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Step Two – Map Existing Site and Vegetation

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Landscape design is essentially a creative problem-solving process. It involves developing a design that is tailored to your site, meets your needs and desires, and also provides valuable wildlife habitat. So before you begin to make any landscape improvements to your property, you should thoroughly familiarize yourself with all aspects of your existing property. This will mean conducting an inventory and analysis of your property to identify opportunities and assets as well as constraints and liabilities. To help organize this information, you will need an accurate map of your property on which to record your observations and subsequent analysis.

drawing of plot

A typical plot plan.

Base Map
The first step in this process is the creation of an accurate base map, which shows all existing permanent physical site elements. The base map will be useful when considering design changes to the landscape. At its simplest, it is developed from your existing plot plan. When purchasing your house, you should have received a property survey, also called a plat or plot plan of your property. This is a plan drawing that typically includes the lot configuration, right-of-ways, sidewalks, easements, and position and dimensioning of the house (and permanent structures such as decks and steps), garage, and driveway. If you don’t have one, request one from the tax assessor’s office or download a copy from your county’s GIS website. You can also develop one entirely from your own field measurements, but that will take you longer.

A typical plot plan always includes a drawing scale, for instance 1”=40’, which means that every inch on the map is equal to 40’ on your property. Plot plans need to be enlarged to allow you to show more details of the landscape. You can take your plan to a copy shop and have it enlarged to a minimum of 1”=10’ for smaller properties or small areas of your garden, or up to 1”=20’ for larger properties. The plan should have the north arrow on it as well, which will be needed to assess your growing conditions.

Base Map Outline

Sample Base Map Outline

On the base map of your property, you want to show the property lines and house footprint for your residence. On this sample base map, information from the plot plan has been re-drawn on 5 x 5 graph paper (when 1”=10’, each square equals 2’). If your property or area of interest is larger, adjust the scale of your squares as needed. For instance, 1” could equal 20’, which would make each square equal to 4’. For this, you can use a plot plan you had enlarged or take the dimensions directly off the original plot plan.

drawing with existing features

Sample Base Map with existing features.

On the graph paper, you can now identify and record, in detail, all existing site features. This might include, in addition to those elements already noted on the plot plan, things such as septic tanks, wells, and paved areas such as a patio, deck, terrace, fences, steps, walkways, utilities, lights, sprinklers, plant beds, and lawn areas. While you can certainly estimate the placement and size of these elements, using a measuring tape will ensure a more accurate map. For the house, you would also like to include the location of windows, doors, downspouts, spigots, HVAC units, drier vents, etc.Make several copies of your base map. You can use the copies to complete your inventory and site analysis and to sketch out your design ideas.

drawing with existing vegetation

Sample Base Map with existing vegetation.

Map and Inventory Existing Vegetation – Next you need to identify all the existing vegetation on your property and locate these plants on a copy of your base map.

Identify all the existing plants in your landscape. Note any native plants and those that are invasive non-natives. Use field guides or the plant lists below to help you identify the welcome and unwelcome plants in your landscape.

Invasive, Non-Native Plants of North Carolina

Native Plants Attractive to Wildlife

Locate each plant or group of plants on your base map. Be sure to include trees, shrubs, vines, flowers, ground covers, and grasses – anything that is growing in your landscape.

Keep Records for a Year – Before initiating habitat improvements, take the time to observe the changes in your landscape throughout the seasons. Keep records of the wildlife using your landscape, making sure to note what areas are used and the specific timing of that use.

Photograph Your Landscape – A picture is worth a thousand words. Take pictures of different areas of your yard during different seasons. As you develop a final plan, these photos will help you remember how the yard looked at various times of the year.

man looking through binoculars

Use binoculars to make observations of wildlife.

Make Wildlife Observations – Animals are predictable and will appear in your landscape at the same time each year. Use binoculars to identify the animals in your yard and make sure to record detailed information about your observations. A written record can be used to identify which areas of the landscape are performing well and which areas need habitat improvement. Also, records will help guide your future management choices such as when to clean out nest boxes, where to erect feeders, and how to best maintain the native plants in your landscape.

Investigate Wildlife Habitat Value – Observe how wildlife is using the existing native plants. It is best to retain as much existing native vegetation as possible as you begin creating your native plant landscape. On your base map, identify areas where food and cover are limited and abundant.

The following weblinks and field guides can help you identify the wildlife in your landscape:


Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

Birds of the Carolinas. By Eloise Potter, James Parnell, and Robert Teulings. The University of North Carolina Press.

The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.  By David Allen Sibley. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Field Guide to Birds of North America.  National Geographic Society.

Eastern Birds. By Roger Tory Peterson. Peterson Field Guide Series.

The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. By Paul Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye. Simon and Schuster, Inc.


Butterflies and Moths of North America

Jeff’s Butterfly Page

Eastern Butterflies.  By Paul Opler and Vichai Malikul. Peterson Field Guide Series.

Butterflies through Binoculars: The East. By Jeffrey Glassberg. Oxford University Press.


Caterpillars of Eastern Forests

Caterpillars in the Field and Garden: A Field Guide to the Butterfly Caterpillars of North America, Oxford University Press.