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Garden Design Essentials 2: The Survey

How to design a garden: the survey

This is the second in my series of Garden Design Essential blogs and whilst this topic might not kick off the creative juices as much as planning a planting scheme, it is a vital step at the start of the garden design process.

If you’re looking to design and plan your own garden, then I hope you find this blog beneficial.

The survey is often an overlooked and sometimes misunderstood step though.  I will highlight how it is used when designing a garden and direct you to some guides on how to survey a garden yourself.

I promise not get too technical and I’ll bring it to life with a visit to Gloria and John’s garden in Skipton. We first met Gloria and John a few months ago in the first blog in this series, ‘How to design a garden: the brief‘.

Garden survey building a garden

Why is a survey important?

For the client, there are four significant reasons, that I can think of, why investing in a survey is extremely valuable in the long run.

Costings – the survey information feeds directly into all the final drawings from which the contractors calculate the cost of the build. The more accurate the survey, the less errors likely in the quantities worked out.  This means the contractors quote/s are more realistic.

Levels – I try to limit changing levels in gardens because digging out and carting away waste or equally making ground up by importing extra material is a luxury and cost that isn’t always necessary.

Safety –  as the services and utilities are noted and given to the contractors, nasty surprises during site excavations are minimised, and also taken into account to impact on costs.

The build –  the setting out drawings give the contractor the necessary information for marking out foundations for steps, walls, patios etc at the start of the build.  The survey and the setting out drawings map on to each other, thus ensuring the location of these features are built exactly as designed and planned.

What survey information is needed to design your garden?

For me, there are two components to a garden survey that need to be considered: the physical and the visual.

The physical survey records the topography of the site.  It includes recording the size of the garden, and the existing features within it, as well as the level changes.   Features can include fences, boundary walls, patios, paths, steps, borders and key planting such as trees and hedges.  Utilities are also recorded such as drains, drainpipes, electricity and gas.  The footprint of the house and associated buildings, access points and windows etc. are also noted.

It’s a long, detailed list. It is crucial because it provides a full, detailed and accurate recording of your garden and how it relates to your house.

Issues that need addressing such as drainage, level changes and access, which may not have been raised at the Brief stage, may also come to light here too.

The visual survey (or photographic survey), is a great way to record the ‘sense of the place’ (Genius Loci) and is carried out by the designer.  It’s important to take into account what you can see beyond the garden boundaries whether it be neighbouring houses or long distance views to the countryside (no matter how small this might be!)

why survey your garden
Views to be softened, vistas to be framed and areas to be screened are observed. It’s also important to photograph the views and vistas from the house onto the garden, and from the garden back to the house

How to survey your garden?

If you would like to measure your garden yourself, you’ll find plenty of resources on the internet.  I’ve included some carefully selected ones below (end of the page) which provide excellent instructions to help you on your way, as well as the equipment needed.  Of course, you will save time if you have someone to help you.

How does Melissa Morton Garden Design carry out a survey?

For small, less complex gardens, I will carry out the survey myself with an assistant to help me hold the tape and make notes. These types of gardens are often new build, ‘blank canvas’ spaces.  On occasion my teenage son has been roped in to help me, especially during Covid 19 restrictions.

I use specialist 3D CAD software (Vectorworks) to import survey information into, and create a scaled baseplan which is very accurate. This software, which has many additional features, also allows me to note the level changes around the garden and how these will be also taken into account in the design. Using 3D software is more effective than just looking at your garden in plan view only (directly from above, a bird’s eye view), as the spatial design becomes more integral to the process.

For larger and/or more complex gardens I hire a third-party professional surveyor to carry out the physical survey.  This is because they have access to specialist equipment and can measure a site accurately and very efficiently. Gardens in and around Ilkley are often sloping and recording the level changes accurately are very important to me.  They also give me additional information that I can’t normally record myself, but will add value to the design.

After the surveyor has visited the garden, the information is sent to me so that I can create a detailed siteplan using 3D CAD software.

Part of a survey provided by a professional surveyor for a existing, hilly garden in Ilkley.  Note location of trees, drains & spot heights for walls etc.

Professional garden survey

What to do next after the survey?

The survey information is traditionally drawn out to scale on paper and forms the baseplan of your garden.  On here, you start to sketch out various layouts, based on how you want to use the garden and your wishlist of features you’d like to include.  This can be quite an exciting part of the journey.  More on this in a future blog… perhaps a little more exciting than measuring the garden!

Of course, with the age of digital software, you may have the means to produce your baseplan using a digital device (eg computer).  The advantage of this is that, if you have a printer, you can print out your baseplan as many times as you like to sketch over.

Tip – producing a print out, to scale, doesn’t always work effectively as there can be automatic adjustments from device to printout. So always double check the printed survey with known measurements to ensure the sizes are correct.

Case study

Let’s go back to Skipton and the mostly flat, blank canvas garden in Gloria and John’s new build home.

Using long tapes and rules, I noted the height and shape of walls, as I knew they would influence the design I had in mind. I also took photos of views and vistas helping me to work out what needed framing, softening and screening.

During the survey I spotted two issues. Firstly, the builders working on an adjacent development had damaged a boundary stone pillar.  Once informed, Gloria contacted the foreman and arranged for it to be fixed. Secondly, the ground conditions at the side of the house and beyond their boundary was very wet and noted how this might impact on levels and drainage long the side path.

How much to garden surveys cost?

A professional survey can be anywhere between £300 – £500 for a small, average garden.  The more complex a garden with existing features, trees and significant level changes will cost more.  Larger gardens like these are typically £500-800.  For large estates with extensive land and woods for example, over £1500.

Surveys – an essential step in garden design

I hope this blog has helped explain why surveys are such a necessary part of the garden design process. A survey might incur a cost up front, but you can see how essential it is in the long run.

If you have any questions about garden design, I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me here.

Thank you for reading,


Other reading

How to survey a garden [part 1]  Successful Garden Design

A useful introductory video here on measuring your garden

How to survey your garden – and draw a scale plan

There are also courses available online

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