How do landscapers analyze sites?

Landscapers pondering their next move. See more pictures of annual flowers.
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­If you're trying to i­mprove your property, you may cringe at the thought of anything as complicated as a landscape analysis. Can't you just plant some flowers and be done with it? Honestly, why would anyone want to start with a landscape analysis? Because completing an analysis could result in many potential benefits.

Some possible goals to consider when contemplating a landscape analysis are:

  • Increasing your home's resale value
  • Ensuring that your property is beautiful in all four seasons, not just when the rose garden is in bloom
  • Economizing on heating and cooling your home
  • Minimizing your home's environmental impact
  • Minimizing the amount of maintenance work you need to do
  • Improving privacy and security
  • Creating a space for entertaining, play, sports or hobbies
  • Giving yourself a ready source of food or fresh flowers
  • Preventing damage to your home from pests and invasive roots

A good landscaper will ask questions about all these goals, as well as other aspects of your habits and lifestyle. He will consider these points as he conducts a landscape analysis of your pr­operty. Then -- at the intersection between your goals and the practical considerations of your piece of land -- he'll help you find your ideal garden.

This article takes a look at all the considerations that play into l­andscape analysis, from practical angles such as mapping boundaries and utility lines to less visible issues of space usage and environmental impact. It may also help you think of some new questions to ask your landscaper. Read on.

Mapping a Landscape's Boundaries

­­At some point in the past, your property has been surveyed. If you have those records, make them available to your landscape designer. If not, try checking with your city's planning department. Either way, it's not a bad idea to have your landscaper re-survey the property, as aspects of it may have changed since ­the construction of your home.

At a minimum, the survey should include information on elevation, boundaries and flood zones. It should have a detailed description of the property itself and map out the edges of your property in relation to your neighbors' property.

Drawing the edges of a lot may not seem like such a big deal, but there are several issues a landscaper must consider, such as:

  • Overhangs and roofs
  • Right-of-ways
  • Access to property features such as water meters
  • Fence placement
  • Shared driveways [source: Rinomato]

If you're working from old surveys, this may be where your existing information stops. But that doesn't mean a landscaper is done mapping the property. The landscaper's map should include major trees and their likely root patterns. It should trace all existing planting beds and borders, which -- if the beds are curved or asymmetrical -- can be a complicated operation involving stakes and string and applied geometry.

Your landscaper may also want to map current use patterns -- how you and your family move across your property. If the grass has worn thin from your habitual shortcuts, it might make more sense to lay a new path there than to keep the existing path. (This aspect of mapping overlaps a bit with finding the functional areas of your property, which we'll discuss later.)

Finally, remember that major landscaping projects can cause a property's elevation and flood potential to change, like when you install a swimming pool. For the sake of your insurance and records, it's a good idea to have your property re-surveyed at the completion of the landscaping project.

Now that you've got the lay of the land, how do you know what's lying under all of it? Go to the next page to learn about locating a property's utility lines.

Locating Utility Lines in a Landscape

­It shouldn't be too difficult to find the utility lines in a landscape. Just look up -- they're the black things strung between the telephone poles, right?

Not so fast. Any landscape analysis should take those lines into account -- especially when planning tree patterns and growth. But there's a lot more to consider. A garden isn't just empty­ land; it's land surrounding a home. That means it can contain all sorts of things that serve a home, such as:

  • Sewer and septic systems
  • Gas lines
  • Electrical lines and underground transformers
  • Cable TV lines
  • Water pipes
  • Telecommunications lines

For the most part, your local utility companies should be able to tell you where these lines are buried. However, if you've added underground utility lines yourself -- such as irrigation tubes or a gas line for the outdoor grill -- you're responsible for keeping track of their locations.

Your landscaper should check several standard depths:

  • At one foot down (30 cm) -- sometimes even less -- you might encounter cable lines and telephone lines in conduit.
  • At two feet down (61 cm), you could see electricity, sewage and telephone lines without conduits.
  • At three feet down (91 cm), are more electrical lines, water pipes and sewer lines.
  • At any depth, you might encounter gas lines. They don't have a standard depth [source: Lerner].

The landscaper should also consider the land's erosion patterns. Even gardens can lose major amounts of soil -- which could mean the gas line you think is 24 inches (61 cm) down is actually only 8 inches (20 cm) away from your shovel's blade.

­In addition, any landscape plan must take into account above-ground utility points, which might include electric, gas or water meters, transformers, heat pumps or guy wires.

Finally, remember the utilities that might be adjacent to your property -- sidewalks, curbs, right-of-way areas and so on. A landscape analysis must take into account common use, as well as any state and local ordinances that apply to these features. You could face a fine -- or the wrath of your neighbors -- if a tree drops a lot of fruit onto the sidewalk. And if your hedge is blocking visibility, it might be dangerous to drivers.

After looking at what's already below the ground, a landscape analysis should proceed to what's growing in the ground. Read on.

Analyzing a Landscape's Existing Plant Life

Obviously, you wouldn't be landscaping if you didn't want to make a few changes to what's currently growing on you p­roperty. Any good landscape analysis looks at what's there, what you want or should keep and what you might have to get rid of. The landscaper should also consider the existing vegetation in terms of your short- and long-term goals for the property.

Some questions the landscaper should consider:

  • Where are the large trees? Removing these can often be more trouble than it's worth.
  • Which plants draw attention? These "focal plants" may be worth keeping, or moving to a different location on the property.
  • Which plants have aggressive roots and branches? Are any of these plants in problem spots -- too close to utility lines or foundations?
  • Does the property contain any invasive species? In some places (such as New Zealand) landscapers are legally required to remove invasive species. Even if it isn't a question of law, the landscaper should know about these aggressors.
  • What are the shade and water preferences of the existing plants? Are the plants arranged in such a way as to maximize sun exposure and water use? Will these plants' needs conflict with your environmental goals?
  • What are the colors, textures, sizes and shapes of the existing plants? How do they work together?
  • Which plants do you like? There may be some features you don't want to get rid of. Make sure the landscaper knows about them.

Finally, the analysis should include a budgetary component. Unless you're very wealthy, full landscaping is a project for years, not weeks. So the landscape analysis should consider ways to work with the existing plants as you make the gradual transition to your dream landscape. The landscaper should think about :

  • The age and likely lifespan of any major trees
  • Ways to maximize transitional light and shade patterns
  • How current plant life affects water flow and erosion
  • Which existing plants will impede projects such as terracing
  • Which existing plants pose a threat to the property and should be a priority for removal (for example, if a tree with aggressive roots is too close to the house's foundation or sewer system)

It's not enough to think about how you want the new landscape to look. You also need to think about how you want to use it. On the next page, we'll discuss the functional areas of landscapes.

Finding a Landscape's Functional Areas

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­A landscaper should take into account the ways you currently use your property and the ways the land's natural layout lends itself to use. Light, shade, elevation, rainfall, soil composition and wind expos­ure can all mean that one corner of the land is better suited to a certain purpose than is another corner.

Manmade features also affect the way you use the landscape. For example, you probably can't change the location of your back door, or where your driveway opens onto the street. So the landscaper should think about smart ways to create functional areas in relation to those unchangeable factors. It wouldn't make sense to put a play area for small children right next to the street or the driveway.

The landscape analysis should also address how you want to use the property. For example, depending on your budget, goals and acreage, you might want to add:

  • A patio or deck, maybe with an outdoor cooking, grilling or entertaining area
  • A swimming pool and/or hot tub with a seating area
  • A tea area such as a gazebo
  • An area or enclosure for pets
  • A play set for kids
  • A putting green or other sports area
  • A kitchen, meditation or cutting garden
  • An orchard
  • A grape arbor
  • A pond or other water formation­
  • A potting table or shed
  • Storage for gardening tools
  • Parking
  • A windbreak
  • A privacy hedge or screen
  • A woodpile
  • A compost heap
  • A lawn

This means your landscaper should ask a lot of questions about your lifestyle. How much time do you want to spend on lawn maintenance? Do you anticipate a lot of pool parties? How close is the neighbors' house, and do you like to leave your blinds up? Do you expect to be in this house long enough that not just the children but also the grandchildren will use the swing set?

As you analyze your own environment, you might also be thinking about the planet's environment. Read on to find out how your garden can help the world.

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Environmental Factors of Landscape Design

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­As people become more alert to their impact on the planet, the sprawling, inefficient lawn covered in whizzing sprinklers may become a thing of the past. In its place, we may see more gardens with food plants and trees, irrigation tubes and xeriscaping, or "dry landscaping," the use of desert plants and land features to minimize water use.

But environmental considerations go far beyond water and space usage. A landscape analysis should consider goals such as:

  • Preserving water quality and reducing water consumption
  • Preventing soil erosion
  • Reducing household heating and cooling costs
  • Promoting biodiversity
  • Avoiding pesticide use
  • Conserving natural resources [source: Ecological Landscaping Association]

Then the landscaper should look at ways those goals are interrelated, and the different ways to accomplish them with combinations of plants and structures.

The landscaper also needs to think about the current state of the land. He or she should:

  • Catalogue the existing plants in terms of their water and sun needs, as well as wind exposure
  • Look at the microclimates (small zones of temperature, light, water conditions, soil acidity or species habitation) created by existing plants
  • Take soil samples, checking pH levels, composition, texture, moisture retention and fertility
  • Find the areas that stay wet or dry too long
  • Look for stressed or dying plants -- plants with symptoms of over- or under-watering, pest damage, inappropriate light, and so on
  • Strive to find the least toxic solutions to existing pest problems
  • Look for soil erosion and seek a landscape design that will prevent it [source: Ecological Landscaping Association]

Then, together, you and the landscaper can look at how to balance all your goals for the land. In some cases, you may need to prioritize. For example, would you rather have the classic lush, green, rolling lawn, or does it make more sense to plant a terraced combination of trees and flowering shrubs to economize on water and reduce the house's cooling needs?

Whatever you decide, environmental analysis will help you obtain a garden that's green in every sense of the word -- environmentally sound, economically savvy, and full of healthy plants.

To learn more, visit the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Arbor Day Foundation. (Accessed 11/19/08)http://www.arborday.org/trees/index.cfm
  • Bradley, Tom, and Hammond, Herb. "Landscape Analysis and Planning Survey." Silva Ecosystem Consultants, Ltd. (Accessed 11/19/08) http://www.silvafor.org/publications/library/docs/Landscape%20Planning%20Overview.pdf
  • "FAQs." Ecological Landscaping Association. (Accessed 11/19/08)http://www.ecolandscaping.org/faq.html
  • Finerty, T.L., Vore, S.M., Mcgee, J.A., and Baughman, J.D. "Landscaping and Utilities: Problems, Prevention, and Plant Selection." University of Idaho. (Accessed 11/19/08) http://info.ag.uidaho.edu/Resources/PDFs/CIS0991.pdf
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  • The Landscape Design Site: DIY Garden Design. (Accessed 11/20/08) http://www.the-landscape-design-site.com/
  • Lerner, Joel M. "In Landscape Design, Practical Doesn't Have to Mean Ugly." Washington Post. (Accessed 11/19/08)http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/03/AR2006110300645_pf.html
  • "New Home Guide." (Accessed 11/19/08)http://www.discovernewhomes.com/consumers/landscape.html
  • "Real Estate Survey." Real Estate Lawyers. (Accessed 11/20/08)http://www.realestatelawyers.com/Survey.cfm
  • Rinomato, Sandra. "What's a Property Survey?" HGTV. (Accessed 11/20/08)http://www.hgtv.ca/realestate/blog/BlogPost.aspx?sectionID=65&postID=10306