Last week, I wrote about starting the process of designing my new garden, and how to create a map of your garden. Once I had my map made, I now had a way to record another crucial step of the design process: garden observations.
Careful observations will allow me, or any gardener, to make can make wise and informed design decisions. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “right plant, right place”. Plants, of course, can always be removed or transplanted, but other things like sheds or concrete pathways are much more difficult and costly to re-do.
Why Garden Observation is Important
When faced with a new garden and landscape space, particularly if it’s a blank slate, it is SOOOO tempting to dive right in and plant. But just like the base map, observations are an underrated yet crucial step to a well planned and designed space. Undergoing this observation phase is why I didn’t build any permanent raised beds right away and am gardening only in temporary things, like half wine barrels or my gutter garden.
Even if you have an existing garden, occasional periods of focused garden observation is important. As gardeners, we are always looking around and noticing our spaces, but how often do we record this info and refer back to it when making decisions? Gardens change over time, as plants grow and die. Periodically taking the time to formally observe can be important to evaluate the productivity of an area or to consider why some plants may be struggling, or why thriving.
How Long Should You Observe For?
Ideally, a whole year of garden observation would be the best. I did a year of observation at my last house, and waited an entire year before planting any perennials or building raised beds. Except it was in the middle of California’s epic drought, and it never rained. When it finally did, I discovered my flooding issues. Had I experienced that in my observation period, my garden design would have been much different!
However, a full year might be a bit excessive, especially in a small urban space. But ideally, you’d experience both a winter and summer solstice. This would give you the knowledge of sun patterns for when the sun is at it’s highest and it’s lowest.
I moved in about a month after the winter solstice, and my first winter observation was made late January. I’ll be out of town on the summer solstice, so my high summer observation will be early June. I’m going with the theory that some garden observation is better than no garden observation.
What To Look at and Record During A Garden Observation
During your observation phase of garden planning, you want to look at and make note of anything that helps you better understand your space and would be useful to know in order to design your space. The most common ones include:
Sun patterns. What gets full sun, part sun, full shade? This will help you determine what type of plants to grow, but also make design decisions like where to put a shady afternoon hammock or a sunny breakfast table.
Water movement. What is your garden like when it rains? Do you have a low spot where water collects? If you’re on a slope, what is the path of the water? This will allow you to create any earthworks or install drainage tools before planting.
Direction of winds. If you live in a windy area, this can affect both planting and lifestyle design decisions.
Microclimates of warm or cold pockets. On frosty days, take a look to see where it seems to gather the most. Is there a warm area that the frost misses? This info can be helpful if you want to try growing things slightly outside of your zone, or that are frost tender.
Wildlife and pet habits. Is there a bird nesting in a particular place each year? You probably don’t want to remove that tree. What about a corner of the yard that the dog poops in? Perhaps leave that area as is instead of trying to train the dog to go elsewhere.
Current plant habits. Is there a particular tree that drops shit everywhere in the fall? Probably don’t want to put a hot tub under that.
Neighbors and urban influence. Does your neighbor have an ugly shed or a patio light that’s always on? You’ll probably want to screen out.
Neighboring plants. Particularly when you move to a new area, spend some time doing garden observations of neighboring yards. This will give you a good feel of what you can grow. If you notice the same types of plants, it’s likely they do well in your area. I was excited to see a healthy passion vine (very sensitive to frost) growing on a fence about 4 houses away, telling me that my new neighborhood probably doesn’t get as much frost as I did at my last house.
When we were house shopping, I would do quick assessments of the yards and create a quick preliminary design in my head to see if the yard space would work for the lifestyle I am striving for. I did the same for the house we moved into. I’ve been doing the garden observations for only two months in my new space, but I’ve learned a lot and made adjustments to my initial design plan. For example, a light left on 24/7 from a neighbor’s living room requires screening from an evergreen hedge where I was previously thinking a pollinator garden. A tree I previously thought I loved is now being considered for removal because of how brittle the branches are during windstorms.
Recording Your Garden Observations
The actual process of doing garden observations is pretty passive. Just take some time to occasionally walk around the yard or sit and look around. Afterward, make a note about what you noticed in a journal or on a copy of your map. I find this process is best when accompanied by a glass of wine or a cup of tea. The key is to actually record what you notice (strong winds coming from the North, puddle under the back corner gutter, etc.) because when it comes to making a design decision or modification, you will inevitably forget it was an issue.
I like to record my observations on copies of my base map. Particularly for sun patterns, I want to have detailed notes to help me with plantings. I simply use different colored pencils to draw out where I see the shade at 9:00, noon and 3:00. I also record things in my garden journal, or I make notes on my base map copy where things need attention like “puddle”,”need to block light!”, and “Stella’s poop corner”. These will help guide me in my final design, and eventually, construction of my new homestead garden.
I’ll continue to work in my ‘temporary’ garden and do observations until at least the end of June, and any project I do until then will be something temporary like container gardens. Each day of garden observation allows me to tweak and adjust my design plan just a bit in order to make my garden fit my space perfectly.
But what if you don’t have a whole year, or even the 6 months? This is one of the things I find the HARDEST about doing designs for clients. I’ll spend time at their site while measuring for a base map, but it’s never enough to get the details. In this situation, I look at my compass for yard orientation and look at surrounding buildings and trees to approximate the shade patterns. I’ll also look at existing plants, and make educated assumptions if they are in sun or shade. For things like urban influences, I rely on the input from the residents.