’s interesting in all seasons. Winter is long in northern Illinois, so give yourself something to look at when the growing season is over. Choose a plant that has one or more particularly attractive features. You can do this by incorporating trees and shrubs with colorful and persistent berries and nuts or bark

with interesting color or texture. Many perennials, such as achillea, aruncus, astilbe, echinacea, rudbeckia, and sedum, have long-lasting seedheads that can punctuate the off-season landscape. Ornamental grasses provide architectural elements in the winter garden, as well as a fastgrowing screen in the summer.



Landscape plants can be a big investment. You may want to spend some time observing their growth, fruiting, and flowering habits before making a buying decision. You can see many plants by visiting The Morton Arboretum or other public gardens. During the growing season, you can also see plants and get a lot of useful information at your local nursery or garden center. You may want to make your shopping excursions during weekdays when staff is likely to have more time to answer your questions. Plant catalogs and gardening books, many of which are available in The Morton Arboretum's Sterling Morton Library, are other excellent resources. When selecting flowering plants from a nursery or garden center, don’t just buy what is blooming now. Plan for continuous bloom by selecting plants that flower at various times during the growing season.



If you are undertaking a landscaping project, you’ll want to consider a few other factors:

Plan to rectify or accommodate drainage problems before you install plants. (You may need professional help to do so.)

In all likelihood, you will need to amend your soil by adding organic compost before planting. As organic matter decomposes, it provides nutrients for plants and enhances the soil by improving texture, structure, and water-holding capacity.


After planting, apply a 3-4-inch layer of organic mulch, such as woodchips, around the base of plants to conserve moisture, keep down weeds, and moderate soil temperature fluctuations.


From Morton Arboretum Website:
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