Observation: Usage and Wildlife


Think about how your garden is used. Are there some areas that clearly get more traffic? Are there other areas that get looked at but once a year? Be honest in your assessment. 

Break your space into zones. What zones are you in at least once a day? One or two times a week? One or two times a month? How about once or twice a season? You know the spots. You cut back the volunteer elms in the spring and fall as a courtesy to your neighbors. Are you surprised by what you see? Does distance correlate to frequency?


You certainly don’t have to map wildlife, but it is one of the best indicators of the health of your space. And by wildlife, squirrels don’t count. They don’t need much. What you really want to map are areas that you find a lot of wild birds, bees, native bees, butterflies, caterpillars, snakes, frogs or toads, etc. The more diverse and robust your ‘critter list’, the more complete and healthy your little ecosystem is. Keep this in mind while you are plotting any changes. Maybe it’s not worth cutting down that hedgerow if it keeps the birds safe during bad weather. The decision is yours, of course. Maybe you plan to bring in more wildlife. Take clues from the areas of your space that may already have a good variety of fauna.

Observation: Taking A Deep Look

Before you start plotting the changes you’d like to make, ask yourself what you want out of your space, but be realistic about it. Look back at the way your spaces have been cared for in the past. Did you let your landscape go feral, or did you keep everything in check? Did you meander through your garden checking things out, or was it just the scenery from the street to the house? Remember that beautiful patio that you built years ago? Did you use it all the time, or just blow the leaves off in the fall? Do you have or are you developing a physical condition that limits the work that you can do? What are those limitations? There is no wrong or right answer to these questions, so don’t feel guilty. Just make sure you give an honest answer. Just having a different style of landscape likely won’t change your behavior. You may create an amazing space that rivals the greatest gardens in England, but if your attention to it’s upkeep wanes, it’s all for not. Why waste the time and inputs to create something that you will not use, or worse yet, will begin to loathe. If you think that you may start to enjoy gardening, grow into your space. Add a few ‘needy’ things here and there and see how they fare under your care. If they thrive, keep adding. If they languish, change your course.

Now read on to figure out how to put all these puzzle pieces back together. The rest of the chapters will help you compose a new space.

Observation: Putting It All Together

Ok, this is the really fun part. The story of your space. Look at your maps all together and see where problems overlap and where successes overlap. You may make many discoveries about why your space acts the way it does. Maybe your sidewalk is always icy in the winter because an evergreen blocks the warm winter sun, maybe a downspout spills onto it, or maybe all of the above. Are the healthy plants in the same area that is full of worms? Maybe your unhealthy plants correlate with areas where the soil doesn’t drain well, and maybe that tree that doesn’t do well is suffering because the lawn guys always run their heavy mowers around it and compact the soil. Or maybe passersby let their dogs pee on that globe spruce of yours, and that’s why the needles on one side are burnt. This is the entire story of your space. Take it in and study before you move forward with planning.

Observation: Plants and Materials

  • Plants

The first thing to do when mapping your plants, is to know your plants. (If there is anything that you are unsure of, the USDA Extension Service is a great place to start. They may be able to id plants by photos, or by leaf samples. Garden centers are another great resource for plant id. If you find a reputable one, they will have experts on staff that can help you out.) Map them in the order of permanence. It’s unlikely that you are going to remove your trees, so map them first, followed by the shrubs, followed by the perennials, veggies and annuals.

Now make note of plants that are thriving and plants that are struggling. It could even be that the same plant is doing well in one area and poorly in another. Note that. Do some plants have pest problems? Do some spread by suckers or shoots and others spread easily by seed? What plants are well behaved? Do some plants offer pleasing (or displeasing) fragrance or texture? Are any too large for their space and require constant pruning? Are there some plants that are extremely useful to you? What pollinators visit what plants? Any that attract wildlife?

Aside from things you’ve planted, note areas where weeds are prevalent or where mosses thrive. 

  • Materials

I guess you could consider this a map of your hardscaping. Where is it? What is it made of? What do you use it for? Does it get used? Does water collect on it? Does ice collect on it? Sun warm it in the summer or winter? What kind of mulch do you have? Any steel edging or borders?

Do you want the hardscaping that you have? If not, can the materials be disassembled and reused either in the same way or a new way? Do you have other materials laying around that you could use in a creative way?  Are there any materials that you can get from friends, family or neighbors? Are you willing to put in the extra labor required for most recycled or repurposed items?

Observation: Soil

Soil can change from spot to spot in your yard. Your veggie garden certainly has more organic matter in the soil than other areas, and while you may take great care of your turf, chances are the topsoil under it is far shallower than you think. There are a few different things to identify about the soils in your space.

There are a couple of different ways to tell what kind of soil you have. One is the ribbon test and one is the jar test. The ribbon test is ‘quick and dirty’, and the jar test takes longer, but gives you more information about your soils. You can work with this information a few different ways. You can either take samples from individual areas to get a better read on each spot and label the patchwork on your map, or if you feel that your soil is fairly consistent throughout your space, you can take equally sized samples from a few areas, put them together and measure them for an average. The former would be better if you have areas that have been and will be treated differently, and the latter would be perfectly legit if your space is and will be fairly homogenous.

Now that you know how to tell what kind of soil you have, you can better look out for where there are distinct differences.

Where in your space does water sit for a long time? Where does it drain quickly? Are there areas of your soil that are compacted and hard, like paths or areas where equipment is used a lot? Where are a lot of weeds present? (Which actually tells you more about soil than you think.) Are there areas that are tilled regularly? Zones where nothing ever grows? Spots with weed fabric or rock mulch? Are there spots in your space where mushrooms pop up after a good rain? Any areas that are bare and exposed? Cracked? Do worms congregate in certain areas, or are they completely missing? Are there any areas where leaf debris seems to break down more quickly? Do you use salts on your sidewalks and driveway in the winter? If so, how does the soil next to those areas look? How well do the plants in the salt zones perform? Note all of things on your map because in the soil chapter you’ll learn how to repair or deal with these areas, and in the plant area you’ll learn about plants that are more tolerant to odd soil conditions.

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”

Designing Your Space: Step One- Observation

The first thing to do in any space worthy of your attention, is observe. That doesn’t mean walk out, look around, jot down some notes and come back inside. It means be present in the space. Go ahead, grab a cup of joe, throw on a robe and walk outside. Go out first thing in the morning. Find a comfy rock or grab a camp chair to sit on. What is going on around you?

Observation takes time. The easy things will be observable right away, but sometimes the most important observations come to you when you are not looking for them. Patterns in nature may take time to recognize.