Creating Your Site Survey: Part 2

There was a question on the first site survey post about was whether folks were using graph paper or a computer program, and I realized I should explain a bit more about the actual mapping process.

I’m sure there are awesome landscape design programs out there and anyone who knows how is welcome to use them, in fact you could write a post here about which programs and how to. I seem to remember from the introductions that someone is a professional landscape designer… But I myself prefer plain old graph paper. I’m just an incurably old fashioned girl. Unless you are going to be using a computer program a lot, they seem not worth the time it takes to figure out how the #$&! they work, if you know what I mean.

So today I will explain the basics of mapping your garden/yard on real live paper.

First of all, if you have never done this before, you will want graph paper. It’s easy to find, kids often need it for school, so most stores carry it. The common kind has 1/4 inch squares. If you ever find a pad of smaller square graph paper, I highly recommend it. I got a pad once that has darker lines at one inch intervals, with 10 lighter lines between– I think it’s called a section pad. It’s awesome. I also found, in someone’s trash in New Orleans (I’m a hopeless scavenger) a pad of architectural drafting paper, it’s got the same small squares in groups of ten, but the pad is huge! 17 by 22 inches, exactly four times the size of a regular sheet of graph paper. So much more detail is possible. Certainly the 1/4 inch stuff works just fine, especially for this initial site survey. But if you can get hold of some drafting paper for your final site design, you should.

[Actually, I’ve just had a thought– the pad I got has many more sheets than I will ever use. If you leave a comment here asking, I will email you for your address and send you a few sheets. Seriously, it will only cost the price of a stamp. No big deal.]

But, back to the task at hand.

When you go out to take your measurements, you can just roughly sketch things in so that you have a frame of reference for your measurements, not worrying about scale. You don’t even need graph paper for that first sketch. Then, after you’ve measured everything out, copy it onto graph paper to scale. I usually count the squares across and down, and then decide how many squares to use/foot. For example, an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of 1/4 in graph paper will be apx 34 squares by 44. For many urban lots, this works out nicely to make each square represent two feet.

If you have a large rural lot or acreage you are obviously not going to be measuring it all out with a tape measure. I believe that city offices have some kind of very basic survey map of your property/area, if you didn’t get one with the sale. Overlaying this onto a USGS topographical contour map (you can download and print free USGS maps) would be awesome, though I’m not sure how exactly you would do that… Anyone know about this? Anyway, you can look into all that over the next few months. For now, just measure your “zones 1 and 2,” the areas nearest the house and do the best you can with guessing and estimation for the rest.

One thing I forgot to stress in the last post is only to draw in permanent elements: mainly structures, but also trees and garden beds you are absolutely not open to eliminating/moving. You want your initial survey to leave as much possibility as possible. Do note the “sunward side,” south for most of us in this group– do we have any southern hemisphere participants?

So, now you should have something that looks like this:


Leave off titles and description right now. You want just the bare bones for your “master copy.” Run off several copies (keeping the master separate and inviolable)– you will come back to this map many times over the next few months and will want multiple copies to sketch out existing patterns and future ideas.

For this initial site survey, you will need two copies. On one add the titles and existing non-permanent elements, so that it describes your lot exactly as it is. Don’t forget to put in undesirable realities. See “bucket hell” below. Note that I accidentally changed orientation on this copy. Don’t do that.


On the other copy, draw in the immalleable external forces, such as wind direction, sun footprint, foot traffic patterns (you can change that a little with your design, but surprisingly not much), water and drainage as described in the last post, so that you have something like this:


One thing I forgot to do on this one is describe the adjoining influential elements on each side, which is very important in our tight urban settings. For example, along the front of the yard is a dead end street, with a house directly across. On the north side there is a neighbors yard, with a few spruce and hemlocks between. Behind our lot is a small tract of neglected urban forest, keeping our backyard in near total shade but also deliciously private and lovely. And on the south side, there is a continuation of that forest, narrowing as it moves towards the front of the yard, as I did somewhat describe on the map itself, which also severely inhibits our sun access.

That’s it for the map. Don’t forget, it’s equally important to also describe your greater area and climate to us. Do a little research for this. What sort of ecosystem dominates the landscape? Give us some actual flora and fauna lists. What sort of weather patterns dominate each season? What is your rainfall? Frost-free days? What is your zone, and any other factors you think affect that? Details! We want ’em!

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3 Responses to Creating Your Site Survey: Part 2

  1. Rachel Hoff says:

    I’m the pro landscape designer and while I normally use AutoCAD really, don’t bother with computer programs. Not only are they tough to learn, the several thousand for the license isn’t worth it. If you have a Mac you can’t even use AutoCAD. You can use Vectorworks but that’s even more difficult to learn.

    I already have our yard in AutoCAD (I entered it the minute we moved in so I knew what I was always working with), but I just used that as the base and hand drew the rest on trace overlays for this project.

  2. Melanie Maroney says:

    I would like a few sheets of the 17×22 graph paper you mentioned. I could probably get my whole 7 acres in detail on it. Thx!

  3. Kathryn says:

    I’d like to use the graph paper if you don’t mind sharing. : )

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