How to Design the Ideal Layout for Your Yard

Even if you're a beginner, these simple guidelines will take the mystery out of planning your yard's ideal layout.

Whether you've just bought your first house, moved to a new location, or you're tired of the way your yard looks—no matter your reason for wanting a fresh look, the first step is planning a layout for your landscape. This can seem daunting at first, but it's really just a matter of thinking about how you want to use your space, then figuring out how to add beauty and utility to your design. Start by imagining your dream yard, then work on sketching out a plan to make it happen (you can always scale back to fit your budget). With your plan in hand, you can do it yourself or work with a professional to transform your ideas into reality.

Flowering plants in garden outside house
Laurie Black

Setting Landscape Layout Goals

Think of a layout as a trouble-shooting and problem-solving process that will make your life easier. Just as you would with a kitchen remodel, begin your planning with a list of the qualities you want. Priorities could include adding privacy screening, dealing with an eroding slope, creating beautiful views from inside the house, starting a new vegetable garden, building a storage shed, or making your entryway and front walk more welcoming. At this stage, go wild. It costs nothing to dream, and you can always execute your plan in stages, as time and budget allow.

backyard stone porch addition with fireplace
Laurie Black

How to Evaluate Your Landscape

Before you physically add your dream elements, take a notebook out to your yard to evaluate what you like and what you don't. Walk around the perimeter of your property as if you were a stranger, objectively viewing the space. This site analysis will become your roadmap for change.

Make two lists of your best assets; one for the house and one for the yard. Notice what's behind overgrown shrubs or vines. You may have hidden treasures (an attractive set of stairs, a brick patio, a lovely view) just waiting to be noticed. Concentrate on details like steps, paving patterns, views toward and away from each area, and the locations of doors.

You'll also need a list of liabilities. Maybe there's an unattractive property or garage next door you'd like to screen out. Maybe one of your home's more attractive features (a side entry to the kitchen, for example) lacks landscaping. Then think about how to turn that liability into an asset. The blank entry area may be the perfect location for a kitchen garden, a patio for entertaining, or a spot for the grill.

Note the topography, showing which locations are sloped, sunny, or shaded (don't forget to make a note of sun and wind patterns). The southern or southeastern face of your house provides warming rays in winter and sun all day in summer. In regions where you can spend time outside year-round, these are perfect locations for sitting areas, since they're protected from harsh northwestern winds. In summer, however, the same spots might be too bright and hot to be comfortable.

flagstone retaining wall and steps
Steve Pomberg

Choosing Landscape Features

Once have a good sense of how you'd like to change your landscape, you can think about what to add. Consider these items for your wish list:

  • Steps: Timber-and-brick; concrete; stone
  • Paths: Brick; concrete pavers; crushed stone; loose-fill; flagstone
  • Structures: Pergola; arched arbor; square arbor; triangular arbor; lattice arbor and fence; picket fence and gate; arched gateway; screened seating area
  • Walls: Stone; timber
  • Decks: Wraparound; geometric
  • Patios: Brick; tile; stone
  • Other elements: Window box; planter; tree-surround bench; outdoor lighting; ponds and waterfalls; children's play area; garden shed; potting bench; raised beds; compost bins; rain garden
woman kneeling planning garden design
Marty Baldwin

How to Create a Base Map

It's time to add sketches to your notes so you can see what's there and generate new ideas for the best options. It's a low-cost way to explore possibilities and prevent costly mistakes. You can create a base map for your landscape layout either on paper or on your computer with an online program or downloadable application. Either way, it's important to have a visual representation of your thoughts.

Your base map should show the exterior dimensions of your house and the perimeter lines of your property. For a head start on these dimensions, use the plot plan (also called a survey or plat) you received when you bought your home. Many city or county assessors also provide these online.

On the base map, sketch in existing features that aren't going to change, such as the property line, trees and shrubs you plan to keep, walkways, walls, outbuildings, fences, and patios. Note the locations of doors, windows, the air-conditioner, utilities, and other services, including septic systems.

When you finish a base plan, make several copies. If you're using paper, place tracing paper on top so you can make additions and subtractions without ruining the original. Then you can start playing with the layout.

patio layout illustration
Illustration by Travis Rice

Finalize the Design Concept

On your base map, draw circular or blobby areas (bubble diagrams) to represent the ways you want to use different parts of your yard. Your bubbles don't have to be round—draw them in different configurations and shapes as needed, but remember to label each one with its intended use. Don't worry about cost at this point; it's a brainstorming activity. And if some of your ideas at first seem odd or unattainable, keep them for now, because they'll all eventually help you hone in on the right decisions for your space.

Your bubbles might include screening the view of the neighbor's yard, pathways, new flowerbeds, a patio, and a location for the kids' swing set. It may show where you'd like to plant trees and shrubs, or where you'd like them removed.

When you've placed your bubbles in the best spots, make a clean, new final drawing. This is your design concept. It should include every decision you've made. Each of these bubbles represents one project or phase of your landscape plan.

By referring to the design concept each time you begin one of the projects, your vision will remain cohesive, and the final results will reflect your well-thought-out plan.

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