Yard Analysis

This is an excerpt from the Book called “Yards  by Billy goodnick. Continue reading to learn more about Yard Analysis, thanks to the author.


What do you have to work with? 

Designing a great garden is an exercise in problem solving that starts with identifying opportunities and constraints, then moves on to observing, assessing, and refining your goals.  These critical, early steps will save you big bucks later and result in a garden you’ll love for years.  It pays to look at what you have to work with and where you want to go-and to anticipate the obstacles that could get in your way.  The more you can do that upfront, before you start picking out the plants and moving dirt, the fewer bumps you’re likely to hit down the road.  Knowledge is power. 

Get to Know Your Site 

Imagine you’re a garden designer hired to resuscitate someonle’s tired, old landscape.  Even over the phone, something seems strange:  They won’t let you visit the site, won’t even tell you which state they live in.  What are the odds you can meet their needs?  Zip.  To develop an intellingent plan of action you would need to know a whole lot about their site.  The same goes for you own yard.  You need to get in touch with your site:  Walk the area, taking a good look at everyting, then make a rough sketch.  It works for me and I know it will work for you.  That sketch will become your starting point for the eventual design. 

This isn’t an art project; it’s just for reference, as in down-and-dirty.  When I do this, I return to the site a number of times, to really get a feel for the space as a whole… and for its issues. 

What you’ll needs 

Graph paper (a few pieces) 

Pencil (and an eraser-nobody’s perfect) 


Camera and/or video camera 

Hang onto these items.  They’re the foundation of your Home Design Studio (Appendix B) Your freehand sketch should show the bare minimum of information, because the more detail you show about what’s already there, the harder it will be to imagine something different.

What to do 

First, draw the outline of the house and garage, show property lines, swimming pool, major trees you’re pretty certain you’ll be leaving-and that’s about it.  Even if you think you’d never jackhammer out your current walkway or patio, allow yourself to imagine what your yard would be like if you had the total freedom to resjape or relocate things.  Give your imagination a clean canvas. 

(Once you’ve drawn your basis site sketch, make a copy or two because you’ll need it later on in you design process.)

Home yard
Home yard

Now take another walk.  Clear your mind.  Stroll through your yard and observe your thoughts.  When you see something you think is relevant to your future garden, jot it down at the corresponding location on you map.  You might want to expand your comments on a fresh sheet of paper as well. 

Record objective stuff, the things you ca quantify and count:  dead lawn, areas where the downspounts flood the beds, windy areas, the barren front door bed, maintenance “black holes” that suck the life out of your spare time. Unsafe paving. 

Express your subjective reactions; the way you feel about your current yard:  not enough privacy from the neighbors: it’s inconvenient to get to your tools; no real style or color scheme, color schemes that don’t work. 

Take panoramic photos from multiple vantage points.  In addition to takimg regular photos, I like using video, because I can walk and talk at the same time, which leads to on-the-spot ideas I want to capture.  And I won’t have to stop and make notes. 

Sit awhile.  When you think you’re done and you’ve seen all there is to be seen, grab a folding chair and just sit in different parts of the garden, especially those you don’t usually frequent.  If you’ve been unhappy with your yard for a long time, there are probably places you just don’t want to linger in, but do it anyway.  Do this at different times of day.  You’ll be surprised by what you discover and how your design thinking expands.  (You might want to recall how these places felt at other times of the year, not just the present season.)  Don’t rush.  This is going to be an organic progression of ideas and inspiration. 

More things to look for and respond to: 

  • Paths: Are the ones you have doing the job?  Are they havens for weeds? 
  • Storage: enough, not enough, in the wrong place? 
  • Plants you like/don’t like: no time for sentiment here  
  • Drainage patterns: Where are the problem places? 
  • You want runoff to flow away from the house and not through the bedroom. 
  • Erodible or unstable sloes 
  • Hot spots:  including interior of house, where there’s no shading from outside  
  • Favorite plaes to hang out 
  • Steet issues:  Do car lights or street lights bother you at night?  Do you need a noise buffer?   
  • Eyesores: semi-permancent things like ugly chain-link fence 
  • Unusual soil conditions 
  • Zombie nesting areas 

Needs Assessment: What do you want ot do when you go outside? 

You’ve seen and analyzed what your site has to ell you.  Now let’s look at how you plan to enjoy your new garden, and how it’s going to fit your family’s lifestlye.

I want my clients to get the most from the time and money they invest.  I want to meet their needs, and so I ask a lot of seemingly nosy questions to stimulated well-considered responses.  I start with the most fundamental question for creating a great yard: “What do you want to do when you go outside?” 

Outdoors as an extension of your house:”Form follows function” is a tried and true adage in every design discipline, and it applies to planning a good yard.  Maybe there are people out there so hooked on gardening that as long as something’s in bloom they’re thrilled.  But for my money (and the people I design for), outdoor spaces should be an extension of the house, only chlorophyll-ier.  As long as you’re paying property taxes on that real estate, shouldn’t reward you with more than a sore back?

Yard Analysis
Yard Analysis

In the list below are some self-evaluation questions to get your creative juices flowing, but I’m sure you’ll think of more.  Grab another sheet of paper; here we go again. 

  • Do you eat outdoors? How often? On what scale? 
  • Do you like to cook/barbecue outdoors? 
  • Do you want a meditation/reading area? 
  • Do you plan on growing food? On what scale? 
  • Do you want a cutting garden? 
  • Do you and your family like to play outdoors?  Pool? Hot tub? Basketball?  Croquet?  Easter egg hunts? 
  • Do you need a place to stroe your outdoor stuff?  How big, what kind of access? 
  • Does your family have monility/disability concerns? 
  • Will your maintenance be DIY or a gardening service? 
  • Is water and resource conservation important to you? 

Evaluating your needs will tell you a lot about where you want to go with your design.  When you’re done, file it. 

Constraints: What’s stopping you? 

When my son.  Cosmo, was going through the Terrible Twos, every day was an adventure in challenging the rules.  I’m glad he wasn’t designing landscapes at that age.  I can just see the look on his client’s face as he wails, “But I don’t WANNA observe the zoning ordinance requiring that a fence in the front yard be 42 inches or lower!!!” 

Legal stuff: Like it or not, there are limits on what you can do with your yard.  Some constraints are of a legal nature, like zoning laws that keep your neighbor from building a drag strip in their side yard.  There are building codes assuring that it’s safe to slam a door without fear of the house collapsing. 

In the gareden, many of these same rules apply, varying throughout different states, counties, and cities.  It’s best to do your homework and find out which ones apply to your project as soon as possible.  What do I mean?  Let’s say you’ve been dreaming about a beautifully crafted stone wall around your new patio.  You’ve already contacted a local stonemason to build it.  He comes highly recommended; what could go wrong?  Lots.  If  you know the zoning law”trigger” between a DIY stone wall and one requiring a professional engineer, you’ll be able to adjust your ambitions to keep your project simple and inexpensive.  Ignore the rules and you could face fines and the expense of ripping out your beautiful new wall and replacing it. 

Climate: Climate is a constraint you can manipulate to some degree, but there are limits.  Good luck growing saguaro cacti along the shores of lake Superior.  The smarter, sustainable approach to landscaping is picking plants that want to grow where you put them, instead of putting them on life-support for their survival.  And climate will affect your comfort both indoors and outside. 

Budget:  Nineteenth century architect and planner, Daniel Burnham got it right, declaring, “Make no little plans; they have mo magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.  Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.” 

The Rolling stones were a little more blunt: “you can’t always get what you want.” 

What I love about designing gardens is the problem-solving aspect of it-the challenge of balacing the practical, aesthetic, and environmental desires with the reality of limitations. 

It does’t cost anyting to dream big; you can always take a reality pill later.  I think you primary concern at this early stage in the design process should be considering all the outdoor rooms and features that will make you life more fun and beautiful.  Once  you have a big plan, you can simplify the design, tackle it in bite-size chunks, or execute with simpler materials. 

The analysis phase of the design is done, but not forgotten.  Like a crime scene investigator (but without the stiletto heels or rock-hard abs), you’ve scourd your surroundings with clipboard and camera.  You’ve got your bullet lists.  You’ve bribed the family with pizza long enough to have them sit still and brainstorm all manner of possibilities with you.


Design Steps 

There are so many steps to designing a garden that I thought it might be helpful at this point to zoom out and give you the big picture. 

Everyone’s garden needs are different, so you’ll probably find yourself picking and choosing from this master check list.  This will help you understand the process, order of operations, as well as the terminology I use in this book.  Other professional designers might use different systems and vocabulary, but this road map should help get you rolling. 

Design Development-Where it all begins 

  • Site analysis-the opportunities and constraints of your site and surrounding  
  • Needs assessment-what your garden 
  • Definition-figuring out what it all means and setting your course 

Planning-giving form to your idea 

  • Bubble diagrams-visual brainstorming of different fonfigurations 
  • Schematic plan-general locations and massings of plants 
  • Planting concept-general locations and massings of plants 
  • Plant palette developmetn-generating and refining the plants you’ll use 
  • Final plan-detailed refinement of constructed elements (grading, drainage, paving, irrigation, lighting, walls, etc.) and plant choices and locations. 

Construction-putting your ideas on (and in) the ground 

  • Site preparation, grading, drainage 
  • Hardscape-all the above-ground building: patios, paths, walls, gazebos, fountains, etc. 
  • Planting preparation-soil conditioning and amendment, final grading, irrigation 
  • Planting-the easy part 
  • Clean-up-making the yard useable 
  • Maintenance-getting plants established, then meeting their ongoing needs for trimming, feeding, and weed and pest control using safe, sustainable practices. 

You’ll be meeting most of these steps in more or less detail throughout the book. 

A world of possibilities 

There’s probably no end to all the things you could pack into a landscape, from miniature railways to a giant water slide.  I’ll leave it to you to stretch the limits, but here’s my brain-dump of useful spaces, amenities and ideas worth considering before finalizing your design.  Plug in a few as keyword searches on your compoter, then click”images” and see if anything cool pops up…. 

Kids’ play: swing, climber, sandbox, safe fall-surfacing, wet play, trike track, skate ramp, butterfly garden, tree house, bean-pole tent, camping, miniature golf, chalk art, mud, trampoline, tumbling, gymnastics, wading pool, room to throw or kick a ball or toss a frisbee 

Pets:  soft paths for dogs to race on, graceful grasses for cats to bat about, sunny spots to nap, covered places to get out of the rain, poisonous plants to avoid (check with ASPCA or your vet) 

Homesteading: veggie beds, potting table, composting, orchard, edible ornamentals, cutting flowers/roses, herbs, vertical gardens, greenhouse, bee-keeping, chickens 

Nature: attractors for butterflies, bees, beneficial insects and hummingbirds, bird feeders, bird bath, nesting material, shelter, native plants, nesting boxes, nature trail, critter-proofing, fish, frogs 

Activities: dining, cooking, serving, sleeping, playing, sipping, hobbies, sports, soaking, swimming, horseshoes, croquet, lawn bowling 

Ambiance/décor: lighting(electrical,gas, candle), fragrance, pavilion, privacy, mystery, audio,noise-masking,misting,fireplace/fire pit, gas heating, water feature,art/scupture,shade structure/shade sail/umbrella, container garden, bench,chair,table,hammock,day bed 

Practical: storage, outdoor shower, trash enclosure, dog run, parking, security, privacy, bug-proofing, wind-screen 

Safety: grading, drainage, firescaping, slip-resistance, visibility, handrails, pollen/allergies, retaining wall, pool enclosure, plant toxicity (humansss and prts), sloppe trentention 

Sustainability: Water conservation, “smart” irrigation controllers, native plants, organic gardening, integrated pest management, tecycled/reused materials, storm water run-off, water harvesting, green roof, local materials, fosil fuel-free tools, composting, permaculture 

The design starts here: the now what? drawing 

“I did the analysis, but now I’ve got a lot of conflicting information. Can’t I just start picking out my plants?” Not so fast, Buster. This is when the creative design process really starts, responding with your gut reaction to everything you’ve observed and recoreded so far. It’s time to summarize the volumes of input and sonsider how to address the issues you’ve raised. Most likely, the analysis alerted you to opportunities you hadn’t considered, and constraints that you’ll have to overcome or adapt to. 

What I call the Now What? Drawing is based on the same sketch you used for the sdite analysis-that simple, pared down drawing of your yard, minus most of the stuff you’ll want to consider changing.( That’s why I asked you to make copies of your original site map before you marked it up.) 

For example, if you noted in your analysis that the front bedroom lacks privacy, do not respond on the Now What? Drawing with “plant six hydrangeas in acurving, 12-foot long by 6-foot wide bed using a backfill mix of thrree parts native soil and one part fir bark compost.” Do that and you’ve squashed any other possibilty, like installing a vine-covered trellis instead, or converfting your yard to an orchard,or making the entire spacee into an enclosed courtyard with a bubbkling fountaion. Simple and obvious as it seems, just jot a mote on the drawing, in the general geaographic area, stating your intrntion to “Make yard more private.” The final decision of how you’ll do that comes later. 

Look at my Now What? Drawing on this page. It was done on a clean copy of the sketch I used for a client’s site analysis. You’ll see the general idea. 

For your own Now What? Drwaing, your objective is to respond to all the data-objective and subjective-that you’ve accumulated. This is importaant: Your responses need to remain vague and open-eneded, because if you start fusssing with the details too soon, you’ll stifle those creative juices. You might miss the possibility of choosing from a variety of solutions, some better than your first flash of brilliance. 

Continue making notes on the drawiong, capturing your instinctive first thoughts. If you know your family wants a place for entertaining larger groups, write: “Enlarge dining patio for 10-person sit-down dining.” Need a place to read the Sunday funnies? Add a note near the big shade tree: “Chillax-a-torium.” 

When you’re done, look the drawing over and stash it in your Home Design Studio. There’s a good chance your final design will incorporate a lot of these solutions. But you don’t want to closer the door on that lightning bolt that’s going to wake you up in the middle of the night. Good design needs a relaxed, gestational period. 

So, while it’s gestating, let’s talk style for a while.

Yard Analysis
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