Helpful Tips for Site Assessment

Learn the basics of site assessment with this guide, and maximize your available yard and garden space.
By Charles P. Mazza
June 2014
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Gardens can contain bulbs, perennials, vegetables, fruit, woody vines, trees and shrubs. Proper site assessment can help you properly space and arrange these plants.
Photo courtesy PALS Publishing
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Have you ever hesitated before planting, unsure whether your garden plan is right for the space you have to use? If that’s the case, you need to check out Site Assessment for Better Gardens and Landscapes (PALS Publishing, 2013) a great tool for learning how to evaluate the characteristics of a site and determining which plants will thrive. Author Charles P. Mazza offers advice and strategies for gardeners novice and expert alike, with more than thirty hands-on activities and fifty color photos. This excerpt is taken from “General Planning Information,” and explains what you need to get started down the path of site assessment.

You can purchase this book from the Capper's Farmer store: Site Assessment for Better Gardens and Landscapes.

Assessing a property is the first step in creating a new garden or landscape — or giving an old one a facelift. Most property owners don’t know how to do it right, so it is often overlooked or short changed. The assessment involves collecting detailed information about the property’s characteristics and its ability to support healthy plant growth. This step-by-step workbook is designed to help prevent unnecessary plant replacement and labor costs through careful site assessment. If you are new to gardening and landscaping, review the glossary to become familiar with common horticultural terms used in this workbook.

Since site assessment puts you in partnership with the environment, it results in a sustainable and easy-to-care-for landscape or garden. It reveals the limitations and opportunities to support plant growth. Plants experience stress when their oxygen, water, light, nutrient, carbon dioxide, and temperature requirements are not met. Site assessment allows you to account for these factors when designing your landscape or garden.

Site assessment is a discovery process. Completing the tasks described in this book will assist you in:

• Selecting appropriate plants for the site
• Minimizing plant disease problems
• Saving money
• Identifying conditions that lead to plant stress
• Developing strategies for improving the site

Is site assessment something that has to be done to have a successful landscape or garden?

Yes, although there are probably examples of success without a site assessment. If you discover a factor in the site assessment, you cope better with it and make an informed decision.

Should the assessment be done only for perennial herbaceous and woody plants, or should it be done for fruits, lawns, annual flowers, herbs, and vegetables?

Do an assessment for all parts of your garden and landscape — on any size property or section of it, regardless of what you are planting.

Can it be done only on a part of the property?

You can focus on part(s) of the property, referred to as study areas in this book. Keep in mind that some of the physical factors you will discover about your garden are not restricted to one section alone. It is better to do an overall site assessment, but if your goals are to develop or improve one area, then assessing that area makes sense.

Can it be done in a community garden?

Discoveries made during the site assessment process are as useful in a community garden as they are in a private garden or landscape. Include community members in the assessment and in making a to-do list.

Are there special considerations for gardens in urban areas?

Sites in urban areas where buildings have been demolished, along roads with heavy traffic, or on former industrial sites may have soils contaminated with heavy metals. Special soil tests are needed to determine if heavy metals are in soil. If you have concerns about heavy metals, arrange for a soil test, especially if you plan to grow food.

How can the assessment help to minimize plant diseases?

Stress factors make plants more vulnerable to disease. For instance, lack of oxygen in compacted, poorly drained soil stresses plants and makes disease organisms more likely to develop. Many plants set into damp, shady sites are more susceptible to diseases. Some plants are highly susceptible to diseases and others are more likely to have insect problems. The site assessment will help you choose plantings that are suited to the site such as insect-resistant or disease-resistant plants.

How should I pace the project?

You can do it in short periods of time over a few weeks or spread the steps out over six months to a year so that you are doing one or two steps a month. Estimated time is included with the description of each step. It takes around eight hours and about 30 tools — mostly inexpensive household items — to do all the steps in a site assessment.

If you stretch out the site assessment over a 6- to 12-month period, do most of it during the growing season. Step 2 (Obstructions Above and Below), Step 4 (Hardiness and Microclimates), Step 9 (Slope), Step 12 (Putting It All Together) and Taking the Next Steps can be done in the winter months. Of course, you can only “put it all together” or “take the next steps” after you have completed the activities and collected the information in Steps 1 through 11.

When should it be done?

Do a site assessment before gardening or landscaping on a newly acquired property, before expanding into a new part of the property, or before refurbishing an older section. The site assessment will be helpful if you have had your property for several years but have not considered garden or landscape improvements. The site assessment will help a professional landscaper come up with a good plan for your property.

How do I use this workbook to conduct a site assessment?

Each of the first 11 steps in this workbook has at least one activity that will improve your understanding of the site’s limita­tions and opportunities. In Step 12, Putting It All Together, the knowledge gained through the site assessment will be summarized in one or more Site Assessment Checklists. Then in Taking the Next Steps, you will list your long term goals for the site, develop a landscape and garden design, and make a to-do list to implement the design.

Throughout the book plants are mentioned along with information on their tolerance of various conditions. You may consider these plants for your site and want more information. So, at the end of each step, there is a list of plants mentioned in the step. The list includes the common name and scientific name. The scientific name will make it easier to research additional information on the plant and to locate it in a nursery. Scientific names include two words, a Genus and a species in an italic font. The first letter of the genus is capitalized. If there is more than one species appropriate to how it is used in the text, “sp.” will indicate multiple species for the genus. An “x” in the scientific name indicates it is a hybrid.

At the end of each step, look for a list of books and websites for further reading. Later in the book there is a comprehensive list of references and resources. The list is divided into four sections: General Advice, Landscape Design, Plant Selection, and Growing Vegetables and Fruits. When you explore websites or books, record information or reminders in your site assessment notebook. Books and websites will provide information about a plant that can help you determine if it will thrive at a location.

If you are new to gardening, some terms used in this workbook may not be familiar. If you see an unfamiliar term, check the extensive glossary for a definition.

What do I do when my assessment suggests that I make a change?

In the Taking the Next Steps, after you have completed the site assessment, you will prioritize changes in a to-do list that includes a completion date for making each change. Some changes are simple and can be done in a few hours at low cost. Other changes involve significant planning, time, and money to do effectively; those can be done later. Make it a priority to fix unsafe conditions in frequently used areas.

Where do I get advice, if I need it?

Throughout the book, sources of advice are mentioned including local Cooperative Extension offices. Cooperative Extension may be a good source of information on local climate, plants that thrive in the area, soil testing labs, gardening classes, and state-level horticulture experts. Cooperative Extension is a nationwide education system that originally had offices in each U.S. county. In some states, multi-county Extension offices have replaced county offices. Local offices are linked to the state's land grant university. Some states have local gardening education programs supported by horticultural experts at the state's land grant university. Other states may not offer this service.

Utility companies provide information on underground conduits and overhead wires. Soil and Water Conservation Districts provide information on local soils and wetland rules if needed. Using the books and websites mentioned in this book, you can find information on all aspects of landscapes and gardens. Landscape architects can be good consultants for problem areas.

If there is a public garden (botanic(al) garden, arboretum) in your area, check to see if they provide gardening advice, particularly on the environmental needs of plants or questions about existing plants. Visiting a public garden may help you visualize your landscape and garden goals, especially the plants you want to include.

Neighbors may be a source of advice but you will need to differentiate between opinions and good information. They are a source of information on factors the neighborhood shares, like wind and roaming animals.


Choosing a Site Assessment Notebook

Throughout this workbook, you are asked to record observations, information, calculations, and test results in a “site assessment notebook”, sometimes referred to simply as “your notebook.” In the last section, Taking the Next Steps, you will make several lists, including a to-do list that will be added to your notebook. Throughout the workbook, there are suggestions for further reading including books and web sites. And, you may seek advice from advisors and organizations mentioned in this book. Your notebook will be used to keep all the information discovered in one place. Before starting the assessment, decide what type of notebook you will use, paper or digital or both.

If you decide to use a paper notebook, choose a spiral-bound notebook about the same size as this book. Spiral binding allows the book to lay flat on any page. So it is easier to make notes and sketches. Consider adding tabs to mark the beginning of notes for each step. Then, you can easily turn to the notes section for a step when new information becomes available.

Build the notebook as you work through the steps in the assessment. Date your entries. When you are finished with a step, leave some blank pages at the end for additional information from advisors, reference books, and web sites.

If you decide to keep your notes on a digital storage device, start by setting up a folder for each of the twelve steps and Taking the Next Steps. A digital notebook allows you to use software to make tables and it is easier to make changes as more information becomes available.

You may decide to have a paper and digital component to your notebook. You can use a paper notebook for notes, but store photos on a digital storage device. Spreadsheet software can be used for lists and test results.

Want to learn more about site assessment? Read Guide to Soil Characteristics.


Plant Mentioned in this Section

The common name is followed by the scientific name and then additional information if needed.

Chinese long beans – Vigna unguiculata sesquipedalis

In this scientific name, the third name is the subspecies.


For Further Reading

Visit Cornell University's School of Integrative Plant Science for a link to the web sites below and all web sites mentioned in this book.

Botanical Gardens, Public Gardens, and Arboretum Locations

Gardenvisit.com
From Nightingale Garden Company, Ltd., registered in England and Wales.

The National Gardening Association

Cooperative Extension Office Locations

National Institute of Food and Agriculture
From the United States Department of Agriculture.

Home and Garden Information Center

Home and Garden Information Center
Horticultural information to the public nation­wide through a diagnostic website. Sponsored by the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension.

Information about Heavy Metals

Interpreting the Results of Soil Tests for Heavy Metals
From the University of Vermont, by Vern Grubin­ger and Don Ross

Heavy Metals and Gardens
Information about heavy metals and gardening. Produced by Jennifer Gorospe, San José State University as part of her Master’s Thesis.

Cornell Gardening Resources
Information about children, gardens, and lead, by Linda M. Ameroso and Charles P. Mazza, Cornell Cooperative Extension, NYC.


Reprinted with permission from Site Assessment for Better Gardens and Landscapes by Charles P. Mazza and published by PALS Publishing, 2013. Buy this book from our store: Site Assessment for Better Gardens and Landscapes.


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