HOMEGROWN Life: The Basics of Landscape Design
When looking to lay out your property, there are several things you need to consider. The most important aspects of landscape design are sun/shade patterns throughout the year, slope, drainage, and what your proposed uses will be.
Vegetable gardens, for example, need good drainage, minimal slope, and a lot of sun during the growing season. West-facing slopes tend to get more moisture than east-facing slopes, while north-facing slopes will get a lot less sun than south-facing slopes. Most livestock need a place with sun and shade all year to really be happy. You’ll also want to consider placement in relation to how often you’ll visit the given usage. Areas that you’ll visit frequently, such as a chicken coop, should be closer to your home than something you’ll visit less frequently, such as fruit trees.
I’ll be using our property as an example of some basic site issues and how we accommodated them. We had few real obstacles compared to some folks, but this case study should give you the basics.
When we moved into our home, the very first thing I did was to create a site plan of existing conditions. Our property, just over a quarter-acre in size, is a narrow, long, rectangular lot running east to west. We had some obstacles to deal with, including some old, dead, and dying fruit trees and two large black walnut trees on the western end. We also had an oddly placed 6-foot wooden fence right off the back stoop (see those posts in the photo above) and no fence or gate on the side of the house, so anyone could enter our backyard.
The next thing I did was to create a list of the things I wanted. I knew I wanted garden beds and fruit trees. We needed a place for our chickens and we needed to be able to add more animals into our system in the future. I also needed a large patio for entertaining and a way to keep our dogs out of the garden (though that effort has been largely unsuccessful, since Squeak is agile enough to jump fences). We had two things in our backyard that we could not change: the water tower and a large oak tree centered on our southern property line. Our lot sloped gently towards the western end, away from the house. Even in the winter, and even with the big oak tree, most of the yard got good sun exposure all day, which was definitely a bonus. In the summer, only the area directly under the tree gets all-day shade.
Fruit tree placement was easy. We knew we needed to place them where, when fully grown, they wouldn’t cast too much shade (if any) on the vegetable beds. The north edge of the property was the best place for the majority of trees. We located additional trees on the eastern and western outermost edges. The biggest rule you want to remember is never to place trees on the southern side of your vegetable garden, at least here in the northern hemisphere, if you want to maximize sun exposure. Western edges also should be avoided, but we decided to include more trees along that side anyway.
Because our site was narrow and long, we ran our beds from east to west. This helped with wheelbarrow access and running irrigation line. Because of our layout, the east-west orientation maximized the amount of growing space relative to walking paths. It also helped with sun exposure because all of the beds would get equal amounts of sun throughout the day. Taller crops would be planted in the northern beds, while shorter crops would be planted in the southern beds. The site plan above is flipped so that north is down.
It made sense to put the patio adjacent to the house and water tower as that would be one of our most used spaces, especially for entertaining. The back door enters the kitchen, and the wraparound patio accesses the door to the water tower. We added a clothesline on the western side of the tower running east-west, again to maximize sun exposure.
We keep the chickens and turkeys between the patio and garden so we can monitor their shenanigans, and we located the rabbits directly under the oak tree to maximize shade during the hottest months. The greenhouse is on the northern property line, but the area south of it is clear of any trees or structure that could reduce sun exposure. The goats are at the far end of the yard, though recently we’ve been thinking of finding them a new home closer to the house.
Which brings me to my next point: No matter how well planned you think your property is, things will always be in flux. What we thought worked well during planning might not actually work during implementation. The goats are a good example. The barn is easy to access from the pathway off of the patio—just a straight shot down there. That also happens to be the lowest spot in our yard, however, so in the winter, it floods. This wasn’t apparent to us before we built the barn because we didn’t really spend that much time in that corner, especially when it was raining hard.
If you don’t want to have to keep moving things, go slowly. Really observe everything before building. Go out during a heavy rainstorm to see where all the water goes. Spend time outside during hot days to see where the most comfortable place to sit is. The more time you take in planning, the less time you’ll spend rearranging.
My friends in college used to call me a Renaissance woman. I was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. I still am. My focus these days, instead of arts and crafts, has been farming as much of my urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with my husband, I run Dog Island Farm, in the SF Bay Area. We raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. We’re always keeping busy. If I’m not out in the yard, I’m in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!