Landscape Design: A Primer - Part 1

By Laurie Sheldon, newest member of the F.N.P.S. blog team


As a follower of the FNPS blog, it’s a given that you’re interested and/or enthusiastic about Florida’s native flora. You can probably recall a dozen or so trips to a local nursery, where you walked between row after row of plants in black pots and imagined how they would look in your own landscape. I worked for several years in a sizable nursery in Miami, so I know the plant-dreamer look all too well. Admittedly, I was not immune to becoming starry-eyed in the presence of some outrageously beautiful plants, and frequently came home from work with one or two random specimens that I just had to have. Needless to say, my spur-of-the-moment plant shopping did little to enhance the overall aesthetic of my backyard, and did even less as far as enhancing my wallet was concerned. 
Lichtenstein at F.T.B.G., a fusion of art and science
I left my nursery job and became a “Garden Groomer” (volunteer weed-puller) at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens, where I was exposed to large-scale landscape design for the first time, and developed an appreciation of the diverse, unusual, and brilliant world of tropical plants. After a short while, I decided that I wanted to design inspirational places like Fairchild professionally, so I headed to the University of Florida in pursuit of a Bachelor’s degree in Landscape Architecture.

It became very apparent to me throughout the five-year L.A. program that, although our texts were housed in the Fine Arts Library, Landscape Architecture was/is as much of a science as an art form. The most loved, used and functional outdoor spaces are not generally arrived upon by mysterious forces or inspired by muses, nor do they come about via organic accretion. They are the site-specific products of thoughtful individuals who used a series of steps, collectively known as the Design Process, to arrive at a final design.

The Design Process

The Design Process is systematic, time-tested, and the only way to consistently identify the optimal arrangement between that which you’d like to incorporate into a landscape and its existing natural and constructed features. It is the Landscape Architect’s answer to the Scientific Method. It dictates that, whether designing a home garden or a corporate campus, your approach will, at minimum, include the following steps PRIOR to installation:

1. Statement of Intent
2. Procurement of a Topographic Survey
3. Site Inventory and Analysis
4. Program Development
5. Conceptual Diagramming
6. Diagram Selection
7. Master/Site Plan and Design Development Documents

Once your plan has been installed, it is always useful to do a Post-Construction Evaluation, noting whether or not your landscape accomplishes the goals you initially set out. More often than not, however, this step is skipped in professional practice - sometimes because a client does not want to pay for a Landscape Architect to provide a critical analysis of their own work, sometimes because, well, the laws of inertia and our fast forward pace make it an impossibility. Either way, once the dust settles, if time allows, it is good practice to at minimum make note of any discrepancies between the master landscape plan and the finished work. 

Intent, Goals, & Objectives are prominently noted on
this student's submission for a poolside landscape

Step 1: Statement of Intent

The first part of the Design Process is ideological in nature. It involves determining the scope of your project, and identifying project goals and objectives.

Scope is essentially the extent of the project work to be done, as noted by both physical/measurable boundaries, and deliverables (what you agree to deliver to your client), which may include plans for irrigation, grading, planting, etc.
Goals reflect what you’d like for your landscape plan to accomplish.
Objectives identify the specific tasks you need to complete in order to achieve that goal.

If you're designing your own landscape you probably won't have "deliverables," per se, but  you should still determine what your project will and will not cover before getting started. You’ll be glad you did, as it will keep you focused and prevent you from biting off more than you can chew. 

Visualizing contours in 3-D
Step 2: Topographic Survey

Topographic maps in the United States are organized in a grid, and are often referred to as quads or quadrangles. They typically show bodies of water and land contours, which are expressed in contiguous (contour) lines. These lines denote altitude (also called elevation). Every point on a map that a given contour line crosses is at the same elevation. Once you become familiar with reading topo maps it will be easy for you to visualize the lay of the land three-dimensionally.

You might be thinking, “Topography - really? But our state is so flat - how can it matter?” Florida’s minimal elevation changes, proximity to the ocean, and high annual rainfall volume combine to make flooding a serious problem.  Knowing your site’s highs and lows can keep you from having to put on wading pants in order to fetch your mail. 

Another reason that your site’s topography is important is slope. Slope, the incline between two topographic contours, is calculated by dividing their vertical difference by their horizontal difference (rise/run). There are certain optimal slope requirements for various land uses, including playgrounds, areas to be mowed, sidewalks, stairs, parking, etc. Anyone who has driven out of state, and had to get a stick-shift car into or out of a hillside parallel space should appreciate Florida’s maximum and minimum slope standards. I will elaborate on this in the next blog installment.
USGS Quad Map

Topographic information is fairly easy to obtain online through the U.S.G.S. and your county’s Property Appraiser. The following links can be of assistance:
USGS Store
FL Property Appraisers by County

If you are fortunate enough to have G.I.S. software on your computer, you can download the appropriate topo map(s) from the Florida Geographic Data Library,

A final resource for obtaining a copy of your project’s topographic survey is your city’s Main Library. These are generally not permitted to be checked out, so be ready with change for the copy machine!

Stay tuned for the next installment of Landscape Design - a Primer. We’ll resume with one of my favorite parts of of the Design Process, Step 3: Site Inventory and Analysis.


Anonymous said…

Au contraire, BFD; our newest blogger was most certainly not "caught in a net," but very selectively and purposefully chosen. Thanks, Laurie, for a fantastic beginning; we are looking forward to many more.
Unknown said…
Ha ha! BFD is my dad. Thanks to both of you for the compliments.
Anonymous said…
Arlene said...
Looking forward to the next installment. You sound like a well-informed professor. The University should be seeking your skills.
Anonymous said…
Nice job Laurie!
Anonymous said…
Even tho the only plant i can identify is a daisy i enjoyed reading your extremely interesting article. XOXO aunt a
Hobo Botanist said…
Awesome Laurie, welcome and thanks for being part of the team!
Unknown said…
Thanks "Hobo" ;) Ginny told me your identity a couple of weeks ago... don't worry - your secret's safe with me!
Unknown said…
I'm flattered, but this is all fairly basic info. The well-informed professor around here is Peggy (author of the comment after yours). I profess to nothing but being a funny plant nerd with decent writing skills... for now. Thanks for taking the time to read it!
Unknown said…
Sincere thanks, Peggy. I hope I didn't omit any critical info. If I did, I'm blaming you and Les. Kidding! Take care-
Unknown said…
So glad, Aunt Anna! That is exactly what I'm hoping for this blog to be (easily understood and informative, regardless of the reader's botanical background). I'll teach you to identify a few other plants the next time I'm in Miami, though - just for good measure ;)
Great Blog!! That was amazing. Your thought processing is wonderful. The way you tell the thing is awesome. You are really a master.

Landscape Designer Westford MA
Ms Fisher said…
As I read this post regarding on lawn landscape design it makes me realize the true essence of good content with great information. Keep it up!
Unknown said…
I appreciate the compliment. Thanks for your feedback!
Very educational and informative, I recommend this blog through facebook.
Thank you! We fully appreciate any "sharing" of our blog posts. Knowledge is power ;)
Sounds doable, thx so much for the insight, keep up the great work.

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