Dan Chitwood: Certified Landscape Architect  









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Dan Chitwood's Site Design Procedure

I recommend the following procedure for developing a site plan for your yard. This is only the outline. Each step can be developed into much more detail.

Start with an accurate base map of your property. Most properties have a loan survey which can be used. Make sure the survey is at a usable scale. A scale of 1"=20' is good for master planning. To adjust the scale of a drawing, divide the existing scale by the desired scale. Example: 1"=30'(existing scale) divided by 1"=20'(desired scale) or 30/20=1.5. This means you will "blow up" the drawing 150%. Many copiers have this capability. Take this base map into the yard and add features which are not shown such as trees, walks, additions, flower beds etc.

Make an inventory of your needs (I have a standard form for that purpose). List your goals and objectives in order of priority. List problems and concerns. List opportunities and desirable aspects of the property.

Next, do a site analysis. Identify the basic spaces or rooms in the yard. This is often done by using bubble diagrams. A typical yard can be divided into four or five spaces (Front yard, service area or garage, side yard, backyard, etc.). List characteristics of each space. For instance; Front yard (formal/public/aesthetic), Backyard (informal/private/relaxing), Service area (private/hidden form view/functional).

Identify circulation routes and determine how important they are. Major circulation routes should be paved, easy to walk on and easy to maintain. Minor circulation routes may be grass, mulch or stepping stones.

Locate doors, gates, portals etc. (It should be evident by now that a yard lays out much like a house with rooms, doors, halls etc.). The location of these doors is very important. It is from this vantage point that visitors get their first impression. You have complete control over the view or composition through a door.

Identify cones of view. These may be views to the mountains, views to the front door, views into interesting parts of the yard etc. These cones will help you to locate trees and shrubs. You will not want to place trees where they will block views. Rather you will place trees to frame views. The end result of these cones of view will be compositions. When all is said and done you should be able to take a photograph of the compositions you create.

Identify focal points. Every composition has a focal point. A focal point is defined as the "center of activity or attention." Typical focal points would be the front door, a sculpture, views, accent plants etc. It is important not to have several features competing for your attention.

Establish the structural elements. These elements are sometimes called the bones of the landscape. They are visible year-round and hopefully will not be changed for a long time. Examples of structural elements include patios, decks, walks, arbors, fences, trees, shrubs and shape of lawn etc. This may be the most difficult aspect of the design process. All aspects of the site must be integrated at this point. The designer must simultaneously consider existing conditions, views, grades, drainage, geometry, construction materials, walks, steps, walls, etc. For complex projects I would recommend hiring a professional to lay out the bones of the yard.

Once the structural elements are established. The designer can focus on filling in the spaces. Use layering techniques for filling in the landscape with plant material. I define layering as "the natural order to the arrangement of plant material". Some of the basic rules of layering are as follows: Space plants at about 80% of their mature spread, Select plants that cohabitate naturally, Organize plants in a natural succession from shorter plants toward the front to taller plants toward the back.

Work out the details. Remember that details are the last step in the process. If you have completed the steps above, details will fall into place naturally.

When your plan is complete, look back at your inventory. Have you achieved your goals and objectives? Does your plan solve the problems? Have you capitalized on the opportunities of the site?

Here are a few truisms, rules and techniques you may want to consider while designing your yard:

  • The key to good design is balance.
  • The show needs only one star. Avoid having competing elements in a composition. The goal is to create harmony.
  • Think of the lawn as a large patio or lake. Treat the edge of the lawn as a thread. The thread should begin at a well-anchored point, meander through the site and reattach at another well-anchored point.
  • Position flowers and focal points in the concave sections of mulch beds. The eye is naturally funneled into this area.
  • Use the "Golden Section" (.618 or 8/13ths) and one-third principles for proportion.
  • Use "Classic Triangles" to lay out landscape elements.
  • Decide whether groundcovers will be uniform or diverse. Avoid mixing the two.
  • The best designs occur when all elements in the composition reinforce each other.
  • Avoid overcrowding of plants. Space plants at approx. 80% of their mature spread.
  • Provide a landscape for all the senses; sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.
  • Don't forget about the diversity of plant material; evergreen, deciduous, trees, shrubs, vines, groundcovers, perennials, biennials, ferns, grasses, herbs, bulbs, annuals, water plants.
  • Consider irrigation and lighting early in the design process.
  • Establish a theme or design concept for each space and follow through.
  • Simplify complexity. Use the "KISS" principle (keep it simple, stupid).
  • Practice site choreography. Try to visualize yourself walking through the site and choreograph what that experience will be like.
  • Avoid "dead on dead" conditions. An example is where a brick patio abuts the house. These corners are often cold and unattractive. Use plant material to soften these connections.
  • Avoid creating "dead spaces". Such areas that are cut off from the rest of the landscape are visually unattractive.
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