Plan Your Garden: A Site Survey

Plan your garden without impatience – it is undoubtedly the enemy of the amateur garden designer. Instant gardens only exist at horticultural shows, and these often have a sterility about them that one would not wish to emulate.

Never be tempted to start designing your plot before your site survey is completely finished. The information provided by an accurate survey is essential. It will form the basis of a scale drawing that will in turn form the outline of the finished scheme.

Plan Your Garden – Preparation

You will need a clipboard with a pad of large paper, a 30m (100ft) tape measure, a 60m (200ft) reel of string and some skewers, some bamboo canes, and a compass. On the pad, draw a very rough plan of the outline of the house and the boundaries of the garden; this enables you to mark on the actual measurements at the appropriate points. It does not need to be to scale, but it does need to show every detail, such as a chimney breast, an angled wall or a small out-house. Back and front gardens should be plotted on separate sheets of paper.

Plan your garden and include any projections, such as a conservatory, porch or bay window, the position of items such as an oil tank, fuel store or garage, and existing terracing or paths. Next, draw in the boundaries of the plot to fill as much of the sheet as possible. Show the angle of the plot in relation to the house, and jot down what the boundaries are made from. Mark in any existing trees or large shrubs, identifying the species if possible, and giving a rough indication of their height and spread.

Measuring Up

Once you have completed the rough sketch you can begin superimposing measurements on the rough drawing. Using the house as a starting point, run the tape from one side of the garden (fixing it in place with a bamboo cane), across the back of the building to the opposite boundary. Pull it taut to remove any kinks and make sure it runs in a straight line. Now you can note down the running measurements.

Measure and mark in windows, doors, projecting bays or porches, positions of drainpipes and gullies, and finally the distance to the second boundary. You can transfer the measurements to a scale drawing later on.


Next, provided that your garden has boundaries running at right angles to the house, run the tape at right angles from one corner of the house, lining this up with the side wall of the house by sighting back down the tape. Then take running measurements of anything you encounter along the length of the tape: the edge of a patio, a path, shrubs or trees, and so on to the end boundary.

By using these two sets of measurements, or ‘base lines’, you can check the shape and size of most small rectangular gardens, and plot in their key features.

What To Mark On The Garden Plan?

Having taken the measurements of the garden, there remain a number of other pieces of information you will need for your survey. Manholes, drains, ventilation pipes and septic tank covers need to be recorded. Fix their position, using triangulation if necessary, and make a note of their exact size and angle.

Triangulation – Use this technique for free-standing features such as tree. It can also be used for awkward corners. Mark the tree roughly on your drawing. Measure to it from two known points, such as the corners of the house, and record them on your sketch. When you later come to make a scale plan, set a pair of compasses to the first measurement. Position the point on the house corner, and draw a short arc. Then repeat for the second measurement. The point where the two arcs intersect indicates the position of the tree.

The orientation of the garden is vital information. The direction of the sun will have a bearing on the choice of plants for particular situations and will also determine where you sit in the garden. So use a compass and mark magnetic north clearly on your garden plan. If you can mark the extent of the shadow patterns at different times of year, and indicate the arc of the sun across the garden throughout the day, this will provide invaluable information when it comes to planting as well as designing your garden.

Another detail that needs recording on your garden plan is the view beyond it, on all sides, for a good view from a garden can dramatically affect the finished composition. Analyse just what views you have got, both inside and outside your garden, and record your observations on your garden plan.

Shelter, or a lack of it, is another point to record. Note down the places in the garden that are most affected by the prevailing wind or by draughts, for either could have a detrimental effect on both plants and people.

Another problem that arises in the proximity of any wall or building is lack of rainfall due to a rain shadow. The prevailing wind will drive rain along with it, and if a building stands in its path, ground in the lee will receive little or no moisture. A similar situation arises with overhanging eaves, trees or wall plants.

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