Begin Before the Beginning

” The Red Queen gave Alice sage advice on storytelling when she said, ‘Begin at the beginning, go on until you come to the end, and then stop.’ But it is advice that I seldom follow. I usually begin somewhere before the beginning; write until the beginning identifies itself; and I always run the stop sign at the end. Only then do I stop. And revise. “

Gerald Carbone,  Journalist

Racket Shreve

Making a Beginning

“…It’s only a matter of finding someone to start them off, someone prepared to communicate and share…..to turn them into mad keen gardeners”

…………………………,……..Christopher Lloyd  The Adventurous Gardener


  • Start a file folder labeled Landscape.

A legal sized folder may serve you best because drawings and plot plans are often oversize, and anyway things accumulate. Even if you are keeping information in your computer, there will be lots of images and bits of paper to file from the tangible world that you may want to refer to.

Receipts for the landscape work done will be important to keep since they represent potential ‘capital gains’ deductions applying to the cost base of your home should it be sold later in its life.

  • Take a photo series of the whole property before you begin.

These will be your ‘before’ pictures, so be thorough because, like baby pictures, you won’t be able to take them later. You will enjoy having a record of how far you’ve come as things progress.

I typically take a series of  photos, sequential images of the existing property, with the series of views seen traveling back and forth in all the natural walking ways. You are after a complete record of the appearance of the house and grounds. Unimportant views can become important later as your place develops.

You can use these photos as working images. With them you can readily reflect on whichever context you happen to be thinking about, even after dark and in the winter. They will provide elevational views which can allow you to make tracing paper overlays and see how your ideas look as you approach them in the 3 dimensional world. From small photos you can make 8 1/2” x 11” images for a more realistic view. It won’t matter much even if the enlargement is a bit blurry, as long as you can see the shape outline of the things you’re thinking about.

  • Make a basic outline sketch of the house on the land, to scale.

Your drawings should particularly include the segments of the property that you are working on. Typically you will want to know the dimensions and placements of built structures, doors, windows, hardmaterial features and plants you have and are keeping as they are, and so must consider. the Existing plot plans or architectural drawings may be helpful but are often incomplete concerning the details of outdoor features.

One way or another, you will need to have basic sketches of  your landscape and building parts, with rough dimensions and drawn in relation to their surrounding grounds.

If the house and land documents are too large, too small or too complicated to be useful, you can have them, or portions of them xerox reproduced in a more useful size. You could also choose to take what pertinent information the documents provide, add missing dimensions yourself, and draw a simplified base sketch in a manageable scale for your purposes. Older plans should be checked for accuracy, since sometimes the particulars were not taken as seriously as they are today, and anyway changes may have been made over time.

If the edges of your property are involved in your design and there is any question about them, you may want  a survey of some boundaries to avoid neighbor problems. Property lines are not always as you think they are. You will want permanent markers to be placed on the land when the survey is done. Ask for this, as strangely it is not always provided otherwise. Don’t accept bits of orange ribbon in the shrubs. 12 penny nails will do, but something very difficult to move, like a heavy granite marker buried a foot or more in the ground, will be best where there is room.

Diagrams of outdoor drainage, electrical or irrigation conduits will be helpful too, if they exist.

To find out where underground services come into your property, requesting a Digsafe[1] permit will result in physical markings being drawn on the ground to indicate the locations of underground services coming into your property from its bounds on the public land ( often in non soluble paint ). These Digsafe markings will usually include gas, electricity and telephone lines, but the services checked by Digsafe are slightly different depending on your area and the depth of your proposed excavation. Digsafe will tell you which things will be marked when you call and describe the depth of your proposed work.

To avoid cutting other underground utilitiy lines within your property you may need to contact private service providers concerning cable lines, private electrical lines, invisible fencing, and irrigation conduits.

Even if you have a drawing which seems to show the locations of underground features, such as water, electrical, gas and sewer lines, you will need to get a  Digsafe permit before any digging work can commence.

  • What will matter the most is not the quality of your drawings, but the thoroughness with which you can consider the projects through the papers.

The quality of your sketches won’t matter much since the only person who will need them at these early stages will be you. These are tools of memory, thinking drawings. Without this roughish work, one finds that there are considerations and details which would not have come to mind. You will have some measurements, as good as you can make them, but your sketches are not intended to be building drawings. They represent a previsualisation of your evolving ideas, with some dimensions and notes, reminding you of things you have decided or ones you want to think about more. They are a necessary part of the thought evolution of the design and the built product.

If detailed building drawings are needed to make your ideas come to life, professionals can create them. When you talk through your ideas with the proposed builder of the project, your conceptual sketches and gathered images will help you to communicate your wishes. A seasoned builder usually takes his own detailed notes on dimensions, doing whatever building drawings are needed, integrating your design choices.

The more collaborative the process, the more the landscape becomes your own.

  • Xerox your basic drawings a few times. File the original clean copy before you write anything on the xeroxes.

To avoid having to make basic drawings by hand more than once, make a bunch of xeroxes before you begin to add proposed outdoor features to any. File away a clean copy for future duplication.

  • Fill in all the bits of information you have about the property on these copies.

Note down your thoughts on these papers as you shape the parts of  your landscape in concept. Move things around on paper and in your mind.

As you find things out about your place (eg. about drainage, underground lines, service providers and so on), keep a record. You can consolidate later on a fresh copy if you need to.

  • ‘Trace over trace’

is a time honored way of working through ideas amongst design professionals. Use a pencil though, and keep a kneaded eraser handy, because the process of codeveloping the design for related parts of the landscape is like traveling through a maze. You may make a few wrong turns and need to back up. Before building anything, you will be thinking through all the projects mentally, visually and physically many times. Trace over your tracings to adjust until you have finished thinking.

  • Consider the history of your land

You might want to gather old photographs and documents concerning your land that you, your town or Historic Commission may have. Nomatter how old or young your house is, your land had a history. All your investigations may help you to find the spirit of the place, historically and ecologically. I have found old well sites and bridges, native american hearthstones, beadmaking stones, stone toys and 18th century artifacts of many kinds. These had been buried by time and were uncovered by the mason or groundsman during the work, and they  influenced the design spirit of what was subsequently made for the particular place.


[1 ]Tel # = 1 – 888 – dig safe = digsafe.com

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