Doing a Landscaping Site Analysis

Note key elements affecting your design, like existing structures and plants, views and water issues.

Every landscape design project begins with a site analysis to see what you have to work with. According to Risa Edelstein, president of the Ecological Landscaping Association, "Site analysis involves taking pictures of the property and noting all of the key elements on-site such as existing structures and plant material, site views, water issues or anything else that may affect the design."

Consider these factors in your site analysis:

Footprint. Start with the basic dimensions and shape of your property. It helps to have a county survey or property sketch that shows the boundaries, setbacks and easements. Scan or transfer that information onto a grid (graph paper) and use that as the basis for your design.

Existing Features. Make a list of what is already on your property, including buildings, trees, hardscapes, fences and infrastructure. Note what can be reused or recycled as well as which features are liabilities and need to be changed.

Topography. You don't need to consult the U.S. Geological Survey to get the lay of your land. You just need the broad strokes, the high and low points. Note distinctive features that will affect what you can do with an area – steep slopes, swails, berms, peaks. If you live in an area prone to natural disasters such as mudslides, sink holes, floods or wild fires, contact your local cooperative extension service for defensive landscaping guidelines.

Hydrozones. How does water behave in your yard? Analyze the drainage patterns and test the soil for moisture in various locations around the yard to determine where you can group together plants according to their water needs and then plan your irrigation system accordingly.

Site Lines and Views. One way to figure out what you need outside is to take a look at the yard from the inside of your home. Robert Schucker, president of R&S Landscaping in Midland Park, N.J., recommends that you walk through your home and look out the windows with the most important views—from the kitchen sink, the family room, the bedrooms. How can the view be enhanced or improved? What's blocking the view? What would you rather be looking at? Do you have enough privacy?

Hazards or Concerns. Making your yard safe is a top priority. That could mean pruning dead tree limbs, repaving walkways to eliminate trip hazards, or enclosing a swimming pool with a safety fence. To troubleshoot potential dangers, check out the Backyard Safety Explorer, an interactive tool by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) to identify design changes to make before allowing kids to run around the back yard.

Nuisances. While not exactly dangerous, annoying facts of life such as street noise, lettuce-nibbling deer, or a neighbor's tree that sheds its leaves in your yard, should figure into your landscaping plans. You might not be able to eliminate all nuisances but you'll be happier if you address them from the start, rather than as an afterthought, and devise creative, sustainable strategies. For the above examples, you can try putting in a noise-dampening green screen, a border of deer-proof plants or a compost bin to turn those leaves into mulch.

Planting Zone. In addition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Hardiness Zone Map, which tells you what plants are best suited to "winter over" in your location, there is also the useful American Horticultural Society's Heat Zone Map, which indicates the average number of "heat days"—temperatures over 86 degrees Fahrenheit—each year in a given region. That is the point at which plants begin suffering physiological damage from heat. The zones range from Zone 1 (less than one heat day) to Zone 12 (more than 210 heat days).

Shade and Sun. The sun and shade patterns of your property have a significant impact on its unique microclimate throughout the year. Spend time in your garden and become familiar with the patterns of sun and shade at different times of the day and season. Note the extent of shadows and their density, and where you might want to add or delete shade.

Wind. Analyze the typical wind speeds and direction at different times of year. You can strategically place trees and plants to block wind or funnel it for cooling breezes. As with water, wind settles and pools in low-lying areas. This can create frost pockets where the yard dips. If it's blocked too much, as by a fence or dense trees, pressure can build up, creating turbulence on the leeward side, which can be destructive.

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