Landscape Planning

Now is the time to start planning next spring's landscape improvements


This plan by Sharper Cut enhances the property’s outdoor living spaces with spacious gathering areas and a hidden oasis complete with cascading waterfalls and a fire pit.

Most experienced landscape designers and architects agree that the best-laid gardens and outdoor spaces are the result of a high degree of planning. Fall is the perfect time of year to start planning future outdoor projects so that work can begin before spring arrives.

Becoming familiar with reading a plan can assure that you and  your landscape professional are on the same page. A professional master plan offers a detailed aerial view of your entire property. It shows the property lines, the location of your house and garage within them and maybe the surrounding woods or city streets. Lawns, driveways, pools, patios, steps and walkways are easily recognizable in a plan. In addition, most master plans identify at least the major trees and shrubs, usually by botanical name. Master plans are given to contractors and used as a guide to install the landscape as specified.

According to Kathleen Litchfield, president of Petro Design Build Inc. in Mitchellville, Maryland, a master plan helps clients define their budgets ahead of time. “It’s a lot cheaper to make changes on paper,” she says, “than to put in the landscape and realize it doesn’t work.” No two landscape designers or architects follow exactly the same process for designing master plans, and no two of them will produce the same kind of plan. Some companies write out the names of plants on the plan itself; others might use a numerical or lettered code for plants, with an accompanying list that identifies them by botanical and common names.

Landscape designer Tom Levie of Baltimore-based Heritage Custom Lawn and Landscape Inc. says that if clients have trouble understanding the plan, a company rep will often take them to other projects to show them, for example, what a waterfall or proposed paving will look like. Heritage’s plan (right, top) details a very formal design, in keeping with the style of the house. “The house was very symmetrical,” says Levie, “so we tried to carry that into the design and center everything on the house.” In line with the central bump-out on the deck are a planting bed, a raised circular spa that spills over into the pool, the swimming pool itself and a waterfall at the back of the pool spilling over large boulders.

Landscape designer Brian Holden of Serene Ponds and Landscapes in Bowie, Maryland, suggests that clients who are planning landscaping projects clip magazine articles with pictures of gardens they like and think about plants and colors they prefer. “If we can get close to what they’re looking for,” he says, “we usually can exceed their expectations.”

Serene’s back-yard pool design (right, bottom) is the fifth generation of the original master plan, adjusted as the clients decided whether or not to put in a pool. The first plan included a pool with waterfall. Then the pool came out, and a cabana and main entertaining patio replaced it. In the final design shown here, guests descend down a long flight of steps from the house to the main patio, then step down about 12 inches onto a paved sun deck with an eye-shaped spa, then into the pool. A circular patio area in the lower left-hand corner is set about two feet below the level of the pool, accessed via natural stone steps. “It creates an area where the parents can socialize away from the pool but still have a view of it,” says Holden. While most projects do not go through five revisions, designers should make the necessary changes “to get them [clients] what they want.”

Kathleen Litchfield of Petro Design Build Inc. would certainly agree. “There’s so much to consider when designing a landscape,” she says. Before the initial meeting, Litchfield sends clients a detailed questionnaire about their lifestyle, design preferences, entertainment needs and much more, all the way down to the number of pets and the location of trash bins. After an initial consultation, she and her team develop several options. If changes are required, Litchfield sometimes creates an overlay with tracing paper on the original plan so that clients can decide if it’s what they really want. She’s currently doing an overlay for one client to add a parrilla—an Argentine-style barbeque—that’s gaining popularity in the area.

Petro’s colored master plan (above, left) details a property in Bethesda, on a lot approximately 50 by 150 feet. It includes stone walls and steps that ascend to the raised spa on the rear patio. Litchfield says if clients have trouble understanding a plan, she often includes drawings that detail what particular areas in the garden will look like.

The front yard was designed to protect a large, existing and quite magnificent Moonlight beech tree represented by the brown circle near the upper right-hand corner. The irregular light gray shapes are boulders, and shrubs and perennials are circular or billowy shapes in a variety of colors. The large circles on the plan are new trees—in this case, river birches whose peeling bark matches the color of the stone on the house. In the back yard, Litchfield designed a spacious patio for entertaining and a square-shaped raised spa with a plunge pool next to it. A screened breezeway that runs between the house and the garage is designated on the plan by squares filled with x’s. There’s a small lawn with room enough for a hammock, and even a propane fire pit on one side of the patio (the yellow circle with orange flame).

As you can see the from the plan, an experienced designer can fulfill a client’s every desire even in a space as small as this one, and everything fits together perfectly. As Litchfield modestly puts it, “This client has impeccable taste, and I didn’t want to clutter up the design.”

Landscape designer Jane Berger is publisher of GardenDesignOnline.com.


This landscape by Zen Associates reflects the historic character
of the client’s house, utilizing materials such as brick, granite,
French limestone and cast iron. The plan includes a spa, stream,
waterfall and koi pond.


This plan for Chapel Valley Landscape Company features a “journey”
through the landscape with a brick-bordered Pennsylvania bluestone
walk and 25-foot gingko trees.


This plan by Heritage Custom Lawn & Landscape incorporates a
waterfall that flows into a pool and a brick fire pit that complements
the rustic patio.


Serene Ponds created a relaxing backyard retreat utilizing natural
stone inlays and boulders, and free-form pool.


This plan shows how Petro Design Build accommodated the client’s
wish list for a spa, plunge pool, fire pit, vegetable garden and seating
area in a limited space.


This project by McHale Landscape Design includes a swimming pool,
waterfall, spa, stone retaining walls, masonry patios and complete
landscape planting.


This design by Town Creek Landscaping creates a spacious patio
retreat. It includes a stone water feature at the edge of the pool
and an abundance of plantings and trees for privacy.


This design by Botanical Decorators creates a smooth transition
from the first-floor ipe deck to the pool area by setting the main
axis line of the project on a 45-degree angle to the house.


This design by Fine Earth blends dramatic visual and audio effects
as a waterfall tumbles down through the living space.


This plan by Clearwater Landscape & Nursery incorporates
both aformal entry and a relaxed retreat with terraced patios
leading to the pool.


This plan by Rowan Landscape and Pools features a
fish pond and a pool with heated waterfalls, diving rocks
and a child-friendly “beach” entry.


Freestanding fieldstone walls enclose the lush pinks and
purples of this perennial garden by Merrifield Garden Center.