Landscaping with Style

Draw the Preliminary Plan


The best way to design a house is to develop a plan and make a drawing. The same is true for a landscape. It is easier to visualize your plan when it’s put on paper. Drawings will help make sure all of the landscape components are the right size and in the proper location. Also, changes are more easily made with a drawing, and it will provide a permanent listing of all of the plant and hardscape materials used in your yard.


Get Organized

  • Before drawing the preliminary design, review your wish list.
  • Look at the notes you made about your existing site in Step Three to determine the best locations for each of the features you want to include in the landscape.
  • Placing tracing paper over the site drawing will allow you to experiment easily with different design alternatives before making decisions. A sample landscape design is shown to the right.
  • Software and online tools are also available to help you during the design process.

Draw in the Hardscape

Begin by drawing in any hardscape elements you want to include in the landscape. If possible, draw them to scale.

Preliminary Plan

Grading, Contouring, and Harvesting

Mark areas where grading and contour changes are to be made.

  • Grading may be used to add interest to a landscape and to direct drainage away from hardscaped areas.
  • When planning grading and contour changes, make sure that modifications are made in accordance with the rules established by your city for onsite water retention and proper placement of the backflow preventer. If you need clarification, contact your city’s water conservation office .
  • Be a good neighbor. Don’t change the grade in your yard so that it redirects water into your neighbor’s yard. Also, avoid making changes that would direct water toward the foundation of your house.
  • Consider water harvesting opportunities. You can use existing contours to collect rainwater for use by landscape plants or you can regrade part of the lot to create catchment areas for rainwater. Rooftop runoff can be directed through gutters and channels toward trees and plants.

Incorporate Plants into the Design

It is not necessary to make a realistic drawing of each plant. Most landscape architects and designers use symbols such as circles to represent plants on their landscape plans. For each plant, draw a circle in a size that represents the plant at maturity (when it is largest in size).

When placing plants, consider their growth characteristics, as well as their water and sun/shade requirements:

  • Group plants with similar water needs together.
  • Choose appropriately sized plants and place them an appropriate distance apart. This avoids frequent pruning and avoids a cluttered appearance.
  • Choose low-litter plants for areas near your pool and patio.
  • Select the toughest plants for areas that receive full or reflected sun, such as against a south or west wall. Look for shade plants for exposures that face north or for deep shade beneath trees or awnings.

When your plan is complete, make at least two copies.

Trees & Large Cacti

Trees and large cacti, like saguaros, comprise the “backbone” of the landscape since they are permanent and clearly visible year-round. Place trees first.

  • When considering placement, be sure the mature tree will fit safely, without interfering with overhead power lines, underground utilities, buildings, and pedestrian traffic.
  • Select and place trees to maximize the function you want, such as providing cooling shade, screening for privacy, enhancing views, or framing the corners of the house.
  • Locate deciduous trees to shade the east- and west-facing exposures of your home during the summer. This will allow sunlight into the home during the winter when branches are bare of leaves.
  • Place large, individual cacti in the landscape to create a dramatic focal point, or mass several plants of one species to serve as a striking groundcover.
  • A cactus or several cacti in a colorful container will create a bold accent.


Next, draw in the shrubs. Shrubs can break up large spaces and visually anchor a home to the site. They also can be used to screen out undesirable views, soften the look of walls and fences and filter harsh reflective sunlight.

  • Select shrubs with a variety of flower colors and blooming periods to provide seasonal impact.
  • Massing several shrubs of the same variety is usually more pleasing to the eye than mixing several different varieties together.
  • A more formal look is achieved by using straight or geometric arrangements.
  • Select shrubs according to their use and mature size, allowing enough space for their mature height and width.

Groundcover, Vines and Accent Plants

Groundcovers, vines and accent plants, such as small cacti and succulents, add color and texture to the landscape and provide continuity between major landscape components.

  • In addition, groundcovers shade and cool bare surfaces and can be used to temporarily fill in spaces in a new landscape.
  • Use vines to soften the look of walls and fences, to screen views, and to create additional shade. Indicate on your plan where you will need to add a trellis or structure to support vines.
  • Vines are especially valuable in small gardens because they require little space.
  • Add accent plants to create interest and to achieve a unique look. Reserve these elements for those areas you want to emphasize, such as an entryway, a special tree, or a focal point in the landscape.

After placing groundcovers, vines and accent plants, draw in any areas to be used for a vegetable garden or bedding plants.


Turf is relatively water thirsty, so use it sparingly. If you like the green look that turf provides, you may be able to achieve a similar look with desert-adapted groundcovers or a combination of drought-tolerant turf and desert-adapted plant material.

  • Make turf areas functional and only as large as you really need.
  • Install turf areas close to your house or in other areas where you want a cooling effect.
  • Design your turf area so that it has a simple shape. Oddly shaped turf areas or narrow strips of turf are difficult to irrigate and mow.
  • For ease of maintenance, locate turf away from sidewalks, fences, and walls.
  • Plant turf on level areas to avoid runoff and maximize irrigation efficiency. Most cities have an ordinance prohibiting excess irrigation water from entering the street.
  • Thinking about artificial turf? Things to consider.
  • Caring for your turf correctly will minimize water use and maintenance and keep it looking its best. Tips on turf care.
  • Looking to get rid of some of the turf? Download a DIY pamphlet.