According to the Encarta Dictionary, one definition of a tool is, "something used as a means of achieving something." When it comes to landscape planning tools, think beyond only hand-held or operated items as tools. Tools can be anything that helps you learn or achieve a goal. As a homeowner, you may find that you already have access to many landscape planning tools.
Take pictures of the area you want to landscape. If possible, take the pictures from a second-floor window to achieve a "bird's eye" view. Enlarge the pictures on your computer for printing out. You can then draw or apply to the picture some scaled cut-outs of plants, trees or other landscape elements to determine what works best. At a minimum, pictures you take of your landscape will become your "before" view.
Take two sets of pictures from the same angles, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon to see where sunlight hits the landscape. Use that information to select plants with sunlight requirements that meet the amount of sunlight available.
Measuring and Layout
Measure the area you want to landscape and write the figures down to use to determine volume of products needed like mulch, stone or cement for walkways and plants. Mark off where walkways or flower beds will be by using stakes and strings, spray paint or a garden hose.
In addition to photographs of the landscape, or instead of them, use graph paper and colored pencils or pens to draw the location of items that you want to keep (like a tree). Leave items out of your drawing that you do not want to keep in the landscape (like an arbor).
Prepare two drawings. One drawing will be how the landscape appears as you look straight forward at it. With the first depiction of your landscape, draw in plants to gain a perspective of what looks best from a height and color (of flowers or foliage) perspective.
The second drawing will be an overhead view. On this second depiction of your landscape, draw in the same plants you did on the first drawing to show how much room they will occupy.
Landscaping software can be used in addition to or in place of hand-renderings. Software is available that provides you with picture libraries of plants, buildings, trees, fences, pools and other hard and soft landscape items. After laying out your design with the plants of choice, the software will allow you to advance the life-cycle of the plants to see how they will grow over time. This provides you a glimpse of the future to see how the plants will spread as they mature.
Samples of soil taken from different areas of the landscape can be tested to determine if the soil needs additional nutrients to adequately support plants, helping you plan the proper vegetation for conditions in your yard.
Books and magazine on gardening and landscape design along with the Internet can provide you with ideas on how to landscape your yard and choose plantings. Sightseeing at arboretums or around your own town can also prompt ideas. The Internet offers means to search for your home by address, providing you with an overhead view of your house and yard. This image could be used to tell you where vegetation could be added or removed for balance. Maintain a garden journal of what you have planted to have a record of what did or did not work. These idea sources are all landscape planning tools.
Check with your county extension office for advice on landscaping in your area. Master Gardeners work with the extension office to help county residents at no charge. Seek help from experienced staff at your local nursery or attend landscape and gardening forums and seminars.