Landscape Design Advisories: Chapter 1 / Finding the Beginning

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Landscape Design Advisories
Chapter 1: Part 2

Finding The Beginning


‘A Good Beginning is a Good Ending’

Creating a place to receive your life in a considerate way takes alot of thought and planning. You will want the elements of your outdoor life to be comfortable and well organised so that you can enjoy whatever you will be doing in your landscape. Just walking your paths can be a daily source of joy.
So now you just need to find the Good Beginning and all will be well.

Making the landscape ready to receive people and plant materials is where it all begins. Thoughtful design with both hard and soft materials will make for successful places and plantings.
If you care deeply about your landscape and gardens, once you make a good beginning, the interactive immersion may never really have an ‘ending’, no matter how well planned for low maintenance the place may be.  There will probably always be little things you want to do. If you have others doing the mowing and general upkeep, you may not ‘need’ to do many things, but if you have a biophilic nature, you may well want to. It always makes things better.

As your living things grow and change, there will always be some touching involved in your relationship with them. For many people, that is part of the charm.

You will probably enjoy your own landscape making journey more if you have clues that reliably lead you to pleasing outcomes while avoiding common pitfalls. The guidelines provided in these advisory chapters should help with that.

Organising Your Journey

  • 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. I promise that you will enjoy having a record of how far you’ve come, as things progress.

I typically take a sequential series of  photos, images of views seen traveling back and forth on all the natural pathways of the property. Unimportant views can become important later as your place develops.
You are after a record of what is accomplished, as well as of the underground work which will become invisible later. Photos during the landscape making process become part of the history of your place.

Your photos can become working images. With them you can readily reflect on whichever context you happen to be thinking about, even after dark and in the winter. The pictures can provide elevational views, and with tracing paper overlays you can see how your ideas will look as you approach them in the 3 dimensional world. From small photos you can make larger images for more realistic views. It won’t matter much even if the enlargement is a bit blurry, as long as you can see the shape outlines of the things you’re thinking about.

  • Start a file folder labeled Landscape.
    Even if you are keeping much of your information in a computer, there will be lots of images and bits of paper from the tangible world that you may want to refer to later. A legal sized folder may serve you best because drawings and plot plans are often oversize, and anyway things accumulate.
    Receipts for the landscape work can be important to keep since they can become potential ‘capital gains’ deductions applying to the cost base of your home, should it be sold later in its life.
  • Gather images which reflect your Favorites.
    Collections of images of the kinds of colors, places, trees or features of any kind that appeal to you will be useful in many ways. Gathering visual aids encourages you to think about ideas further, perhaps refining your own vision.
    Color, texture and spirit are notoriously hard to describe.
    When you talk through your ideas with the designer or builder of a project, conceptual sketches and gathered images will help you to communicate your wishes.  A picture can easily be worth a thousand words when you are trying to explain esthetic things. 
  • Property lines are not always as you think they are.
    If the edges of your property are involved in your design and there is any question about them, to avoid future neighbor or town problems a survey of those boundaries  is recommended. Surveys are important to the future of a place.
    Don’t accept bits of orange ribbon in the shrubs.
    If a survey is done, you will want somewhat permanent markers to be placed on the land in key locations. Ask for this, as strangely it is not always provided otherwise.Deeply set metal stakes can work well, unless you have some large chunks of granite to move into place as handsome boundary markers.  A 10 or a 12″ nail can be used in a pinch and replaced later with something more permanent.
  • Locate or make a basic outline sketch of the house on the land.
    You will probably want basic sketches of  your buildings and landscape parts drawn in relation to your overall grounds, with some dimensions. Existing plot plans or architectural drawings may be helpful but are often incomplete concerning details of outdoor features.
    Older plans of any kind should be checked for accuracy, since one finds that the particulars may not have been taken as seriously as they are today, and anyway changes could have occurred over time and not been recorded on the particular documents you have in hand.
    If the available documents are too large or too small to be useful, have the relevant parts reproduced in a better size.

    You may decide to begin by just sketching one part of your landscape, making a simplified base drawing of the part of your grounds that you will be reworking. You will want to note the locations and dimensions of all elements you have and will keep.
    Copy your base drawings a few times.
    To avoid having to make basic drawings by hand more than once, file away clean copies of them for future use before you begin to add any exploratory ideas to them. This way you can take messy notes as you gather information and ideas and consolidate later on a clean copy.

    Racket Shreve, Bollard and Corydalis

  • Play with the Possibilities
    Before building anything, you will probably be considering alternatives mentally, visually and physically many times. 
    This is the iterative phase of your design process, the exploratory part, and you can learn alot by playing with the possibilities and Moving things around on paper and in your mind is the easiest way. You are making thinking drawings and tools of memory. These just represent a pre-visualisation of your evolving  ideas, with some dimensions and notes, reminding you of things you have decided or ones you want to think about more. The quality of your sketches won’t matter much since the only person who will need them at these early stages will be you, so don’t be shy. During the process of co-developing the designs for all the related parts of the landscape, you may make a few wrong turns and need to back up. Adjust until you have finished thinking. Nothing will be ‘set in stone’ until you decide it is time.

    What matters is the thoroughness with which you can consider the projects if you have drawings and images at hand.
    Through the rough but tangible exploration that drawing engenders, many considerations come to mind, and thinking about them will infom your design solutions. The sketches are a tool in your design thought process. They are not intended to be building drawings, which come later if they are needed, perhaps through the hands of professionals.
  • Keep a record
    As you find things out about your place, whether concerning boundaries, drainage, underground lines, loyal service providers or stories of your plants and your land, try to write them into your files. Otherwise, before long, you will probably wish you had done that.

Moss Face

Taking Precautions

    repare carefully for upcoming work.
    Take time over your planning stages. It will make all the difference in how well everything will go. This means sequencing the work well, and staying amply supplied with necessary tools and chosen materials. Stay ahead of the work by looking at options at the right time. All such things will help to keep your work going smoothly and that saves time and labor costs.

    Measure Twice, Cut Once.’
    This adage, when literally translated from the Italian of my Sicilian Masons, is
    ‘Measure a hundred times, cut once’. Basically, however many times you have to think about something until you are sure of your decisions will be the right number of times.
  • Digsafe markings are essential.
    To do any digging for the projects on your property, you will legally, and for the sake of Safety, need a Digsafe Permit. Requesting this will result in physical markings being drawn on your land by various utility companies and town departments, usually within a few days of your call. The markings will show you where underground services come into your property from the land around it, locating gas, electricity, water and sewer pipes are so that you can work safely around them.
    To avoid running into underground utilities within your property you may also need to contact
    Private Service Providers. Such things might be, for instance, cable lines, private electrical lines, invisible fencing, irrigation and outdoor lighting conduits or drainage systems.

For design purposes it is good to know early in your work where the underground utilities run since this can affect where you can locate other things in your landscape. Once you have the markings, you can make a record of where things are for general reference in future. If some time elapses between the designing and the actual digging work, you may need to renew the permit for official markings.
Unfortunately the marks are often in brightly colored, non-soluble paint. When all your work is complete, if they are on asphalt, you can overspray them with asphalt colored paint to help them disappear.


No matter how young or old your house is, your land had a history. Some investigation will help you to find out about your place, historically and ecologically.
You can gather old photographs and documents that you, the town or the local Historic Commission may have for your house and land.  Old pictures may show details of things lost over time that could be restored if worthy.
Who knows… a foundation may still be there…or maybe the original brackets and balusters on the porch show in that 1920 photo? Rock gardens can be made to reappear. Maybe your land was once a swamp or a quarry or a farm ?
Old houses have especially many stories embedded in them in relation to the land and local ecotome they have been part of. You would probably enjoy knowing some of them.
In the course of our work we have uncovered old well sites and bridges, native American hearthstones, hand cut granite foundations and pavers, beadmaking stones, stone toys, and lots of 18th and 19th century artifacts and shards buried by time. The revealed history often influenced the design spirit of what was made for the particular place.

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Unusual Plant Materials, Troughs
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This entry was posted in Landscape Design Advisories, Landscape Design Advisories: Chapter 1: So Where is the Beginning ?, Landscape Making Guidance, Your Reasoned Landscape and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
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