3 Steps to a Master Plan for Your Property
Think big, even if your yard is small, to deliver outsized experiences.
Dear Avant Gardener, My wife and I bought an 18-acre farm-turned-golf course, complete with six acres of greens and an acre pond. The rest of the property is wooded. We’d love to restore it into a permaculture wonderland, full of botanical surprises and sacred space. We planted a small wildflower meadow and an orchard in the front yard. However, we need a bigger vision to create something beautiful (and environmentally responsible) for our family’s future. We’re on a limited budget and will be doing a lot of the work ourselves. — Christof, Freedom, ME
“Botanical surprises and sacred space.” I love that! Here’s how to create a bigger vision — a master plan that you’ll implement over many years. It will help you prioritize, budget, establish appropriate scale, minimize regrets, and bolster your patience.
Step 1: Imagining
What features and destinations can you imagine drawing you into your landscape so you can fully occupy it? In our follow-up Zoom conversation, you mentioned several uses in addition to the meadow and orchard: a vegetable garden, a rose garden, a sauna hut, and a path and chapel in the woods. You’ll also want an outdoor sitting and eating area off the house and a large, flat grassy area for outdoor games like boules, badminton, and croquet. What else? A labyrinth? Allee? Treehouse? And how about practical needs — privacy hedges, parking spaces?
Let your imagination run wild, fueled by travel, fantasy, and favorite activities. Visit public and private gardens for ideas, paying attention to uses, shapes, and scale — the width of paths, the depth of a flower border, the height of a hedge, the diameter of a seating area — rather than plants.
Step 2: Surveying and mapping the landscape
To scale and locate your destinations appropriately, it’s essential to place them into a fairly accurate map of your property and its existing conditions — i.e., whatever you intend to keep. These conditions include the house, barn, driveway, parking area, pond, major plantings, and underground utilities. Start with a Google satellite image of the entire property, plus any surveys and floorplans you already have.
While a small scale plan is sufficient for the wilder areas, you will benefit from an detailed survey of the areas around the house, barn, driveways, and pond (if possible, 1/4” = 1’ scale) mounted on a large wall for viewing. And make sure to orient your survey as if viewed from front door looking out; you will experience your landscape from inside the house as much or more than outside, so map the locations of key windows (and doors) and any permanent features you see from them.
Step 3: Putting it together
The next step is to scale your destinations and place them and their connecting paths on the survey map. As a very rough rule, “garden rooms” get bigger as you get further from the house, and larger properties call for longer paths and larger rooms. Start by cutting out and labeling shapes for each element, then arrange them on the site plan, using removable tape to keep them in place once you have an arrangement you like.
Now, go outside and test your preliminary plan. Measure out the destinations and mark them with flags. Are they too big? Too small? The tendency will be to make them too small and to put them too close together. Walk the paths, noting your views and how comfortable the distances are. Think about how you will plant the “negative space” between them; those parts of your six-acre lawn that are neither grassy destinations nor paths will eventually be planted. Adjust the plan.
Muse. Walk again. Adjust. At some point, you might want to switch from cut-and-tape to sketching in pencil on tracing paper over your survey. Your master plan will continue to evolve as long as you own the property.
When do the plants come in?
As you rework your master plan, you’ll be thinking about plantings. Most important is shape and scale: Do you want a tree here as a focal point from the kitchen window? A grouping of tall shrubs there to screen the view of the road? You can also research plants native to your ecoregion and start a spreadsheet with info about your existing plants and those you may want to add.
Once you have a master plan, pick an area to start planting when the time is right (usually fall) — then plan again, this time a more detailed plan of plants, hardscaping, and other elements. The process will be iterative, with budget constraints forcing creativity and trying your patience — and, more likely than not, improving the outcome.
— The Avant Gardener
Why, How, Wow!
Just like a floorplan of a house, a landscape plan will give a purpose to every part of a property. In an ecological landscape, areas without a specific use will be planted to benefit wildlife — generally in one of three archetypes: meadow, shrubland, and forest. In the plans for both Hortulus Farm, below, and the small urban yard above, each part of the property has a purpose.
If you have the resources and benefit from deadlines, Rochelle Greayer will lead you through the planning process in her excellent Garden Design Lab. Alternatively, you can follow the instructions for professional (English) landscape designers on pages 32 to 62 of The Essential Garden Design Workbook. Either way, you will find my favorite planning tools useful (paid links): compass, reel tape measure (pictured), stencils, flags, roll of grid paper, roll of tracing paper.
Their allée of ‘Heritage’ river birch and ostrich and cinnamon ferns illustrates Renny Reynolds and Jack Staub’s approach to planning to surprise and delight at Hortulus Farm.
What viewsheds did we already possess that might begin to dictate a plan? What sites were ripe for “destination” status, and how would one perceive that one had arrived at such? What focal points might be in the running to herald said arrival? How would the eye be focused and directed, and how would one travel through the gardens? Paths? Steps? Lanes? Bridges? And what of the idea of progression? — Chasing Eden
Interested in how extraordinary gardens are planned? Read Chasing Eden and Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst: The Creation of a Garden (but substitute natives for any planting you admire, natch).
Need inspiration? Visit private gardens during open days hosted by the Garden Conservancy (ditto re plantings).
Want to put some intellectual rigor behind designing plant communities? Read Garden Revolution and Planting in a Post-Wild World.
Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I invest 100 percent of these earnings, as well as fees from paid subscribers, in ecological landscaping education.