If you really want to get to know your site, get yourself a comfortable, lightweight lawn chair. (No hammocks, please — I want you to be awake for this.) Put the chair anywhere in the yard. Then sit down in it and be quiet. Notice things. The whole point of this exercise is to stop doing and start perceiving. You see, this stage isn't about design or coming up with answers. For now, you want to just absorb as much as possible.
As you sit and observe your site, don't take any paper, drawing boards, cameras, cellphones, laptops, or other technology with you. The goal is to bond with your yard, so it should be just you and the yard without distractions.
After a few minutes of quiet contemplation, perceptions of all kinds start to pour in. For instance, you may suddenly see the distant tree that could be a lovely part of what landscape architects call a borrowed view (a view of something distant, off your property, that's good enough to incorporate into what you see from key points in your own landscape). Or you may notice the way the neighbor's trees cast a shadow on your lawn at this time of day.
As perceptions come to you, don't write down anything, and don't try too hard. Just enjoy the process of hanging out, and trust that your perceptions will still be in your memory when you're making design decisions later. After you've spent some time in your initial spot, move the chair someplace else. Move it to somewhere you never thought you'd sit, such as one of the corners of your yard. Plop down and notice what you perceive from there. Keep moving your chair around the yard, staying in each spot for at least 10 minutes or until impressions start pouring in.
Pay attention to how you feel as you sit in different locations throughout your yard. The goal is to find power spots (places where you feel really good and want to stay for a while). Finding these spots can help you make design decisions about the major-use areas in your yard. This exercise also helps you notice factors that you'll have to deal with if you want to enjoy that part of your property (such as noise from the neighbor's garage).
Repeat the entire process a few times: at different times of the day, when you're in different moods, and during different kinds of weather. If you really want to do this right, take several months or even a whole year for this stage of the design process. I suggest spending at least three or four weeks on this part of the process, with a minimum of three or four sessions.
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