Observation: Light, Temperature and Wind

  • Light

Throughout the day note how the light moves through your space. I know from experience that the light in your space is never exactly what you think it is. You can either note shady spots throughout different times of the day, or note the sunny spots. Be sure to note the softscapes (gardens) AND the hardscapes. Is a certain spot shaded by a deciduous tree in the summer, but warmed by the winter sun? Is there a spot that stays shady all year causing ice to collect in the winter?

  • Temperature

Chances are good that your space has little microclimates. I have a small yard and can reliably winter things over well in the pocket of space between my house and garage. Look for little areas where plants stay green longer or green up sooner in the spring. Hardscapes are great at absorbing heat during the day and releasing it at night, so you likely have temperature differences close to your hardscapes. Don’t forget to highlight these areas on a map.

  • Wind

Is there a specific pattern to the way the wind blows through your property? Is your space like a punishing wind tunnel, or does a slight breeze work to cool things off? When it snows, does it drift in certain areas? Which direction does the wind come from? Are there areas that are absolutely still? Powdery mildew and other fungal infections are a good indicator of stagnant air.

Observation: Water

The best way to find out what water is really doing in your space is to go out and observe during and after a rainstorm. Were some areas shedding water as it fell? Did some areas seem to absorb every drop that landed? What areas are still dry? What areas are puddled, and what areas are wet with no sitting water? Was water moving somewhere unexpected? Now go back out 24 hours later. Are the puddles still there? Do you know where the water table is?

Where are the downspouts? How much water is coming down them? Is that water going somewhere useful, or is it flowing into a hardscape or the street? 

Don’t forget about winter calculations. Are there areas of your space that freeze over with ice all winter until spring thaws them out? Where do you shovel your snow? Do you use de-icer? Are there areas that seem to dry out over the winter? Does ice skip the liquid phase and go straight to vapor (the technical term is sublimation)*? (It does that in the Rocky Mountain region and can actually cause damage and desiccation to plants.)

*Sublimation happens when a substance in a solid phase transitions directly to a gas phase, completely skipping the liquid phase. It is an endothermic reaction that takes energy (in the form of heat) from the surfaces touching it. Even though it happens at warmer temperatures, sublimation can cause more damage than melting at near freezing temperatures. While water going through the process of freezing RELEASES heat to surfaces, sublimation REMOVES heat from surfaces. Irrigating crops in freezing temps has been used as a way to limit the damage from a freeze. The freezing water actually protects leaves and buds from freezing to deeply.

Observation: The Five Senses


What do you feel? Is the space warm and comforting, or cold? Is it exposed to the neighbors, or private and tucked away? Is it breezy or stuffy? Dry or humid? Do you feel the urge to leave the space, or to stay? Does time seem to stand still, or fly by while you’re in the space? Could you comfortably read a book, write, doodle or entertain in it? Spend some time just being. Don’t think, don’t react, just be.

What do you hear? Are there birds chirping? Can you hear airplanes or cars? Water trickling? Can you hear the neighbors going about their day? Is there a dog barking in the background? Hear leaves rustling in the breeze? Are there chirping crickets, locusts or squirrels? What about woodpeckers? Are your neighbors constantly mowing or using a leaf blower? Do you hear marching band practice? Have a path that sounds crunchy? Close your eyes for awhile. Do you hear things off in the distance? When you walk in certain areas can you hear the bees buzzing around? Is there a particular shrub that the birds chirp from in the winter? When I let my mind go, I can hear the skydiving plane off in the distance, and while sitting outside at night, my husband and I can hear the nightcrawlers rustling in an adjacent bed.

What do you see? What is the light like? Do you see leaves twinkling in the breeze? Is anything backlit in the morning sun? In the evening sun? Is there an area that is always sunny or always shady? What kind of shade? Light, dappled or deep? What plants seems to be flourishing and which ones seem to be floundering? What kind of birds do you see in your space? Insects? Are there differences in leaf texture and color? Plants and elements of different sizes and shapes? Are there a lot of straight lines in your space, or flowing curves? What is immediately outside your space? Open space? Mountains? A meadow? A gas station or school? Is there a lot of pedestrian or cycling traffic past your place? Is your street busy? Do you watch your neighbor run out to the mailbox in his undies every morning?

What do you smell? Is there a fragrant tree nearby? Other fragrant plants? Does it smell like smoke? What does the soil smell like? What do you smell after a rain, wet soil, or wet concrete? Can you smell exhaust? Are there herbs that you brush up against as you walk through an area?

What are your habits in the space? Do you have a specific path that you follow? Do you walk through just to get to another space, or do you linger? Does your dog beat a path through the space? Cats? Do you feed the birds or the squirrels? Are there deer or other pests that damage the space? Do you cook there? Entertain? Relax, or tense up and curse it’s very existence?

So did you do all of that in the morning? Now do it in the afternoon and the evening. Observe during the week and over the weekend. Ask your loved ones to try it and compare notes. Do it during the different seasons. I promise you’ll notice different things. One spot that is uncomfortable in the hot summer sun may be a warm reprieve on a sunny winter’s day. A spot may be noisy in the early spring before the shrubs leaf out, but perfectly peaceful during the summer. That hedgerow of chanticleer pears may glow red in the fall, but make the entire block smell of sweaty socks in the spring.

Now take some time to think about all of those observations. What do you enjoy, what do you dislike, and what are you indifferent about? (I really don’t mind the plane in the background, it adds to the soundtrack of my space.) What things that you can disguise, what must you live with and what can you change? What aspects must be worked around?

Those are observations based on emotions and senses. As “woo-woo” as that may sound to some, emotions anchor us to a space. We don’t long for our childhood homes because we love the teeny-tiny bedroom we had. We long for the sentimentality, memories and emotion in the space. Your outdoor space should hold the same emotional values because with any luck (and good planning) you will be building memories and sentimentality in it.

Observation: Site Mapping

Time to put everything you’ve observed down on paper.

Make a map of your space. You can easily go to Google Earth and take measurements of your property and the features on it. (Find true north while you are at it.) In order to make your drawings consistent with the actual measurements, choose a scale* before beginning your map. Some easy ones are 1”=10’, 1”=4’, 1”=2’. Larger spaces will need the smaller scales (1”=10’), and smaller spaces will be just fine with something like 1”=4’. It doesn’t matter so much what your scale is, as long as you keep it consistent and have a map large enough to capture some details in the space. Make several copies of that map so that you can add different elements to it as you observe the physical properties of your space. These maps will be immensely helpful as you begin to plan your space.

When you are mapping these areas, try to only map one thing at a time so that you are focused on each component. When you come back at the end and look at all the maps together you may have some serious ‘ah-ha’ moments that solve some of your garden riddles. Try to save that as the reward at the end of all your hard work so that you don’t get side tracked during the mapping process.

Find samples of property mapping here.

*Quick ways to calculate scale- Calculating scale is easier than you think. First, know your paper size. If you are using a standard 8×11, you’ll have to make sure that your scale fits. If your property is 75’x 80’, the best scale for you is 75/10=7.5” x 80/10=8”  -Whereas- 75/4=18.75” x 80/4=20”