Maps are hard. (But they don’t have to be!)
When you put pen to paper and begin designing your veggie garden, the first thing you’ll need is a good map, one that’s as accurate as you can make it. If you can afford a professional survey of your property, that’s great. But the large majority of us don’t have the luxury of spending that kind of money. So you need to map your garden yourself. Luckily, there are DIY methods to do just that.
How This Guide Is Structured:
I’ve decided to make this guide a repository for all the information I’ve gleaned through trial and error, research, and experimentation, on making maps. It proceeds the way my experience with map-making has proceeded: from the crude and unreliable (yet functional) to the more refined and expensive (not necessarily monetarily expensive, I count time as a cost as well.)
To use this guide well, read through it and at each stage ask yourself if this is the level of complexity you’re OK with, and if the trade-offs that are inherent with each method are worth it. No-one can decide this for you, you just have to wing it and hope for the best. The ideal way to learn is to practice. With any luck (and some hard work and many false starts) you’ll be able to map your garden (or anything) soon enough!
How Accurate Does Your Map Need To Be?
When Neha and I moved into our homestead, we knew that we needed to design our garden quickly, so we could start feeding ourselves and rely less on the local markets. This put us in the position that most people find themselves in: needing a quick map, and having to balance accuracy with speed. If we’d spent as much time as we wanted, we would have ended up with a more accurate map, but we’d probably have starved to death, or run out of money. Finding the right balance isn’t easy and sometimes you make the wrong call and have to just live with it. We decided to fall back on Permaculture Principle #9: Use Small And Slow Solutions, to guide us. (Only time will tell whether this was the right decision or not.)
Before we proceed any further, here is the piece of land we wanted to map:
The map that we came up with to represent this piece of land is hand-drawn, isn’t to scale, and wasn’t created using the advanced methods described later on in this guide. Most importantly, it does not have accurate contour lines on it, despite the land featuring a pretty steep slope. But it still works for our purpose, IE, planning our veggie garden. We know from experience that our design will be fluid and will change to accommodate things we learn about the land. Every feature of the ground doesn’t need to be mapped out in advance.
We’re also OK with not including the contour lines, because we intend to put in small terraces, rather than keep the slope as it is. This is more labour intensive in the short term, and it limits what we can do in terms of directing and channeling water to different parts of the garden, to create micro-climates. But it has the advantage of getting us set up with an easy-to-plant garden that is, on average, less likely to suffer from swiftly flowing water eroding away the soil. Again, these are the trade-offs we’ve chosen. Your choices may be different depending on your situation.
How To Map Your Garden, v1.0: A Sketched Map
The most basic map you can do is a simple sketched map that’s eyeballed to be roughly in the same shape as your land. Even with this level of unprofessionalism, there are some techniques you can use to get a measure of accuracy:
- Pace off your boundary: Use equal, measured strides to measure your boundary. Make notes of the lengths as you go, and also try and estimate the angles of the various turns that you make as you walk the boundary of your garden.
- Observe notable features: If you pass a tree three paces along a seven-pace stretch, note it down and use it as a reference point on your map.
- Measure the distance to features from two separate, known points: If there’s a structure within the property (IE, not on the boundary) select a point on that structure and measure paces to it from two separate points on the boundary. Later on, you can draw lines to that same point, scaled for your map, and find the structure’s location on the map. (See the box below for details.)
Trilateration is the word for the technique just described above. The best way to explain how it works is through an example: Let’s say there’s a tree at some point in your property that you want to place on your map. First, pick points A and B on the boundary line, and measure the paces to the tree.
We’ll call the tree Point C. Let’s say that the length of line AC in the real world, is 7 paces and that BC is 20 paces. When you draw your map, decide that each stride is worth (say) 1 inch on the map. You can then draw an arc using a compass with the centre at A and the radius at 7 inches. Do the same for point B, where the radius is at 20 inches. Where the two arcs meet is point C:
When you draw your map, decide that each stride is worth (say) 1 inch on the map. (This is your scale, btw) You can then draw an arc using a compass with the centre at A and the radius at 7 inches. Do the same for point B, where the radius is at 20 inches. Where the two arcs meet is point C. This is an crude attempt at trilateration.
Remember, it’s crude because obviously the tree isn’t a single point – it has a circumference, which you haven’t accounted for. Also, you’re using paces, which are inherently inaccurate.
This is essentially the sort of map that Neha and I have made for our veggie garden. We used some estimated distances for trilateration, we paced off the area in consideration and then just eyeballed it. As I said earlier, it works fine for our purposes right now. However, that isn’t to say it’s ideal. Not by a long shot:
How To Map Your Garden, v1.2: Scale Is Everything
If we had a bit more time to work on our map, the thing Neha and I might get right is the scale of the map. At the moment, we’re using paces and other stand-ins for actual measurements. They are inherently inaccurate, because no two paces can be the same length, as much as you try. The curve of the land, your own inability to control your body and the asymmetry of your legs ensure that this is the case.
What this means is that two sections of boundary fence that might be exactly 7 feet long (say) in the real world will, on the map, be off. Sometimes by a lot! The quickest way to prevent these sort of scale issues is to use a tape measure instead of paces. With an accurate tape measure, you can quickly start to see results. Your trilateration attempts get far more accurate, as does the shape of your boundary.
You’ll still see some discrepancies, because with just a tape measure, you can’t accurately measure the angles between two lengths of boundary. So even though you might walk the entire circumference of your property and accurately measure the length of each section, you still need to know the exact angles between those lengths. Otherwise, when you try to match up the various lengths on paper, you’ll find that there are many shapes that fit the lengths you just measured.
How To Map Your Garden, v 1.3: The Correct Angle
Getting the angles right will make your boundary lengths all add up, and give you a boundary map that’s reasonably accurate to what the real world piece of land looks like. However, the issue with this is that it’s easier said than done. There exist automated surveying tools called Total Stations that will measure out angles and distances and elevation too (more on elevation in a bit) but they cost a lot (the South N6 Total Station costs Rs 2.2 lakhs on Amazon) and are definitely overkill if you’re not a professional surveyor. Also, even if you got just the angles right, you’d still have done a lot of work only to get the outline of the area. All the interior details would still be inaccurate.
Instead, it might be easier to forgo the angles and instead achieve greater accuracy by being more anal about trilateration. After all, to get very accurate trilateration, all you need to do is start with two known points in the real world, to begin marking out every other point on your land. The way this would work is, you pick two features on your boundary: say a couple of trees, or pillars or large boulders that will not move (or even two sides of a single boulder.)
Then, from those two points, you measure the accurate distance to a third point on your boundary. And from any two of those three points, measure a fourth. And from any two of those four, measure a fifth. Ideally you’ll want to measure out your entire boundary this way, and then any relevant structures or features inside the area of your land.
This is, of course, the same method of trilateration as described above, but taken to a ridiculously accurate level. Using just the two starting points, you can build up a wealth of accurate data about all the points on your land. This data can then be used with the compass method described above, to draw a map. And you can even draw curves with this method:
Drawing a curve on a map that’s accurate to a curve in the real world is a huge pain in the butt. But with this method of accurate trilateration, you can do it. Be warned, though, it will take you multiple attempts, copious note-taking, huge attention to detail and lots of help. You may want to invest in a laser distance measure, to be as accurate as possible. Here’s how to do it:
If you have a section of land to be mapped that is a curve, simply mark out the start and end of the curve as two of your many points, then use as many points along the curve as you need, to get the profile of the curve and recreate it. In the diagram below, the distance from Points A and B (these are called Baseline Points) to each point on the curve will need to be measured, and then recreated on the map. But after all that effort, your map will be nearly perfect.
How To Map Your Garden v1.4: The Height Of Accuracy
So far, we have been concerned with mapping out our land in two dimensions – length and breadth. Even the most accurate, painstakingly measured map we’ve made thus far, only deals with a top-down view. It doesn’t capture any information about the slope of the land.
To be honest, you don’t always need this information. In our specific case, because we were doing away with the slope, to map it out in the first place would have been a waste of time. Also, for pieces of land where the slope is negligible or where the area being mapped is very small, it may not be needed. (Again, it depends on what you’re OK with recording and losing, in terms of information about your land.) But what do you do when you need that information? Well, then you need to start worrying about contour maps.
A contour map is a visual representation of the different drops in elevation. You can decide what increments you’d like to measure – every 3 ft, every 10 ft, etc – as long as each line is a consistent distance apart.
A lot of times, you don’t need to have the contour lines on your map. You can simply use a tool like an A-Frame to pound stakes along the ground and observe the slope of the land and make your plans in real life, rather than on paper. The map can continue to be a 2-dimensional representation of the world and your planning for the slope can all happen in the real world.
how to use an A-Frame:
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you really need elevation information on your map. Maybe it’s a large-scale project and you need to plan out the farm in really granular detail. If this was our land and not a rental property, and we were in the observation phase, we would want this information too, to map out the water flow, and plan catchment areas and ponds.
Obtaining height information for your land can happen at the same time as trilateration. Just as you have two known points from where you start measuring distance, you need a single point from where you measure height information, and a bunyip:
A standing body of water will always work to reach a level state, because physics. You can use this effect on a small scale with some clear plastic tubing, filled with water, also called a bunyip. You’ll need two people to accomplish this task. Each person holds onto one end of the tubing and as one person walks around the landscape, the water in the tubing will remain level.
Each end of the tubing should be bound to a solid measuring stick and marked every inch (or centimeter, or whatever unit), starting from the top and going down. Your sticks don’t have to be the same height as long as your measurements start from the top.
Starting from the top, mark every inch (or centimeter, or whatever unit) all the way down.
You can use wire or tape to attach the tubing to the measuring stick.
To gauge if you are at the same level or not, one person should remain stationary while the other person walks around. Place the measuring sticks solidly on the ground, then compare numbers. If the numbers are the same for both ends, you are on level ground! If not, one of you is higher in elevation than the other. The person with the higher number is on higher ground. You can quickly measure the difference in elevation by subtracting the higher number from the lower number.
In this fashion, you can add height data to each point that you have measured for distance. What you are looking for is the height difference between the person standing on the Baseline Point, and the person who is at the point being measured. When you have the height data, you can add it to the map and see the general slope of the land. This will still not give you an accurate contour map, but it will tell you the general direction of the slope.
Pro tip: Dissolve some dye or ink into the water, to see the level clearly.
Adding elevation data to your map is really playing in the big leagues. You need to be even more thorough with your note-taking, and ensure that you’re as meticulous about measurements as possible.
How To Map Your Garden v2.0: Everything Including The Kitchen Sink
When nothing but the most accurate information will do, you need to abandon all hope (and everything you learned here today) and enter the world of Cartesian coordinates. Before you panic, though, let me assure you that this is in fact the most logical way to record information about points on land in order to make a map. The only problem is, it’s incredibly time consuming and the smallest error will throw things off completely. So long as you stick to the instructions, though, you will be fine.
Cartesian coordinates are simply a fancy way of describing points in relation to each other. Imagine a graph with an X and Y axis:
Great. Now look at this one with a point on it, and numbers added:
The graph above shows a point at 3,3. This means its 3 points above and 3 points to the right of the 0,0 mark (which is where the X and Y axes connect). Now picture the same graph with more points on it, each point being a corner of a rectangle:
Do you see how you can in fact make a line between those points and describe each point with a coordinate?
1. A is 3,3
2. B is 3,5
3. C is 2,3
4. D is 2, 5
If you understood how that can work for a regular shape, imagine an irregular shape. Like… the shape of your piece of land.
So How Does It Work?
In order to actually map your land using Cartesian co-ordinates, therefore, you need to:
- Make a grid. For the purpose of this example, let’s say we do a 1-meter grid, This means the X and Y axis basically has points at 1-metre intervals. You’re going to want to choose whether you want to mark the points that fall on the boundary only, or whether you want to mark all the points on your land. This is something that, once again, your needs will dictate.
How many points are there? Depends on how finely resolved you want your map to be! If you like, you can record a point every 10 centimeters, and you’ll have an incredibly high-resolution map that shows you every tiny bump and dip in the ground (this is so painful to do, though, that the mere thought of attempting it gives me anxiety). Or you could mark a point every 1 meter. Or every 10. It all depends on what resolution you want. Note that you can even change your resolution, eventually. It just means that some of your map will have more detail than the rest of it.
- Place the 0,0 mark (where the X and Y axis intersect) in such a way that every point on your land is a positive number. (In math terms, therefore, every point on your land is in Quadrant 1.)
- Start noting points on your land. You’ll need to start at the 0,0 mark and measure how many meters on the X axis (IE to the right, or East) the specific point you’re measuring is, then how many meters on the Y axis (IE to the front, or North) it is. Note that this has nothing to do with geographic or magnetic North and East, it’s just a term to describe the X and Y axes. Although, if you wanted you could in fact totally align your grid with North and then have North and East mean exactly what you want.
- Mark Elevation: Using whatever method you like, find out the elevation difference (in meters) between 0,0 and the point you’re measuring.
- Repeat for all points. Just remember that for each point you’re going to record at least 4, (or maybe 5) bits of data:
- The point number (so you can keep track of how many points you have.
- The North coordinate (or Northing)
- The East coordinate (or Easting)
- The Elevation Difference
- A Description of the point (This one is optional)
- Tabulate all the information you’ve collected.
Here’s what the first few rows of your table might look like:
OK so you have this table with all your raw info, now what? Well, the painstaking way to use this information is to basically recreate by hand the map by drawing your grid to scale and then plotting your points like you would points on a graph. (Which is basically what this is.)
Or, You Could Go Quantum:
QGIS, formerly Quantum GIS (Geographic Information System) is an open source software that’s basically built from the ground up to ingest, process and visualize data like the table you’ve just built. While you’ve built it by hand, professional surveyors use Total Stations, theodolites and other surveying tools to generate exactly the same data in a fraction of the time and feed it into software like QGIS to make maps.
I like QGIS because it’s open source and free, but there’s also a bunch of software that you can pay for, from Autodesk’s Civil3D and Map3D to gvSIG, Whitebox GAT and a bunch of others. I’ve only ever used QGIS and it works just fine for my needs. Again, your mileage may vary.
I won’t get into how to use QGIS here, mainly because there’s just so much you can do with it. Their help pages are super friendly and Google is your friend. The hard part is gathering the data and placing it in the right format, which you know how to do now.
Where To From Here?
Well, once you have your co-ordinate points ingested into your mapping software of choice, you can then generate contour lines, print your map out and go crazy designing your perfect veggie garden, secret mountain hideaway or eco-warrior resort! Remember though, the map is only the first step. The real hard work comes afterwards!