Site Design



Design = Assessment + Goals

When we set out to design our backyards, gardens, or farmscapes, we are engaging in a multi-step process. In order to choose appropriate species, technologies, and strategies, we have to first understand the site conditions by undertaking an assessment of our surroundings for things like sun/shade patterns, water flows, existing species, and potential problems. This information can then be coupled with a detailed goals document that describes what we want to get out of the design and how we will achieve those outcomes. These two pieces allow us to sketch ideas on paper and work out the details until we have a design we are happy with, and one that will benefit our local environment.



When we assess a site, we are looking for the patterns and relationships that exist which will influence the way we design. Assessments help us choose species and elements that are appropriate to the environmental conditions and also help determine where to place them on the landscape to maximize production and minimize the expenditure of time, energy, and resources.

For example, if I am looking to place a building on the landscape, I might consider factors of climate to inform what materials I build with and how air and sunlight will interact with it. Landform and water assessments will help with siting the building to minimize the potential of fire or flooding. And the consideration of existing infrastructure and access/circulation patterns could greatly reduce my costs and affect how efficiently I move materials around the site.

Some items to assess:

Climate  – sun, shade, wind, rainfall, seasonal considerations

Microclimate – cold air/frost pockets, sun/shade dynamics, soil & air moisture

Landform – slope, aspect, elevation

Water – runoff, erosion, pooling of water, access to reliable sources

Vegetation and Wildlife – ecosystem type/composition, plant and animal ID

Soil – types, mgmt history, nutrient levels, pH, organic matter, toxins

Aesthetics and Experience – view lines, mood/feel of the site

Access and Circulation – foot/cart/vehicle access, materials storage/flow, desire lines



Goals help us to clarify what we want, and why. Spending time defining the goals of all participants in a garden or landscape is key to its success. During this process, here are some questions to consider answering:

1. What is your overall vision for the site?

2.What specific changes would you like to see in the short term? Longer term?

3. What do you like about the site? What do you dislike about the site?

4. What aspects would you most like to see change?

5. How much time is available from the participants?

6. What skills do the participants have? What additional skills are needed?

7. What amount of financial resources can be committed to the project?


Design: Putting it all together

Design is where the patterns of the site and the goals of the people looking to develop it come together. It can be seen as a plan of how the designer is going to go about arranging access points, paths, centers of activity, tool/equipment storage etc in such a way that meets the needs of the humans involved and also supports a healthy overall ecosystem.

You will likely go through several drafts of your design before settling on a final concept. One way to help save time is to do an activity called random assembly:

1) Have a sketch map or aerial print out of your site

2) Create a list of ALL the potential elements in the system. Cut them out and move around to form possible arrangements

Fore example, here are some possible elements for a backyard or school garden:

Tool shed

Outdoor classroom

Outdoor Movie Screen

Herb garden



Kids Area


Compost bins


Materials Depot

Vehicle Access

Chess Tables

Forest Garden

Rain Garden

Annual Veggie Gardens

Handicap Beds

Mushroom Area

Herb Garden

Quiet Sitting Area

Pizza Garden

Sounds Garden

 Touch & Smell Garden

Bean Teepee

Natural Play Structures

This type of activity helps keep a “brainstorm” mentality as you plan your site. Once you decide on where everything best fits, you can make a final map of your plan.

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