Landscaping: Making the grade

Never thought of garden design as a numbers game. But the Ryerson landscape design course I’m taking this summer is all about the math: Landscape Construction, Materials and Methods. For the past five weeks, my head has been swimming with formulae and calculations. Yi, yiyi, yi, yiyi, yi!

The fascinating learning for me is about grading. Used to think that changes in grade in the landscape mostly dealt with aesthetics. More fool, me! Repeat after me: It’s the drainage, stupid. The last thing you want to do when you regrade is send water into your basement. Or, even worse, into the basement of your (formerly) good neighbour.

I’m immersed right now in estimating – or, in landscape terms, interpolating – changes in elevation in a hypothetical garden. Part of our challenge is to recommend how to add typical garden elements such as a patio, garden beds, a garage and driveway… all with grading as a key consideration.

We have to interpolate existing conditions from a few given elevations, and recommend new ones so that a contractor could carry out the plan. The choices in one area have impact on another. And don’t forget to allow for the underpinnings when you lay that patio. And don’t bury the roots of that tree, you’ll kill it.

It’s a game of garden domino effect.

Hey, I’m a plantsperson. Being a novice at this (and five weeks does not a landscape architect make) can feel like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle by inserting all the puzzle pieces simultaneously. There’s a lot, a lot, of back and forth. However, I’m learning. I also have new respect for people who mentally shift soil for a living.

And for computer-aided design. I’m sure the pros aren’t stewing over every calculation with their pencil, Touch calculator, mini-PostIt notes and accumulating pile of eraser dust. Automation must make this quicker.

At least, that’s one woman’s interpolation.


  1. Well, I'm agreed to Deborah, That's a killer course. But the fun is you are learning something different and can implement your knowledge in a proper way. And we are getting the touch of your course without enrolling in any institute. Keep going on!

  2. Where we live now, it is probably the most important consideration when we do anything outside. We have steep slopes that angle toward the house, and in fact, there's little 'flat' here. We have to be mindful of grading both in regards to drainage, and in relation to erosion. The last thing we want is to cause a mudslide! Good luck in your course!

  3. Grading is a tricky business. All those numbers made my head hurt. I'm so glad we are finished our drainage project! I hope your theoretical one goes well!

  4. I understand your frustration with the math in your garden design course. However I believe that after you finish your course you'll turn those numbers, you can't stand right now, into beautiful garden of yours.

  5. Reminded me of the time long ago when my cousin who was a good pianist took a course in Music Theory. She likened study of intervals in music to algebra, yet her fingers found them naturally from years of practice.

  6. Helen, sounds fascinating – really! Especially if it didn't involve "the math". 🙂 You will probably never look at slopes the same again.

    Kudos to you for taking this course. 🙂

  7. Drainage is definitely critical for any landscaping with patio pavers or flagstones. You are absolutely correct that you don't water running into your home.

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