Recommended landscape software for home use

garden design software

Photo by Jane Gates

There are so many different landscape software programs on the market it is hard to know which software to choose for home use. Different software programs have different assets and liabilities. There are even some free programs available. And some of the paid landscape software programs allow you a free trial period to check them out before your buy.

There are some impressive programs available for professional landscape design, but there is a serious learning curve that is likely to demand more time than would make sense for home use. Professional software is costly, usually well over $1000 for most programs. Programs designed for home use can be simplistic and do not have the flexibility of more elaborate programs, but they should be sufficient to help the homeowner lay out ideas for do-it yourself design.

Some free programs might give you all you need. ‘Virtual Garden Design’ is produced by the BBC and it will give you a fundamental virtual view of how your design will look, although you won’t get a full plan.

The BBC’s ‘VirtualLandscape Design’ also gets high recommendations. You can either download it or use it on the BBC website and but you will need to use another program —  Adobe Shockwave — to run it properly. It’s a nice little program if you want to do some home garden designing in 3d.

‘Plan a Garden’ landscape software is a Better Homes and Gardens program that offers easy drag and drop plan so you can place plants, water features and rocks into a basic layout.

Although this is not exclusively a landscape software, Google ‘Sketch-Up’ offers a 3D modeling program that is quite impressive for a free program. It is the bare bones of a professional program with a lot of limitations, but it will afford a realistic format handy for playing around with home landscape designs.

‘Smart Draw Landscape Design Software’ has a nice paid program that most homeowners rate well. Smart Draw also offers a landscape program for free. Like most free programs, your flexibility is limited and you will have to work with the templates you are given, but you can still do a lot with this free landscape design version.

‘Design Workshop Lite’ is a free, highly simplified 3D version of the paid ‘Design Workshop Classic Home Design’ and ‘Design Workshop Professional’ softwares. You can get some basic, useful renderings, but don’t expect a lot of flexibility. Still, it’s not bad for the price.

‘Show Off ‘ is a program that takes a different approach. You start with a picture of your property and drag and drop in various features so you can try out different ideas and see how they will look. This basic program needs to be used while you are connected online directly to the Show Off site. More detailed design will require you to subscribe for their features.

‘Garden Planner 2.3’ from Artifact Interactive is an easy, wizard-driven free software that pretty much lets you click and drag elements onto your landscape format. It can be useful for working out an overview and some details of your landscape. A reasonably good software, it is free for a 15 day trial offer, and only costs around $20 to buy if you decide to buy it.

Be aware that these free and low-cost programs do not actually offer you the ability to do much drawing. But they can give you a chance to play around with locating different features in your property to help you design your property.

Look for the features you need. More is not necessarily better. And seek out software that is user-friendly. Like in all software program purchases, adequate software support and ease of use is also a priority.  Since different reviewers do not necessarily agree with landscape software ratings, here is another list of software that is rated by Landscaping Software Review as the top 2010 top ten list. These are not free landscape software programs but they range from about $20 to $90. This is list starts with the highest on their ratings list.

Realtime Landscaping PLUS

Landscape Deck & Patio

Home & Landscape Design

Landscaping & Deck Designer

HGTV Home & Landscape Platinum Suite

Total 3D Home, Landscape & Deck

Turbo FLOORPLAN Landscape & Deck

Imagine Pro

3D Home Architect Home & Landscape Deluxe Suite

3D Landscape Design for Everyone

Some other landscape software programs for home use that are under $100 and have gotten high reviews are ‘LandDesigner 3D’, ‘Better Homes and Gardens’, ‘Punch Super Home’, and ‘Landscape and Garden Designer’. Most of these have a free trial period to check them out first and see if you like them.

What is a Beautiful Landscape?


An arbor in one kind of beautiful landscape

An arbor in one kind of beautiful landscape



What is a Beautiful Landscape?

“A beautiful landscape” can mean many different things to different people. For some, the only landscapes that will qualify require hundreds of thousands of dollars in elaborate construction.For others, the most beautiful landscape is the one nature created – with no sign of human intervention. For most, the concept is somewhere in between.

If you are building a landscape for your home – or for any building, the best choice is something that will not conflict with the design of the structure or that of the general surrounding area.A lake of emerald green grass surrounding an adobe styled house or pouring down the side of a scrub-textured chaparral creates visual discord. A wild English garden surrounding a formal building looses its charm and merely appears unkempt. A formal geometrical garden would look absurd surrounding a log cabin. This does not mean you can’t have a garden styled to your taste even if the house style you bought isn’t. It does mean that to make both beautiful, some thought has to go into making idea, taste and reality mesh.

You can create illusion of landscape styles even if you don’t have enough space or money to re-create you ideal. A “Beverly Hills” mansion landscape feel can be designed on a shoestring budget by creating miniature areas as focal points.

Do-it-yourself folks can save a lot of money. But since most people don’t have the knowledge or experience of professionals, it’s not a bad idea to spend considerable time doing research, or call in consultants for advice before diving into landscaping projects. Research and creative time is spent by the best professional landscape designers and architects.It does account for much of their billable time.Ideas do not pop into a creative’s head and drop onto the paper instantaneously. Also make sure you hire the right help for the right kind of expertise you need.

With the ‘globalizing’ of communications, generic plans have become popular and practical. Adapting a small number of basic designs to different layouts and plant environmental needs has created a whole industry that gives what appears to be a custom design at a less expensive price. If you are creating your own design, you need to allow yourself that time for thinking and researching. Then comes the adaptation of those ideas to the page format so you can delegate whatever you need to or work on the plan over time without forgetting important aspects.

Another point to consider about beauty, is that not everyone thinks the same plants are beautiful. I find some folks like a neat, contained plant to be beautiful whereas someone else finds the same look too stodgy and prefers a natural sprawl or wilder look. Colors are very personal. We probably start associating our feelings with different colors as early as in our pre-verbal childhood.Maybe we physically see colors differently depending on how our organic eyes and brains process the light waves. Who knows why we often prefer one color over another. And I don’t suppose it matters. But some people feel quite strongly in favor or against various flower or leaf colors.

Plant Profiles: Acacia redolens

flowering acacia

Clusters of fuzzy yellow flowers bloom on the Acacia redolens in late winter or early spring.



Acacias are attractive trees and shrubs that are mostly native to Australia. The low-growing shrub, Acacia redolens, has become an ideal ground-cover plant for open spaces in hot-summer climates. The Acacia redolens is not only an attractive evergreen that covers itself with hundreds of fuzzy little flowers in late winter or early spring, but it is a perfect shrub for covering large areas since it can easily spread twelve feet in diameter while reaching only two to four feet in height.These same attributes make it ideal for hillsides where fewer plants with a larger spread will make maintenance easier.

An early bloomer, branches studded with tiny little yellow puff-like flowers that will turn the whole plant into a mounding carpet of soft color. Other times of the year the leaves will stay green. This plant accepts dry, fast-draining, poor soil and is a fine choice for wildfire resistant landscaping, particularly the A.‘Low Boy’ and A.‘Desert Carpet’ varieties, with their low profile habit of growth. It can take hot desert-like sun and requires remarkably low water. As a result, this Acacia is becoming a popular choice for carpeting hillsides in California and other inland, dry-summer climates.Acacia redolens on hillside

The yellow-flowering Acacia redolens ‘Low Boy’ blends with green to make a decorative patchwork effect on this hillside.

Landscape design costs

Garden design

Landscape plans aren’t just for fancy gardens. A good plan will save ANY homeowner money.

If you have a new landscape to do or an old one to renovate, this is the perfect time to do it. Since housing values are not likely to rise radically for some time, fixing up your home will make it a good place to ride out the real estate slump.Landscape design costs are only likely to rise in the future, so there’s no real value in waiting. And with the cost of gas and the discomfort of travel, you might want to convert your property into your own vacation land. The challenge is how to get the best value for your money.

Money is still tight for most people so spending needs to be done wisely. Pricing out garden design today is important. That might even mean spending more than you planned at the beginning to make sure you get the best deal in the long run. Please be aware that you rarely get more than you pay for, but you can certainly get less. Do some serious research before hiring help. Landscape costs can vary. Make sure the lowest bid isn’t giving you the lowest quality that will lead, eventually, to the highest expense. Grill the “salesman” because a good “salesman” (and you are not getting “free consultations” – you are getting free “sales calls”) will be focused on impressing you. Ask questions. Listen carefully. No one’s going to tell you he or she is cutting corners that may cost you dearly in the future. If you want something personal, you need to sit down with someone who can spend hours to get to know you and your space. Most landscapers and nursery people cannot afford to take the time to do this. “I wish I’d known to seek extra help,” Jeanine, a Santa Clarita homeowner, confessed to me last week. Speaking of her landscaper, she said: “He agreed with everything I said and gave me no guidance … now the trees I had chosen are getting taller all the time and I need to top them at least twice a year to keep them from getting into the neighbor’s gutters…. I thought they’d stay smaller.”

Most landscapers are not plant experts and depend on the ‘regular dozen’ plants that are commonly grown, easy to guarantee and offer a great mark-up for the installers. These lower-risk, high profit plants may or may not be the best choices for looks or for the spot where they are being planted.

Some installers want to impress you with a pretty planting right away. It is not cost efficient to consider what disasters may occur when these pretty plantings begin to grow into their normal size. Check to see if whoever is coming up with your design has creative skills. Some, but not many landscapers or nursery people have a design or artistic background. Fewer are imaginative. And fewer still, can take the time to design with safety and future growth in mind. This is NOT to say avoid landscapers and nursery help! Both of these have important roles in the creation of your landscape. Just make sure the person you select has what you need. At the beginning of a landscape project, you need to focus on making the decisions of how your space will function as a design both practically and aesthetically. If you’re not confident you can do this yourself or that your nursery or landscaper has a talented designer involved in this critical part of the project, then call in a consultant, designer, design coach or landscape architect (depending on the kind of job you need) to insure the cost of your landscaping will be well spent. And be careful not to negate what you have learned from an expert if someone later promises to fulfill all your wishes for the price you want. If the expert quoted high, there is usually a reason for it. I have seen so many jobs where the hundreds saved in the beginning cost tens of thousands several years later. The landscaper honestly thought the experts’ advise was in excess since he could get the same result cheaper. But most landscapers are not experts in all areas, even if they believe themselves to be so. I repeat. You rarely get more than you pay for, but you can certainly get less.

Just like everything else in life, taking the time to do something right at the beginning of a project will usually be the most economically sound choice. If you can’t afford the full job, then it’s better to do it in pieces than to do it badly. Or prioritize your expenditures — not by emotion — but by practicality. Once again, if you are unsure, spend the extra to call in an unprejudiced expert. This person is being paid to focus on your needs, not any other part of the job. He/she has nothing to gain by giving advice that isn’t to your advantage. It is confusing out there. Everyone claims to know what is right, yet I have to admit I’ve seen expensive disasters (or potential future disasters) in a remarkably high percentage of local landscapes. Despite the recession, building materials and construction overheads have soared. It’s hard to do even a very small, simple landscape installation for less than $15,000 and larger or more ornate landscapes can easily cost hundreds of thousands. Isn’t it worth $500 to $3000 to make sure it’s done right? (These are prices for the Southern California area. They will vary considerably around the country.)

If you already have your property landscaped, this may be a good time to give it a bit of a garden makeover so you can get the most out of your backyard this year. Think about what you want to improve or add to your garden. You can build a patio, add a fire pit or spruce up your space with some new outdoor furniture. You might want to add a shade or patio cover or an umbrella for sunny days. And don’t forget to get that barbecue cleaned up for use. Or maybe it’s time for a new one? You can also build a play area for the kids or pets. Or how about really splurging and constructing a sport court or a backyard putting green to keep everyone entertained, guests and family alike?

As summer approaches and money remains tight, look to your own backyard to ride out the rest of the economic slump in comfort. And not only will you be enjoying your property now, but the investment you make is likely to add even more value to your home when property values once again begin to rise.

How to shop for landscape help

Shopping for landscape help

Shopping for landscape help

Money is always an issue when it comes to building. But the price isn’t the only thing to look for when you shop for landscape help.

Remember that everyone in business needs to make some kind of a profit in order to stay in business. Remember, also, that most folks are not trying to ‘rip you off’. But keep in mind that quality and knowledge vary drastically no matter how good or bad the intent may be. A bid that is too low will often produce substandard work and/or materials, or a professional/worker who has underbid and is taking a loss. Either is undesirable. Substandard work may not show up at first but is likely to cost you much more in the long run than spending more to get the job done right in the first place. On the other hand, the highest bid may not necessarily buy you the best job either. If the person you are paying top prices to has a good reputation for giving quality, experience and knowledge, then you are likely getting your money’s worth. If it is simply the highest bid, you may be paying for padding.  Shopping for your landscape expert will require more than a superficial look.

With landscaping, as with most construction jobs, it is vital that the preparation job is done thoroughly. Prep is without doubt the most tedious and time consuming part of any job of building. But invariably, when short cuts are taken, the project goes wrong in the future, usually costing many times more to tear it out and put it right, than it would have cost to do the job right in the first place.   Landscapes that look lovely when put in can grow into tangled messes if the mature sizes were not considered in the original planting. Hardscapes – and even your house – can be endangered by mistakes in soil levels or invasive roots. Misplaced hardscape features may turn into disasters in the future if they were not properly thought out or built with adequate preparation.  If you shop for landscape help from a person with knowledge, experience and integrity you are likely to avoid such mistakes.

The same warnings go for shopping for landscape designers, landscape architects and plant experts as well as for contractors and maintenance workers. There are all degrees of talent and knowledge involved in these fields.  Once again, check into each person’s experience. Make sure references are unbiased. Look at pictures or jobs that have been done. Do your homework. There are many talented, reputable and comfortable-to-work-with people out there. You can use them on your team as anything from advisers to do-it-all experts. Consider price, but don’t let that alone prejudice you. Consider experience, knowledge and talent. Consider how you feel when you talk to your experts. Do you feel you are being lectured to or listened to? Which style best fits your needs and personality? Does the individual seem knowledgeable? Responsible? Doing research will increase your odds of success. Careful communication is essential. If you aren’t comfortable with the way a job is preceding, express your concerns. Sometimes better communication can fix the problem. If that doesn’t work, consider shopping for someone else before you throw good money after bad. The people working on your landscape are your team. You both take responsibility for the result. And a good working relationship with a knowledgeable, caring professional can bring the best of your dreams to life in your garden. Shop carefully for your landscape experts.

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Design a DIY Landscape

Landscape plan

You can design a landscape plan by hand or on the computer.

The most common mistake in gardening is failing to plan out a garden first. Even if you just scribble out your ideas on paper, you will be doing yourself an enormous favor. The more detailed and accurate your plan, the more money, frustration and regrets you will save yourself. You can call in an expert designer for the more complicated plans or even to coach you with your own design. Or you can design a DIY landscape plan for yourself.

The reason you want to start on paper is so you can see how things will flow together. Designing on paper gives you a chance to test out different ideas. It is much easier to change things with a delete key on the computer or a pencil eraser – and cheaper than having to make changes with heavy labor and expensive materials in the garden itself.

Start out by making a list of all the things you want in your DIY garden. Think of how you will be using your space: for exercise, pets, entertainment, growing edibles, relaxing etc. Then add appropriate items to your list like patios, swimming pools, lawns, pens, barbecues, raised vegetable gardens, water features, seating areas, driveways and patios and so on.

Sketch out how all these areas will work along with each other to form a useful yet decorative flow. Use walkways and paths to link events together. Remember safety and design areas like swimming pools and child play areas where they can be observed from the house. Place edible gardens like herb gardens and vegetables where they will be convenient to the kitchen. Designing wisely can then be made artistic and picturesque.

As you lay out a DIY plan place the permanent features – the hardscape – first. Also make sure you sketch out the important systems like drainage, irrigation and utility lines like electric and gas. Make sure you make provisions for future expansion – utility lines that can be capped but will be available for future use.

Once your overall design, hardscape and systems are in place, you can then start designing the living part of your design or the softscape. Start with the largest features; the trees. Plant the right kind of tree in the right location so it will fit properly when mature, the roots will not interrupt any of your hardscape as the tree grows. Consider the sun at different times of the year and plan shade from your tree so it enhances your garden. Then move on to specking out the different kinds of plants you will use. Always plan for the mature size. (You can always fill in with smaller plants and annuals while the newly-planted are too small to fill their space.)

The final part of you plan can involve adding final details like décor, supplementary plant lists, edging materials and other practical and decorative elements. Do plenty of research. The more you know about design and the elements you include, the better your design will be. Like any do-it-yourself project the success of your project is directly proportional to the wisdom with which it is pot together. And one of the wisest things you can do in a DIY landscape design is a plan.