Landscape Design Advisories: Chapter 5 / Shaping Your Landscape

A Reasoned
Landscape Design Advisories:
Chapter 5

Shaping Your LandscapeRacket Shreve / Four Papers
Seeing the Shapes

Shaping the details of whatever you will be making in your landscape is often best sorted out functionally and visually where the projects will come into being.
Whether regarding stone work, wooden structures, garden bed shapes or individual tree and plant placements, opportunities and problems will show themselves with this approach. You can usually improve your process and the quality of your outcome if you tangibly work through the details where they will come to life.

“….prototypes, even quick and dirty ones,
shed light on how a concept meets real world needs.”

Tim Brown / Change By Design


With a photo series you can readily reflect on whatever you happen to be thinking about in your design preparations, even after dark and in the winter. A series of purposefully taken photographs can provide elevational views of your landscape and buildings for use as working images to draw on or trace over. You are after simple image tools to help you see the shape outlines and recall the details of the things you’re thinking about. By considering such photos and overlays you can begin to see how your ideas will look as you will approach them in the 3 dimensional world.

Your ‘before’ pictures will be precious later.
Aside from their usefulness in the ongoing work, having them will help you realise how far you’ve progressed as your projects develop. I would suggest a full series, in both directions of travel and from your various present and future viewing locations.

Paper images will not, however, convey what you will see and feel at the various locations, heights and angles which you experience moving through the landscape. The considerate shaping of features of the property  depends upon the relational appearances of the elements, as seen from many different places, and so is a multi dimensional matter.
Three dimensions are difficult to imagine without an experiential component. You will perhaps have lots of measurements and paper information and some sketches, but to fine tune each project, you will also want to pre-visualise it as best as possible on the site.

“If the designer is forced by complications to
figure things out on paper, the final result will be better
if the plan is then memorized and hidden, and the work
laid out on the ground with the help of stakes and string”

Fletcher Steele / Gardens and People

 Adusting the Shapes

ARL logo 2The shaping of elements that are part of your overall landscape design can be explored with simple visual aids.
On the ground plane, I use lengths of white, 5/8ths inch Dacron braided line to lay out the shapes I am considering so that I can experience them close at hand and from a distance. I find that pieces 25 to 40 feet long are my favorites, having a carrying and casting weight allowing them to be readily at hand  and easily tossed about. This kind of non-stretchy line is used for boats and so can be purchased in marine supply stores. Arborists use similar rope, but plain white is harder to find in their supply stores, and it is my favorite color for the application.
I am very fond of my lines, and consider them essential tools. Their malleable braided form allows smooth curves and outline details to be created and subtly adjusted.A Simple Braided LineDon’t let anybody convince you to use hoses except in an emergency. If they are the least bit kinky, which hoses almost always are when stretched out, they will be useless for outlining gentle curves.
When my braided rope is laid out to make the shapes I think I want, I spray a dashed line over the rope with water soluble paint from invertible spray cans. I can then take the same piece of rope to lay out the next section of the proposed work. For a multisided configuration, like a path or patio, I may use two lines, to help visualise the relational layout before I need to spray anything.

Now you can stand back from your tentative marks a while to look at, walk around, and think about the shapes that have been preliminarily decided.

 “With pins you keep things open, with thread you finalise them”
Sonia Rykiel

Live with them a while, and see if you can optimise them in any way you hadn’t thought of before you started physically thinking about them.
This is the time to adjust relational shaping, even if not all the elements you are outlining are part of this particular year’s projects. You are anticipating the future, both in terms of the process of the building and the life in the completed place, so as to better prepare for it.

When everything seems just about right, I lay the ropes on each section again, and overspray them with a continuous visible line. This outline becomes the cut line for the work.
On grass or moist earth, the paint lines last a couple of weeks, but if you’re still thinking, in a very few minutes you can easily respray over your existing line and get a couple of more weeks to consider things. If you don’t like what you did and want a clean start, a couple of mowings will erase them.

If your layout with the line runs over existing structures where chalk paint might not come off easily, you can use large sticks of sidewalk chalk to write temporarily on stone, wood and even a painted house. Chalk markings are truly ephemeral since the first rain may wash them away, but once you have decided your shapes by using chalk as a visual aid, a good graphite pencil, grease pencil or mason’s marking chalk will serve for more permanent reference points, final markings to inform the upcoming work.

Snow is also a useful tool.
The great thing about snow as a medium is that it comes right to your house and presents you with a full clean canvas, allowing you to ‘draw’ everywhere within your connected landscape, at full scale and all at the same time with your feet as the principal tools. As you wander through the landscape you can physically mark the outlines of shapes that you are thinking about creating. You will be exploring the tangible ‘footprints’ of your future built projects, planted beds and the paths to such things. Play ….this is the iterative – adventurous- part of your design explorations. (See also ‘Drawing in Snow and Sand‘)

MORE ABOUT ROPERopemaking to Rule the Waves

Hemp and natural fibers of many kinds have been used in ropemaking for thousands of years, going back to China, circa 28 BC. Hemp was so widely used in the making of canvas and rope in Holland that the English word ‘Canvas’ when translated into Dutch was ‘Cannabis’, the Genus name of the Hemp plant. The Dutch currently use the English word ‘canvas’ as their own word for the fabric.

At the time it was acquiring colonies, the tarred Hemp used by England’s sailing vessels was the finest rope in the world, and it is widely thought that this superior rope allowed England to ‘rule the waves’. If you think about it that way, rope is the true engine of the sailing vessel, fueled by the wind.

Hemp came to North America with the Pilgrims, and was planted and then used for ropes and fabrics in the colonies. In fact, growing Hemp in the 1600s was mandatory in some places, and was encouraged throughout the colonies in the 1700s. Around the time of the Revolutionary War, Hemp could even be used as legal tender to pay your taxes. Between 1763 and 1769 in Virginia it was illegal not to allow Hemp to be grown on your land!

Hemp was largely replaced by Manila from the Abaca plant, found in the Phillipines in the mid 1800s. This material had greater strength and so supplanted Hemp, Sisal and Jute for many applications. Growing Hemp was banned in this country after 1860.

Though a rope may seem a simple and humble thing in our times, a hundred years ago and earlier all ropes were handmade in ropewalks, typically twisted from 3 strands of hemp, sisal or jute material.

In a Ropewalk,
“yarns (are) stretched out between revolving hooks that twist the yarns together,
the ropemaker walking backwards all the while”

From The Story of Rope / Plymouth Cordage Co. 1931

With the technology up to the 1800s, to make a given length of line, one had to have a building of that length, a remarkably long and narrow construct, often existing close to the water’s edge because ship riggings required especially long lines. The longest rope making building on our coast measured 1350 feet, in Charlestown, Massachusetts. There are few such places left since manufacturing techniques no longer require these extraordinary buildings.

During the time of World War 2,  the supplies of Manila materials for rope and the silk for fabrics were cut off because they originated from hostile parts of the world. In the same way that used metal was collected and melted down for military equipment, Americans were asked to save even scrappy bits of old rope for reuse.

Hemp, which had not been much used in the USA since 1860 when it became illegal to grow, was pressed back into service. You needed a permit to grow it, but the country needed the material, and so growing hemp was again encouraged.

By 1939, Nylon material was developed by Dupont and was found to be useful in parachutes and netting. At some point, a Liutenant Colonel stationed overseas, realising that strong rope was urgently needed for cliff ascents and other military purposes toward the end of the war, suggested that it might be made out of this Polyamid known as Nylon.

Proudly, New Bedford, Massachusetts produced the first 3 strand synthetic rope, making it possible for cliffs be climbed, ships and parachutes rigged, and the War won.

Developed later, Dacron was Duponts’ trade name for its special polyesters. Since the strength to weight ratio is very high, it holds its shape and doesn’t weaken when wet, it makes an ideal braided rope.

Your Own Rope

Knowing what once went into making rope makes me think of my ropes as especially great treasures.

The best ones for the landscape purposes I describe are made from synthetic Dacron materials, braided with a braided core. If you invest in one of these, it is likely to be useful over and over again in your landscape and general life. My working lines have lasted 30 years and look like they’ll keep going for lots more. Once in a while I hose them down or let them get rained on and dry them in the sun, but overall, they get better with age, with the traces of earth and chalk paint as patina. I keep one in my car at all times.
Depending upon what it is I am transporting, the rope can be rigged to help keep things from sliding around, act as a cushion, support or weight and of course, you can tie something down or hang something up if you need to.

Visualising Heights

For considering choices for the heights of things in the landscape that will be near eye level from some vantage points, any old 2 by 4 or wood stake five feet or so long can help. You will want someone to hold it horizontally for you at the heights being considered so you can stand away and consider the effects of different choices. This process will help you to visualise the proposed elements in the landscape, clarifying what can be revealed or concealed, or perhaps how a particular sloped angle versus a level line will look in the context when developed as a wall, fence, shaped earth or whatever you are imagining.

When considering heights 3 feet or less above the ground level, I put up vertical stakes and link them with a masonry line to see and adjust the contour / location choices. I like 3/8ths” rod iron or 1 1/4″ wood stakes. You will probably need a heavy hammer (a two pound one is good) to get each stake solidly into the ground, so you can pull the masonry line taut between them.

For flat stonework, to see the proposed grade of something which will be less than a few inches above the existing ground level, I may just use 10″ nails connected with masonry line.
These large nails can also be helpful in marking individual locations you need to keep track of for other reasons. They are so useful and easy to have around that I keep a collection of them to press into service as needed.

Line levelA useful accompaniment to visualizing anything with masonry line is aline level’, or as my Italian masons call it, a ‘piccolo livello’, translated as ‘little level’. This is an inexpensive, pocket sized tool and yet is quite accurate. It slips onto the masonry line to tell you where real world level is, so that you can work in relation to that. I wouldn’t want to be without one since this tool comes into play in many aspects of both the planning and the tangible building of landscape projects. Lee Valley Tools has a nice metal one. These days, most of them are plastic, but they all work the same way.
When you get your line, be sure it is true masonry line, or your line level won’t slide along on it properly.

Visualising Plantings

Whenever Adrian Bloom of Bressingham Gardens in England set about designing permanent plant materials into his beds, initially an assortment of stakes would appear, set into the proposed planting places. They would be left long enough to experience from all perspectives, and moved around until the best considered design emerged. The handsome beds within his properties are world renowned.

People as Trees

You may find friends posing as trees to be very helpful.People as trees/ photo by Steven Speliotis

To inform him in thinking about locations for trees, Frederick Law Olmstead found it helpful to have people stand in likely places, sometimes even having them raise their arms up to be more realistically arboreal. He would have them move around, like pawns on the landscape, until their relationships seemed just right, then mark the chosen locations.

You could do this as a party game, if you needed to site a lot of trees.

LINK to Chapter 6 / ‘View Considerations’

Ellen CoolI am grateful to Dave Richards, the Technical Director of The Cordage Institute, for our clarifying conversations about the history of rope.

A Reasoned
Landscape Composition.
Stonework and Garden Design.

Unusual Plant Materials, Troughs
Tools and Antique Garden Ornaments



This entry was posted in Garden Making Guidance, Landscape Design Advisories, Landscape Making Guidance, Your Reasoned Landscape and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • All written and visual materials on this site are Copyrighted. (C) Ellen Cool 2010 - 2021


  1. Posted January 9, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Hi, my name is Genaro Delangel and I have to state that it is really a perfect entry.

  2. Posted January 7, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Wow, Thank you because of this blog. Youve covered a lot of bases. Great stuff

  3. Posted December 6, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation. I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

  4. Edward McCabe
    Posted November 28, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Very good. Well done!

  5. Posted November 27, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Very good.Thank you very much

  6. Posted October 28, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Hi there, thank you for a extremely useful posting, I would not normally attach
    posts but really liked your post therefore , decided I’d personally say thanks for your time – - Katie

  7. Elizabeth Fowler
    Posted October 23, 2012 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    The experiential component of working out a design is so rewarding. I can see there is value in letting others in on the process but I like to be alone with my lines and stakes! Something to work on. Great entry Ellen, thank you.

  8. Dave Richards
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    You are awsome, you wove the scattered bits and pieces of information into a very readable and easy to understand informative story.
    Dave Richards

3 Trackbacks

  • […] LINK to Chapter 5 / Seeing The Shapes […]

  • […] When the contextual frame always looks good, it is much easier to organise lovely gardens for all seasons. The low evergreens can make outlines for the winter and the summer floors. The medium and larger evergreens can provide a visual scaffolding for the enhancement of the other season’s flowering things. Well shaped spaces you create between the winter elements provide the places for your warm season plant materials, and placing them in a handsome context is a path to a satisfying outcome. Click here for my articles about Shaping the Landscape. […]

  • By on May 4, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    Landscape Design Advisories: Shaping Your Land

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>