Landscape Design Basics: A 6 Step Beginners Guide (With Examples)

side of house landscape design

Many people struggle turning their garden and landscaping ideas into a landscape design. Through my experience in landscape architecture, I’ve developed a straightforward 6 Step process you can follow to create a landscape design you can actually “use”.

I recommend following these steps no matter your situation.

  1. Create a simple base plan you can trace over
  2. Do some basic site analysis to help identify opportunities to take advantage of, and problems you need to address
  3. Create a little ‘skeleton’ plan highlighting these areas with notes
  4. Look through inspiring examples that take advantage of similar opportunities, or find solutions to similar problems
  5. Create a first draft, drawing over the skeleton plan – adding the opportunities and solutions in various positions
  6. Explore different ideas and combinations by repeating Step 5 with different examples, ideas or inspiration

As we explore some scenarios and sketches you’ll see, regardless of the size of your yard or the specific space you want to design, this process helps you:

  • Understand your site and climate conditions
  • Notice problems you need to address
  • Discover opportunities to “use” areas in different ways
  • Explore ideas quickly, easily and consistently over a simple base plan

Let’s go through the steps and see how they work.

1. Creating A Simple Landscape Design Base Plan

Start by getting a piece of paper, pen, ruler and marker/s.

You can choose to create a scaled plan or stick to a basic outline of the space.

Scaled will be more precise but will take longer. If all you want to do is explore ideas, a simple outline should be enough. Just know that if you plan to build (or have built for you) you will need a scaled design at some point.

Your base plan should include:

  • Your Doors & Windows (including their heights above ground level if they start higher than floor level)
  • Existing elements you will keep – trees, sheds, steps, patios etc.
  • Boundary lines
  • Neighbouring elements – trees, sheds, steps, patios etc. – that aren’t on your property
  • Neighbours house and their doors, windows etc.
  • North Arrow – so you can tell where the sun will come from and travel
  • Scale (if needed – e.g. 1:100) or a Scale Bar

A few more tips to help you create a base plan that is easy to use:

  • Keep the side of your house parallel with the edge of the paper – it’s easier to draw ‘off’ the house, especially if you are drawing to scale
  • Try to include surrounding areas beyond this space – this will help you ‘tie’ the space into other areas of your yard, allowing you to extend your design beyond this area
  • For a scaled plan, you will need site or architectural drawings to refer to, or you need to measure the space yourself
  • If you aren’t drawing to scale, try your best to have the space correctly proportioned so you don’t design something completely inaccurate
  • You can use some soft hatching or other marks to denote sloped areas or high and low points
  • Scan/copy your first drawing so you can draw over it – I recommend maybe 5 copies, as we’ll use a few in the next two steps

Let’s look at a few examples. They aren’t very complicated, but give you something to work with.

Design 1 – Wheelchair Accessible Garden

landscaping ideas wheelchair users garden base plan

Design 1 is very simple. Ideally it should have more information about neighbouring elements and properties. And perhaps detailed site information like heights of windows and ground. But you’ll see some of that outlined in step 2.

Design 2 – Landscape Design For A Hot Climate

Design 2 is a little better. It shows the whole house with windows and doors easily marked. It also includes the overhanging eaves – something important for a desert or hot climate house.

It could do with more neighbouring info and a sign of if it’s to scale or not.

Design 3 – A Side Of The House Landscape Design

side of house landscaping ideas base plan

Design 3 is the best yet. It covers neighbouring elements in more detail, along with the house. You also see existing elements like heating units.

Note it’s not to scale, but the length and width of the space are roughly the right proportions. Once I develop a design I like, I’d want to redraw it to scale.

Take the time now to draw your own version using the points I outlined at the start as a guide.

2. Developing Landscape Design Site Analysis Plans

Take one of your base plan copies. The aim of this step is to draw or take notes on the different weather conditions in your area and how they interact with your site.

On your plan, hatch, draw or note the following:

  • Where are the sunny and shady spots? How do they change across the year?
  • Does this area get very windy or noisy?
  • Do you have spaces where water will run or collect?
  • What rooms do you have looking into the space, if any?
  • Do you have neighbouring oversight? Or other things off your property that impact how the sun, rain and wind interact with the space?

Having done your base plan, you should have an idea of things like windows and doors into the space, and neighbouring elements and oversight.

You may need to do a little on-site research for things like sun, shade and wind. If you need to, spend some time outside across the day and week to see how the space feels.

Otherwise, look into the weather patterns for your region to get an idea of wind direction and strength, and rainfall, across the year.

NOTE: I haven’t included council restrictions and regulations yet, but they will be an important consideration should you look to build. If you have the time and inclination, now is a good time to look into it – particularly for easements and other access restrictions.

If you don’t want to do that research now, that’s OK. Once you’ve developed a few designs you like, you should talk to a landscaper or designer to ensure you are not violating any local rules. But that can wait until after you get creative.

Design 1 – Wheelchair Accessible Garden

garden ideas wheelchair users site analysis

Design 1 has simple conditions. You can see approximate shadow positions (based off experience living there, nothing more than that really).

Also note the low point and outline of the ground slope with dashed lines. This also shows where water flows.

Finally we have some neighbouring oversight. I probably should have included oversight from the house – what the rooms are and what they look out towards in the yard.

Some of these elements could have been included in the base plan – like the ground slope and neighbouring house, but at least they’re present here.

Design 2 – Landscape Design For A Hot Climate

landscaping ideas hot climates problems opportunities

This is a basic plan and includes some of the opportunity and problem notes we’ll look at in the next step.

Given it’s a desert site, it was important to indicate where sun and wind impacted the site, along with the walls of the house. Low points and cooler areas were also worth highlighting.

Design 3 – Landscaping Ideas Down The Side Of The House

The analysis of Design 3 shows a few spots of sunshine, where wind comes from and where water will flow. I also included a more ‘esoteric‘ point. The brick wall of the neighbouring house goes a lovely colour during summer afternoons – something I may want to ‘include’ in my design somehow.

I also looked at oversight into the space – from the house and the neighbours house.

I split the site analysis across two plans for Design 3. This is because my base plan was too busy. It was difficult to read my notes over it. I solved this in the next steps by reducing it’s opacity – making it lighter.

If you have a busy base plan, take a fresh piece of blank paper, place it over the base plan, and draw on it. Hopefully you can see it through the paper.

If not, try using non-waxed baking paper. It’s an excellent alternative to tracing paper. Not quite as good, but far, FAR cheaper.

Again, this isn’t rocket science. It may take some time to research or figure out things like shadows and slopes. It is time well spent, however, as it will result in some much better designs.

3. Creating A Basic Landscape Design Outline Of The Space

Develop Your “Skeleton” Plan – Outline Problems, Discover Opportunities

A Skeleton plan is a bare bones outline of the different spaces within the area you are looking to design. I like to use it to specifically outline problems we’ve determined from our site analysis. And potential ‘opportunities‘ you could take advantage of.

To start, take another copy of your base plan.

Referring to your site analysis plan and notes, draw some simple ‘bubbles’ of the different areas in your space that are potential problems, or opportunities.

Jot down some notes describing the issue or what you could do to take advantage of the area/space. This can be as simple or complex as you like.

Design 1 – Wheelchair Accessible Garden

garden ideas wheelchair users problems opportunities

Nothing challenging here. Red notes are problems – mostly minor other than a sloped area that may cause problems for a wheelchair user (the focus of this design exploration).

Green are nice spaces or opportunities where I can place some of the activities or features I want in the backyard.

Activities are things you want to DO in a space. You must be in it to ‘use’ it. Features are things you want to see – you don’t need to physically be in it to ‘use’ it.

As I said, I was exploring how to create a full site garden design for wheelchair users in this site. So the problems and opportunities focus on that.

Design 2 – Landscape Design For A Hot Climate

landscaping ideas hot climates problems opportunities

This is the same as the site analysis plan above. Given the extreme nature of the environment, the desert heat (and wind) weres the most important thing to consider.

There are a few problems that need to be managed around reducing heat in the garden, but also a few opportunities that could be taken advantage of – to try and add less ‘desert-like’ plants or activities.

Design 3 – Landscaping Ideas Down The Side Of The House

Design 3 shows a few problems. One is visually hiding the utility units down the side while still maintaining access. Another is the neighbouring oversight from their kitchen window. A third problem is the space is shaded in the afternoon – affecting plant choices.

The opportunities are some sunny spots at different times of the day, and the esoteric “sunny wall” I mentioned above. I also added a neutral note to maintain access through the space.

4. How To Use Landscaping Ideas & Inspiration To Inform Your Designs

This step is constantly ‘happening‘. You might have ideas or examples already. Or will look for some now. And you should probably keep looking as you are designing.

I’ll take a few images I can use as inspiration for each of the designs above. Some have outlines and notes, others are unedited.

Design 1 – Garden Ideas For Wheelchair Users

wheelchair accessible garden design
Image from
wheelchair accessible garden mobile planters
Image from verdurable
side of house landscaping ideas trees with wild grasses
Image from veranda
Image from unsplash

This may look like a weird set of examples to use for a garden designed around wheelchair users, but you’ll see how it informed my design/s below.

The focus isn’t just on the practicalities like raised garden beds. It’s also about the rest of the backyard design – what can we add to make it something more magical?

Design 2 – Landscaping Ideas For A Hot Climate

landscaping ideas hot climates succulents
Image from unsplash
side of house landscaping ideas olive tree and concrete
Image from homes to love
Fence of upright timber sleepers. By Kuit Landscapes

This site explored creating a garden in a hot climate. The kinds of inspiration I looked to included desert specialised plants like succulents and Mediterranean trees like olives – even lovelier as feature trees.

Other ways to create shade include rammed earth walls and even upright poles or slats – they provide some cover/shade, but allow cooling breezes through.

Design 3 – Landscaping Ideas Down The Side Of The House

side of house landscaping idea with lovely plantings
Image from insideexterior
side of house landscaping ideas bench seat with raised garden bed
Image from balconygardenweb
side of house landscaping ideas grasses and pepper trees
Image by Clyde Oak
side of house landscaping idea with screens
Image from homeridian

Here I literally outlined some of the key components I wanted to use in my design explorations looking at a garden design down the side of the house.

As you can see, they’re drawn not just from ‘side-of-the-house’ examples, but from a few different images. The final one shows how some simple screens can create some intrigue by blocking your view into little pockets of space.

So once we have some examples and inspiration to draw from, it’s time to begin designing!

Take an idea or two – something you like from one or more images – and add it to your space. Keep in mind not only the problems you want to address, but also the opportunities you can try to take advantage of.

5. Creating Your First Landscape Design Draft

Now it’s time to throw all the research, analysis, problems, opportunities and ideas together. It’s time to finally create your first (probably bad) design.

The key is to not overthink it. And don’t worry about creating pretty drawings.

You’ll see my initial sketches are rough. Even my ‘refined’ designs are not presentation worthy. I’d only create something ‘pretty’ once the design is basically finished and I was presenting it to others.

For now, keep it quick and messy.

Design 1 – Wheelchair Accessible Garden

garden ideas wheelchair users layout 1

A rough design, I generally start by outlining spaces – similar to the skeleton plan. The main difference here is I nominally suggest activities or features that should help address problems or take advantage of opportunities.

I started by separating the garden into two areas – a working space and ‘passive’ spaces.

The working space is built to accommodate the specific gardening needs of the wheelchair user – raised beds, storage points etc. – while the passive spaces are more ‘ornamental‘ and likely to be maintained by someone else – family, friends or contractors.

I also outlined a rough path through the garden, given the focus is on accessibility for a wheelchair user.

Design 2 – Landscaping Ideas For A Hot Climate

landscaping ideas hot climate shade plan

My first focus for this design is to reduce the amount of sunlight hitting the house and ground near the house. I added things like trellises with climbing plants, trees, walls and upright poles – all of which should help.

It’s less a design and more a combination of ideas. Given the extreme conditions of the desert/hot climate, my approach will lean more towards components that are functional and provide utility, rather than aesthetics and form.

Design 3 – Landscaping Ideas Down The Side Of The House

side of house landscape design plan

This first draft takes one of the examples – the one with the white retaining wall and bench seat – and uses those elements to define the space.

The retaining wall on the right provides space to grow trees – specially placed to block neighbouring oversight – and groundcovers. Bench seats take advantage of morning and afternoon sun. A gravel path cuts through the middle of the space, maintaining access.

Finally, the main ‘innovation’ is mirroring the retaining wall on the left side, but altering it to have a rise and fall – high and low points. The high points block the utility units visually, while allowing access from the sides. The low points are cut out in front of the bedroom windows to allow them to look out into the space.

So here are the three first drafts for each space. Try create your own now. Don’t worry about creating the perfect design straight up. Design is all about iteration, swapping things around and exploring other ideas.

6. Exploring Different Landscaping Ideas & Combinations

Having developed a first draft, it’s time to swap things around, refine it further, or explore other ideas. You can do this by taking other elements from other images and trying them out.

Remember to consider your site conditions, the problems you want to handle and opportunities you want to ‘exploit’.

I’ll show a few of the designs and sketches I did for each of the plans above. You’ll see a mixture of refining the first draft and exploring new ideas.

Design 1 – Wheelchair Accessible Garden

After my first draft, I swapped some of the areas around – moving the ‘working’ space from the right to the left side of the yard. This allows you to see the space from inside the house better than the first draft.

I then fleshed this idea out more, adding ramps and paths and defining spaces a little better. I still wanted a design that didn’t have wheelchair specific adaptations appear as ‘bolt-on’ elements.

Yes there is a space dedicated to those activities, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the garden had to abide by the same restrictions.

An added benefit is each space in the design addressed a problem. The meadow grasses can soak up water draining to the low point. The neighbouring oversight is blocked by the bamboo forest. And the retaining wall forming part of the ramp minimises the impact of the ground slope in that area.

Design 2 – Landscaping Ideas For A Hot Climate

After the first draft, I wanted to explore some other ideas and techniques that could reduce heat in the garden. The first design adds ground based ideas – rockeries, berms, groundcovers, breaking up large flat areas by spreading out pavers, and adding gravel.

I also took advantage of low points in the site by adding drains that fall to storage tanks (or pumps) to collect water.

The second plan looks at ‘sequencing‘ ideas to allow them to support each other. A raised berm protects a shallow depression on the leeward side where water collects, reducing evaporation. Trees planted here may fare better than in open soil. They then grow, providing shade for the building, path or entertaining area.

I also looked at excavating some areas a little to get lower in the soil, where it’s cooler.

The final plans carve up space. One has the main path and shade elements near the house – protecting it directly – and the other has them away from the house, relying on the groundcovers and rockeries to reduce heat on the ground.

This design also has an interesting set of curving walls that provide shade and shelter, but allow a little bit of breeze to sneak through

I got to this ‘sequencing’ idea – combining techniques to better cool the garden – by considering my site analysis, and combining it with the little bits of research I’d done on the different materials and elements I wanted to use.

So although this set of designs doesn’t follow the normal approach I’m suggesting above, it did allow me to explore different mini-ideas and spaces.

The next steps would be to switch them around some more to find the best positions for activities or features, and then use these combinations to provide the best environment for things to grow.

Design 3 – Landscaping Ideas Down The Side Of The House

The second draft – first image here – is another iteration of the first draft above. I basically just shifted the placement of the bench seats to get a better view of the neighbours brick wall – to see it ‘glow’ during summer afternoons.

The second exploration (and first sketch) takes elements I like from two different examples/images – the jagged flagstone pavers and bold ‘feature’ colours in one, and the screens that add intrigue and block things from sight in another.

I create a wandering path of flagstones down the middle and place some bold feature trees to block the neighbours view. I then have a few trellises set up in front of utility units, strung with more bold climbing plants. Finally a softer, more mellow climbing plant can cover the fence.

The final idea is simple – make a meadow with some taller trees dotted throughout. A winding path can be mown through the space to provide access. The trees can be placed to, again, block views in while allowing a view of the warm brick wall that glows in summer.

Now you know my 6 Step Beginners Guide for landscape design. I hope you found this useful, and can follow to help create a design perfect for your garden or backyard.

If you’re interested in something more in-depth, you’ll find a 10 Step, 10,000 word guide here. It goes into more detail on site analysis, using ideas and examples, and how to work through proper design iteration and exploration.

And finally if you want to go all in and really create a unique garden design perfectly suited to you and your family, purchase my written ebook The Garden Design Process.


Owner of How To Garden Design, Matt is busy writing all he knows - and researching what he doesn't - to share with other would-be garden designers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts