2a) Site Assessment, part 1: Natural Elements & Site Conditions

By knoxred (knoxred) on March 12, 2010

By now you’re ready for some action, so it’s time to head outdoors.
Bring a notepad and a camera -- it’s time to objectively assess your property. We’ll start with the natural
elements that you must deal with on your site (terrain, water, sun, soil, wind).

First, walk the property to look at grading and drainage problems. What kind of terrain do you have in each area (flat, sloped, hilly, cliffs)? Walking the property gives you new appreciation for just how steep a slope is. Are parts of the property inaccessible or treacherous? Are you seeing any changes or shift in grade over time? Are your retaining walls bowed? Are walls of your buildings stained with mildew or algae? Do you see a lot of moss in the grassy areas?

Where does water flow after a rain? Do you have erosion? Areas that are constantly moist? Standing water? Walking the property after (or during) a heavy rain is the best way to answer these questions. Pay special attention to the flow of water from your downspouts. Is water being moved efficiently away from your foundation?

The success of your landscape (and possibly your house) depends on resolving any issues with grading and drainage. If you have any concerns, get a qualified contractor involved.

Next, what are your lighting conditions in each area… full sun, part sun, dappled shade, full shade? If you have partial sun, is it morning or afternoon sun? How many hours a day? You’ll need this information in the plant selection phase, so take plenty of notes. Even better, take pictures of each area at different times of the day. It saves a lot of writing, and you’ll refer back to these photos quite a bit when drafting your plan. These will also be your “before” pictures for later comparison.

What type of soil do you have in each area…clay, loamy, sandy? Note any compacted areas from parking or construction vehicles. Are there dry, root-filled areas under mature trees? You will need to take several soil samples from different areas to determine pH and levels of certain nutrients. We’ll cover soil sampling and testing techniques in a separate article.

The last thing to check on this trip outside is wind. Note any wind patterns and their effects. Are trees and shrubs leaning and misshapen? Is foliage beaten up or dried out from the wind?

It’s time to head inside for one final piece of information about your natural site conditions. If you don’t already know it, look up your USDA Hardiness Zone. You should now have all the information you need about your growing conditions, all in one place. This will be an invaluable tool for you in selecting the right plants.

Continue on to Design Series 2a) part 2

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"The most serious gardening I do would seem very strange to an onlooker, for it involves hours of walking round in circles,
apparently doing nothing. What I'm doing is forcing myself to evaluate certain areas....
Only during these quiet moments does a good idea suddenly occur."
~ Helen Dillon, Irish garden writer