(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 17, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Maybe you're tired of the graph paper and colored pencils. Or you never get around to actually designing a garden bed before you build it because you think you haven't got the patience (or the talent?) to draw it all out. There is garden design software out there for the home hobby gardener at a considerably lower cost than what landscaping professionals spend. If you have intermediate computer skills in the use of office software, you should be able to negotiate one of these landscaping programs. A few of them are basic enough for those of you who only use your computer for e-mail and Dave's Garden.
In this first part of a 4-part series I am going to attempt to review the available software for garden design. I am not a professional reviewer. There may be some that I miss and I apologize for that. I am taking a 'skinnied-down' approach of the method I used when purchasing million dollar software in my pre-retirement job. A series of questions was submitted to the vendor of each software package via e-mail concerning various features available, price and what platforms it runs on (i.e. Windows XP, Mac X). The responses have been compiled into a table. If no response was received, that is indicated in the table and I have included whatever information I could derive from their web site. I also asked what made their software different from their competitors'.
demoPrice DiComp* 3D Garden ComposerWin 2000,XP PC2D/ 3D 15,000800>500 modify pre-builtyes only for XPponds patios sheds yesno no parts of tutorial $39.95FLOWERscape*FLOWERscape Win 95-XP, MAC(see site) PC 3Dunkunk n/a no no no none no no no yes$34.26IDEA SpectrumRealtime Landscaping PROWin XP, Vista PC2D/ 3D32003200> 1600 exterior yes yes
pools spas ponds decks patios sheds w'fallsyesmaterial list no yes$99.95 Individual Software Total 3D Home & Landscape Design Suite 9.0 Win PC 3D460046001000's yes a few
yespools spas ponds decks patios sheds w'falls yes yes no no$39.95Plan3D*Plan3DWin 2000, XP, Vista PC2D/ 3D unk unk 5,000 inc plants yes yes yespools spas decks patios yes unk no yes$2.95 mthPlangardenPlangarden Any Web 2D 45 45 vegs 0 no no no no no noyes-45 days yes $20 yr/ $36 3 yrsPunch!Master Landscape Pro and Home Design vs 10Win 95-XP, Vista PC2D/ 3D >2,000 unk unk exterior yes yespools spas decks yes yes no no$69.99 RiverdeepTurboFloorPlan Landscape and DeckWin 2000, XP, Vista PC2D/ 3D 7,500 unk unk no no yespools decks sheds yes yes no no$49.95** 3D Home Architect Design Suite 6 n/a PC2D/ 3D n/a n/a n/a yes, full featured no yespools ponds decks patios sheds yes no n/a n/a n/a
*Indicates vendor did not respond to questionnaire. Reviewer has completed grid from information available on vendor's web site.
**This program is no longer sold or being upgraded by the original developer, Riverdeep. I have added it at the end of the table for comparison because it is the one with which I am most familiar. I purchased it around 2002 and it may still be available from a 3rd party seller.
3D Garden Composer by DiComp, Inc.
This moderately-priced package seems to have a lot going for it in the way of unique features. In addition to a grow-by-year view, it has a 4-season view. This should be included in all gardening software in my opinion. It is so unrealistic to see the mums blooming with the daffodils. You can add animals, such as swans and horses, vehicles like bicycles and yachts (yes, yachts!) and shear your shrubs into topiaries with a shearing wizard. A printable garden care calendar is one of the more practical features. Upgrades are half-price and the software is multi-lingual (English, Spanish, French). There's even a stereo mode you can use if you happen to have a pair of 3D glasses around from the last 3D movie you saw...if you really want your garden to pop out at you. The 3D graphics are not the best and some of the features are unnecessary but look like a lot of fun. It's worth looking at for the 4-season view alone.
FLOWERscape from Voudette, Inc.
This is a very simple (in theory) piece of software. I say "in theory" because I have no way of knowing if it is, indeed, simple to use or not. Some of the links on their web site are broken and the 'How FLOWERscape Works' tab doesn't show much. It look like a very basic a) choose a background b) choose a shape for the bed c) add the plants. No overhead views, no buildings, no walk-thrus, no pools or water features...just flowers. If there is any more to it, I didn't see it. I would stick to colored pencils and paper or try one of the free sites listed at the end of the article. You can take a look at the web site and decide for yourself.
Realtime Landscaping PRO from IDEA Spectrum
Realtime Landscaping PRO is the most expensive package I reviewed at $99.95. They have another product, Realtime Landscaping PLUS that, according to a contact from the company, is the same package except that it does not include the water features. The PLUS product sells for $20 less ($79.95). As you would expect, there are more features in this package than the less expensive ones and the graphics are better. Even considering that, I found this software pretty impressive. There are 'wizards' to help you with quick starts for a house, landscape, pond and pool; also for importing pictures and downloading models from the Google 3D Warehouse*** to add more objects. If you have a lot of planning to do and keep all of your gardens in your planning software as I do, it may be worth the relatively small investment. The image at the right is one I put together very quickly of the front of my house. 
*** Author's note: if you get proficient at Google SketchUp you can build your own 3D objects and import them
plan3D from plan3D, Inc.
Here is an online-only tool that you subscribe to on a yearly basis for the best price. The fairly sophisticated software has free updates and new object models that are available to you immediately because of the online format. You can load the software on your PC, but you still need to be connected to the internet for the object models because of the size of the files. The building tools are full-featured including interiors, but you can also drop in a pre-built home. The 3D graphics are average. They state that they will add new models at the request of users and you can use your own texture files. If you decide to drop your subscription, you will still have access to your plans and even the ability to modify and print, but you will no longer be able to save. My main concern with the online format is if the company goes out of business you will lose all of your data. If you have put a lot of time into your plans this could be a huge loss.
plangarden.com from plangarden
This program is totally unique in the group. It is an online vegetable garden planner/tracker. As you add your plants, you choose a variety, give a date when you started the plants indoors if it applies, and a planting date. The software fills in approximate dates to maturity based on the variety you choose. There are 2 nice logs; one for tracking your harvest (by individual plant if that is way you recorded it, or by variety) and another for daily activity. You can share experiences with other gardeners, by zone if you wish, on their forum. Suggestions for improvements to the software are accepted on the forum as well. Also, you can choose to make your garden shareable or private. The web site touts the advantage of having your garden design and records online because you don't have to worry about hard drive failure or backups. This can be a big negative, though, if the company goes out of business as I stated above. All your data on your plan and harvest will be lost. Sign up for the 45-day full-feature free trial if you are interested. 
Punch! Master Landscape Pro from Punch! Software
This is the top-of-the-line in the landscape series from Punch! Software. It includes a long list of what they call Power Tools; Deck, Fence, Pool & Topography Designers, Plant Editor, 3D Custom Workshop and many more. There are video tutorials to help the less-experienced user get started. As you gain confidence with the program you can try working with more of the power tools. The 3D graphics look good from what I can see, as you would expect on a higher end product. 
Total 3D Home & Landscape Design Suite 9.0 from Individual Software, Inc.
Total 3D Home & Landscape seems to be a very economical solution with an excellent set of features for the price. There is no free trial or online demo, although the company representative said the demo will be available soon. At right is just one page of the product brochure...the one which describes the landscape-oriented piece of the software. You can view the entire brochure at the web site. Included are 2,500 photos of designer homes & landscapes for inspiration and ideas. There are also sample home and garden plans.
TurboFloorPlan Landscape & Deck from Riverdeep
As near as I can tell from the web site, this product only allows the addition of a house by importing a photo. If you want to build and/or use a pre-built house, you will have to move up to Riverdeep's TurboFloorPlan Home & Landscape Pro, at $129.95. Also, this software supports plans from versions 5-8 of 3D Home Architect which is where I have the drawings of my house, but this will only be useful to a limited number of people. Some of the features that I liked in the other packages are included here; four-season view, Google SketchUp imports, 3D walk-through. It's difficult to make a judgment about the quality of the graphics with what is available on the web site.
There is also some bargain software available. Probably no longer supported by the manufacturer, these are full-blown versions. You should be careful to ascertain that the title you are interested in is compatible with your system. There are several at Super Home Center. Even better are the two totally free planners I found online; Better Homes and Gardens Plan-A-Garden and BBC Gardening Virtual Garden. They aren't sophisticated, but you can get a rough idea of how a particular plan might look. Costs nothing to check it out.
It's winter, gardeners! The perfect time for planning. And for learning something new. Look for the second installment in this series next week when we will take a look at which program is right for you.
 Garden plan screen shot used with permission from IDEA Spectrum.
 Garden plan screen shot used with permission from plangarden.
 Brochure image used with permission from Punch! Software.
 Brochure image used with permission from Individual Software, Inc.