The measure of a garden? Design, plants that adapt to the space – Chicago Tribune

When planning a garden – whether it’s a vegetable bed to plant this spring or an entire landscaping project you’ll develop over the years – the first step is to take measurements.

“Knowing how much space you have to work with and what else is in that space is critical,” said Julie Janoski, plant clinic manager at Arboretum Morton in Lisle.

Accurate measurements will help you choose varieties of trees and shrubs that are the right size for your property and won’t grow too large to be a problem. Knowing the numbers will help you determine how much mulch, compost, or lawn fertilizer to buy, or how many tomato plants you can fit in a raised bed. When building raised beds you will be able to plan the right size and position them with space in between for a wheelbarrow.

“You’ll be able to make much better decisions if you have the right information,” she said.

This is often easier to measure in the winter. “You can see the bare structure of things, with no leaves in the way,” she said. For a smaller space, a 12 foot or 25 foot tape measure will work. For measuring an entire property, a 100-foot tape measure, available for less than $25, is handy.

A survey board is a good place to start. It will show the overall dimensions of your property as well as the location and exterior dimensions of the house. However, it may not show significant changes, such as an addition to the house, a wider driveway, or a shed.

If you don’t have a survey plan, draw a sketch of the property and mark the dimensions on it. You can refine it into a plan later using graph paper. Some garden design websites will help you make a digital plan.

Even general measurements are helpful, but more details will help you make better plans, Janoski said. Measure things like the width of the path, the doorway, and the driveway. Because the view from inside your home is important, mark the location and width of windows. Note the basement window wells. Show the trash can, compost bin and dog run.

Mark the position and dimensions of large constructions – paths, patios, fences, driveways. Even if you’re thinking of changing a patio or garden bed, you’ll need to know where it is now. “Be sure to look up and mark overhead power lines,” Janoski said. “You will want to avoid planting trees too close to them.”

As you measure, think about how tall objects such as the house and garage cast shade or allow sunlight to fall on your yard. For example, if your house is to the east of your backyard, the yard will receive more sun in the afternoon than in the morning. “How long the sun shines on your plants is a major factor in gardening success, so it’s important to understand the sunlight in your garden,” she said.

Mark the locations of air conditioning units, dryer vents and gutter downspouts. “Hot air blasts or water streams change the conditions of plants, so you need to know where they are,” Janoski said. Note other places with special conditions, such as slopes; low places where the ground is always wet; or dry, warm places near driveways or concrete walkways.

Include the locations of your outdoor faucets. “You can save labor by placing plants that need frequent watering near the water source,” she said.

When marking the location of trees, show how far the branches have spread. “It’s important to know which areas will be shaded in the summer,” Janoski said. Note the trees in your neighbors’ yards that can cast shade in yours. Keep in mind that trees are growing and they will provide shade.

“Once you have a basic plan, update it every few years,” she said. “It will help you start a garden or a new season of gardening with confidence.”

For advice on trees and plants, contact the Morton Arboretum Plant Clinic (630-719-2424,, or [email protected]). Beth Botts is an editor at the Arboretum.

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