Buy a sheet of 24 by 36-inch graph paper from an engineering shop, plus a few large sheets of tracing paper. Measure the size of your yard and mark that on the graph paper at scale. Use a construction ruler to easily convert feet to 1/4- or 1/2-inch scale. Use a landscape template (green plastic) to easily draw curves and circular shapes for tree canopies and shrubs.
Measure and draw the outline of your house, fences, sheds, garages, driveways, sidewalks, patios, decks, porches and any other object of hardscape. (Hardscape is any durable feature you may not want or be able to move or change.) Note the location of overhead electrical lines and underground septic systems when known. Mark any easements. An easement is an area regulated by the city or county, and utilities may be placed in the ground at those locations.
Draw a circle to indicate any large trees that you do not want to move. Mark due north on the plan. This will give you a good overview of your yard, the direction of the sun and what elements you want to work with. Take some photographs of the house and yard. Jot notes about problems with the curb appeal or other areas.
Place tracing paper over the base plan and think about solving landscaping function problems. If your front yard has a straight walk to a sidewalk that no one uses and you need the walk to curve to your driveway, draw the curve you need. This will mean removing a walk, but it will change your yard opportunities and design. When possible curve your beds and walk ways to make them look more spacious and friendly.
Sketch taller architectural plants closer to the walls of the home, medium filler plants in front of them and smaller decorative plants in the very front. By creating three heights of plants you achieve a terraced effect that makes a bed feel more lush and full. Consider adding decorative focal point trees like Japanese maples in a flower bed that forms a small circle. Note the location of new fencing, retaining walls, steps, fountains or other features you want to add.
Plan your backyard landscape to soften or hide fences. Consider using the same curves to disguise the small size of the yard. Focus on function. If you need a larger patio then design a patio to blend into the curves of the landscape. Terrace the yard at the fence area to bring plants up and add more lushness. Add focal point features to give your eye a destination view.
Remove any broken hardscape before installing new garden features. Install new hardscape before you begin planting, including in-ground light and watering systems. Correct for poor-quality soils. Add terracing and install your new plants. Finish by adding containers for spot color and garden furniture to enjoy your yard.