How to Draw Landscape Plans

A Do-It-Yourselfer's Guide

Image: landscape plan drawing.
Sharpen your pencils, it's time to draw a landscape plan. darrya/Getty Images

You say that you’d like to learn how to draw landscape plans, but you’re downright intimidated by the scope of such a task? All right, I won’t lie to you: drawing professional-quality landscape plans is a big deal. After all, it is not for nothing that aspiring designers go to school to learn how to draw landscape plans.

But one question you need to ask yourself right away is this: Does the particular project that you’re considering demand detailed, perhaps even professional-quality landscape plans?

If you are merely establishing a new planting bed – say a mixed border planting that will act as a privacy screen – then you probably don’t need a detailed landscape plan. A simpler drawing will be suitable for your needs. Such simple drawings can be upgraded with the addition of accurate measurements, so you’ll be able to get your plant spacing requirements right.

So when do you truly need complete, detailed landscape plans? I would encourage people moving into new homes, where the landscaping is virtually non-existent, to have such landscape plans with which to work. Likewise, homeowners engaging in makeovers of existing landscapes that they consider obsolete will profit from the guidance offered by detailed landscape plans. In these cases, even if you have to pay a pro to come in and draw the landscape plan for you, it will be worth it. Such undertakings are just too complex to be left to guesswork.

Detailed landscape plans provide a bird’s-eye view of your property and allow you to determine whether one projected component will mesh with another.

A landscape plan is not born; rather, it evolves. You put measurements, rough sketches, and notes on paper, then tinker with that data until you arrive at the final plan (my article assumes that you’ve already thought about what improvements you’d like to make to your yard, which includes solving problems such as poor drainage).

The process can be described in terms of three phases, each of which results in a type of drawing.

Did you take geometry in high school? Remember how obsessed that subject was with measuring spaces? Well, you'll need a similar obsession to create a scale diagram, which is Phase 1 of drawing landscape design plans. For, as I mentioned on Page 1, your drawing begins with measuring.

Just how obsessed you're willing to become, just how methodically you're willing to take measurements, will determine the degree of detail your landscape design plan acquires. There’s also the matter of how fancy you wish to get with the look of the drawing itself. If you truly strive for something approaching a professional-looking landscape design plan, you’ll need some drafting supplies, such as a drawing compass and drafting paper. A good source for the techniques involved in producing such a fancy drawing is Black and Decker’s The Complete Guide to Creative Landscapes (Help with Drawing). My article will focus on creating a plainer drawing, more in line with the do-it-yourselfer's aims.

Phase 1: Scale Drawings

When you bought your property, you should have received a deed map (there are regional variations on the name of this document).

If not, obtain a copy at your county’s records office. A deed map indicates the measurements of your property, where your house rests in relation to the property's borders and, if you're lucky, the location of underground utilities. If the location of underground utilities is not supplied by the deed map, you'll have to contact your local utility companies. If you do have a deed map or similar aid, it will help you in this project. You’ll still have to do some measuring and some drawing. But the deed map will provide you with the proper orientation, steering you in the right direction. For instance, you’ll see which (if any) corners of your land form a right angle – useful knowledge for your calculations, as we'll see below.

Two of the supplies you need for Phase 1 are a 100-foot steel tape measure and several sheets of graph paper.

For Phases 2 and 3 you'll need tracing paper, carbon paper, blank sheets of paper and colored pencils, so you might as well pick up those supplies now, when you buy the graph paper. I also suggest having stakes and string on hand for Phase 2. The horizontal and vertical lines on graph paper are all spaced equally apart, dividing the sheet up as precisely as a checkerboard. This precision comes in very handy for scale drawings. Why? Because it allows you to say exactly where any point on the sheet is, in relation to any other point. Now, think about it: that’s exactly how you want to be able to represent your yard (remember what I said about "geometry" above). That is, in order to plan a landscape effectively, you want to know exactly where any point in your yard is, in relation to any other. That way, for instance, if you plan on fitting a new patio in between your house and the new driveway you'll be installing, you’ll know exactly how much room to allot for the patio.

"But," you may object at this juncture, "What does the graph paper have to do with making an accurate representation of my yard? The one is so small, the other so large." Yes, but this is where the concept of "scale" comes into play. You can decide that one of those little squares on the graph paper will represent, let's say, 1 square foot of space on your property, thus creating a scale drawing. Get it? You’ll do the physical measuring on your property first with your tape measure, then scale those dimensions down so that they’ll fit on the graph paper. The size of the squares available to you on graph paper varies, so you can choose the size that suits you best. A scale of 1/8 inch = 1 foot is commonly used to draw landscape design plans; for this scale, use the kind of graph paper with the grids laid out in eighth-inch scale. At this scale, you can represent a property as large as 60 feet by 80 feet on an 8 ½ x 11 sheet. For large properties, you may have to tape sheets of graph paper together, creating more squares with which to work.

Once you're squared away on how you’re going to transpose your measurements onto the graph paper, it’s time to go out and get those measurements. 

Using the tape measure, determine the length of each of your four property boundaries, then measure the length and width of your house. It’s important to establish precisely where your house sits in relation to your property’s boundaries. This is where those boundary corners that form right angles will come in handy. Let’s say there’s such a corner at the southwestern extreme of your land. Go to the corner of your house nearest to this corner boundary. Run the tape measure from the corner of the house to western boundary line and record the measurement. Now run the tape measure from the same house corner to the southern boundary line, recording that measurement. If you’ve been careful to keep the tape measure straight, you’ve just defined a perfectly rectangular area. Repeat the process for the other three corners, even where no right angle exists.

Once you’ve established the boundary lines and where the house sits in relation to them, you’re ready to determine the exact locations of other elements on your land (e.g., patios, driveways, gardens and plants that you’ll be keeping, as well as utilities), and indicate their positions, in scale, on the graph paper. Their positions are measured in relation to the points that you’ve already established (i.e., boundaries and house, so far). Get at least two points of reference for each element that you’re measuring. The further you proceed in this project, the easier it gets because you acquire more and more fixed points to use as points of reference.

“But how the heck do I measure things that curve, like curved planting beds?” you ask. Well, to measure a curved area, you need a straight line as a point of reference. Again, build on the calculations you’ve already made in this project. For instance, use the side of the house facing the curved planting bed as a point of reference. If the planting bed is located at a great distance – say, about 100 feet -- from the house, you can make your task easier as follows:

Measure out 99 feet from one corner of the house on that side, and drive a stake into the ground at that point; then do the same from the other corner. Run a string between the two stakes. Now you have a straight line to use as a point of reference, and it’s located just off the near edge of the curved planting bed. Beginning at one end of the bed, on the side nearest the string, run the tape measure from the string to the outer edge of the bed. Move down 3 feet and measure again. Repeat every 3 feet, until you reach the other end of the bed, jotting down all your measurements. Repeat the process to measure the far side of the bed. When you’re done, you record all the points you just measured on the graph paper, maintaining the same scale we discussed earlier. It will look like a series of dots. You then simply connect the dots. The result is an accurate measurement, in scale, of the curved planting bed.

When you feel that you’re done with Phase 1, make copies of your drawing. 

Remember the tracing paper you bought when you picked up supplies, as discussed on Page 2? It’s here, in Phase 2 of drawing landscape design plans, that you’ll begin to put it to use. Phase 2 entails the drawing of an intermediate landscape design plan, called the “bubble diagram.”

Phase 2: The Bubble Diagram

First, place a sheet of tracing paper over the completed scale diagram. Because the tracing paper allows you to see through down to the scale diagram, you can simply copy its contents, without the grid lines of the graph paper, onto the tracing paper. It’s enough that you can still see the grid lines underneath; they’ll guide your drawing in Phase 2.

So you have a copy of the scale diagram, traced onto the tracing paper. No big deal so far, right? But this copy is only the beginning. Now it’s time to make use of the “free spaces” in your yard, as indicated by your earlier measurements and drawing. For instance, if you have an area in between the house and the shed that’s not occupied by another element that will be in the final landscape design plan, this is the time to indicate the desired use for this space.

Delimit the space on the tracing paper by drawing a circular or oblong shape (the straight edges of squares and rectangles are generally avoided in landscape design, unless your goal is a formal landscape design). Thus the name of the drawing of Phase 2: by the time you’re done, it looks like you have a bunch of bubbles on the tracing paper. Label the shape you just drew as whatever you wish it to be (lawn area, ground cover, patio, water feature, planting bed, etc.), according to its function in your landscape design plan (work area, play area, garden, etc.) Then move on to another free space and do the same. Areas in between the “bubbles” will generally be driveways, paths, or small lawn areas essentially serving as paths – i.e., your means of navigation between the bubbles. Label them as such.

Check out what bubble diagrams look like.

Don’t expect to complete the finalized version of the bubble diagram immediately. You’ll find yourself rejecting some of the bubbles as you go along, for whatever reason (e.g., insufficient space). No problem. Just get another piece of tracing paper and revise your initial drawing.

Before settling on a final bubble diagram, concretize the project in any way you can, to see what will work and what won’t. Here’s where stakes and string may come in handy again. Pound stakes into the ground around one of the spaces you’ve tentatively defined in the bubble diagram. Tie string to these stakes. Repeat the process for the other “bubble” spaces. Now walk in between these spaces, noting the flow of traffic patterns. Does your layout of the spaces still make sense? Have you used the spaces as effectively as possible? Do you find one of the paths meandering too much, when it should instead be making a beeline from point A to point B?

When you change your mind on any of the spaces, adjust the stakes and string accordingly. When you’ve finished, take final measurements for these spaces. You’re now ready to go back to the scale diagram and incorporate these final measurements, thus transforming the scale diagram into the final landscape design plan.

Remember that, on Page 3 I had you make copies of the scale diagram? That’s because we’ll be tinkering with it now, to produce the finalized version of the home landscape plan. And if you mess something up on it, you don’t want to start all over again, do you?

Phase 3: The Final Home Landscape Plan

On one of your copies of the scale diagram, transpose the final measurements you arrived at for your “bubble” areas in Phase 2. Now it’s time for fitting plants into your scale diagram. You don’t have to name each type of tree, each type of flower, etc. Much more important is a continued adherence to scale, so that, for instance, the shape you draw to indicate a large tree will obviously be bigger than that for a small shrub. Indicate the size that a plant will reach at maturity, not its baby size. This will allow for adequate plant spacing.

Landscape designers find it handy to designate the elements of a home landscape plan with letters and/or symbols, to save on space. Thus a pool can be designated with a “P,” a tree with a large, round shape, and so forth. On the side of your scale diagram, include a legend that translates these shortcuts, in case you forget what they stand for.

You should also keep a separate notebook to jot down notes specifically having to do with your planting plan. Take note of shady areas, dry areas, wet areas, soil types, etc. All of these factors will be given precedence over merely aesthetic factors when it comes time to go out and buy the plants themselves. You’ll be fitting the plants to the plan, not the other way around.

Once you’ve got everything right, take a blank sheet of paper, place carbon paper over it, and place the updated scale diagram on top of that. Now trace over everything on the updated scale diagram, allowing the carbon paper to transfer your sketch onto the once blank sheet of paper – which is now being transformed into your final home landscape plan. In creating your final plan in this manner, you’ve simply rid yourself of the grid lines of the graph paper. This will allow your final home landscape plan to look prettier, as you can now begin to use your colored pencils. Hey, have a little fun: you’ve worked hard to get to this point, so you deserve it!

With your colored pencils, you can now fill in your spaces with the appropriate colors. For instance, grass can be a light green, trees and shrubs a dark green, water blue, etc. The application of color to the final home landscape plan will render it much easier on the eyes. But don’t toss the updated scale diagram into the rubbish! You’ll still want to consult it for precise measurements. Those grid lines may be ugly, but they’re the only thing standing between you and utter chaos!

Does drawing a home landscape plan by hand not seem like your cup of tea? Then consider letting a computer program do it for you. For more information on landscaping software, please read my review of Realtime Landscaping Pro Landscape Design Software.