Getting to know your site is the first step to creating a wonderful garden. Follow this 10-point checklist to get it right
One of the first things landscape designers do when they start working on a garden plan is to make a site survey. This assesses a range of factors including soil type, wind exposure, location of sewer pipes, existing plants and changes of level. That information is put together onto a scale drawing of the site which is used to develop the final concept plan for the garden.
Whether you’re planning to hire a landscape designer or intending to design your own garden, it makes good sense to analyse the site yourself. For DIY gardeners it will provide a thorough understanding of what’s going in the garden so you’ll be able to work with what you’ve got rather than trying to create a garden that would be impossible for your conditions. There’s no point in wasting money on plants that won’t thrive in your garden’s type of soil or building a terrace and finding it’s lashed by cold winds most of the time.
Even if you do use a landscape designer, having a thorough knowledge of your site means you’ll be better able to judge whether the design is right for your garden. And by reducing some of the preliminary work the designer would do, you can save yourself time and money. Not sure where to begin? Just follow our 10 point checklist of the essential elements for a garden site survey
1. Find an existing site plan…
Start by researching as much existing information as you can on your site. If you’ve had renovations done or built a new house you should have an existing site plan to scale, showing where the correct boundaries are, the position of the house, driveways and major trees. If not, check with your local council. Hopefully it will have a site plan on file and will give you a copy for a small fee.
Get your site plan enlarged to a reasonable scale to work with – 1:100 is the normal scale for site plans but for small spaces 1:50 is better. Make another copy or trace over the site plan so you can gradually add more information to your survey.
2. …Or draw your own site plan
If you can’t locate an existing site plan with a workable scale, you can draw your own. Graph paper can be helpful in establishing a scale for the site (for instance every two squares could equal one metre). When measuring your site never presume boundaries are straight, always double check by measuring from two different positions. Likewise with the position of trees and other major structures.
TIP: Having someone to assist you is a good idea, and useful electronic tools are available online to make site measuring a lot easier.
3. Assess indoor/outdoor links
If not already marked on the site plan, you should note the different living spaces on your base plan and any other rooms that look out onto the garden. This allows you to plan garden features to be seen from the various rooms as well as creating good connections between the inside of the house and outdoor living spaces.
4. Find north
Knowing where north is helps you work out approximately where the sun will be in the garden at different times of day and, conversely, which areas will be in shade. There should be a north point on any site plans drawn up by an architect or a design professional. Alternatively, get out the compass. If you have time, track the sun’s movement through the garden as this is valuable knowledge. Check in the morning, midday and again in the evening. If you do this each season you’ll be able to work out which areas are the sunniest (and shadiest) throughout the year. Mark these on your site survey.
5. Mark key features
Your site survey should include existing built features such as sheds, decks, driveways, paving, pergolas, pools. Even if you are planning to move or demolish these, it’s important to note where they are in the interim as budgets and minds can change. Also locate on the plan all the trees and plants you wish to retain.
Don’t forget what’s happening under the ground. The position of underground services such as gas, electricity, telecommunication cables and drainage runs can hugely affect what you can do on top, planting trees for instance, excavating soil or building structures. The council may have a drainage plan on file while your service providers can send you a map of cables and gas pipes.
6. Assess levels
Sloping areas should be noted on the site survey. It’s important to take these into account when planning outdoor living spaces as seats and tables need a level platform. If your site does have a slope you’ll have to build retaining walls to create flat areas. Unless you’re really handy, it pays to take professional advice on this. When moving soil around, think about where you could relocate it on site rather than paying to have it removed.
Retaining might also be a good option if your site slopes down away from the house, otherwise the garden will be shady. For areas such as garden beds, rather than creating large flat areas with expensive earthworks try to follow the natural contours of your site as much as possible and use low terracing that is not difficult to build yourself.
TIP: Clever planting can also go a long way to disguise sloping terrain
7. Work out the best and worst views
Note on the survey where the good views are from within the garden and from the house. These could be inside your garden, a lovely tree next door or a distant landmark such as a church steeple or a glimpse of the ocean. Views are another essential factor in deciding where to position sitting areas. Also mark areas where the garden is overlooked and might have to be screened.
8. Analyse environmental conditions
Spend as much time as you can working out which areas in your garden receive the most sun and wind, and which spots are sheltered or in deep shade. You need to know which parts of the garden receive the most rainfall and where the really dry areas are, as only certain plants will do well in those conditions. And you may want to create sitting areas in shady and sunny places in the garden.
9. And check the soil
Knowing where the good soil is will help decide your garden’s layout. Main planting areas should, of course, be where the good soil is whereas it doesn’t matter what the soil is like beneath paving. Check all around your property as soil conditions can vary considerably within a small area.
You may like to get your soil tested to determine its pH (acidity levels), particularly if you choose acid-loving plants such as azaleas or rhododendrons. Soil pH testing kits are available from garden centres.
0. What’s the drainage like?
Always note any areas with damp soil. There’s no point in planting expensive trees only to find them languishing in boggy ground. You can check the drainage capacity of soil by digging holes at least 500 millimetres deep in the area where you’ll be planting and fill them with water. If it drains away quickly, your soil is free-draining. If it stays for longer than a couple of hours you’ll need to install a drainage system or plant species that love damp conditions.
Micro climates within the landscape should also be considered.
Detailed soil tests
Rain water/Harvesting water
For #4, there’s a cool app for your smartphone (sunsurveyor) which shows the solar paths throughout the seasons for your current location. Also, you can assess the solar paths throughout the year in the span of 3 months by checking the location of the moon at night. The moon will be at the same location as the sun 6 months later 🙂