(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 2, 2008. Your comments are welcome but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not able to respond to your questions.)

Please don't be intimidated by your new purchase. It won't be as difficult as it may seem to you if you take it one step at a time. Now I can't help with specifics because I'm not familiar with every package out there and could not cover them all here even if I was. What I will do is give some examples from the program I use, 3D Home Architect Design Suite 6*.

  • There is one thing I want you to remember as you move along...use the HELP feature. That's what it is there for.
  • Take your time. If there is a tutorial available, either within your software or online at the vendor site, view it. A picture is worth more than hours of aggravation.
  • Read the manual. It will usually be written in logical steps.
  • Don't try to start out designing a big garden with 30 or 40 different types of plants. Do a simple practice run. Or 2 or 3.

ImageWith some of the programs that have home-building tools you will start with laying out your lot. For me, it was important to get this right because I also used the software to design my house. So I put in my lot right down to the degree of N-S orientation and lot lines to the inch. I did have some trouble mastering this, as my lot is a very odd shape and includes some area beneath a flood control 'lake'. Most of you can just draw an area that is roughly the size/shape of your lot. There are some limitations for those of you with large acreage (this can be dealt with by using multiple designs). Some of the simpler programs just do garden beds and skip this altogether.

Depending on what your software offers and your preferences, you will probably have to either:

  1. build your house
  2. choose a pre-built model similar to your house
  3. import a photograph of your house

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3DHA house built to actual specs from blueprints 3DHA Building Wizard/ no pre-built models 3DHA photo import/some real, some virtual plants

Now you should be ready to start laying out a garden. This is a case of 'from the ground up.' If you have one of the more sophisticated packages with terrain management, you will probably want to do this first...add any hills, valleys, etc. My whole back yard slopes down to the lake with a quick drop off as you near the water. You can see this denoted by the the green lines in the lot layout above. I noted that there are provisions for raised beds in some of the titles. I simply handled it as a small berm with the terrain tools.

Generally, you will designate an overall background for your lot...probably grass. Then as you add beds you can choose a different texture for those areas; stone, various mulches, sand, etc. The number of choices will vary with the package you bought. There will be some kind of drawing tool and a way of measuring the area so you can build it to scale. In my program, you draw the bed and then just select a texture as one of it's 'properties'. Properties are the physical (or in this case, virtual) attributes of an item, such as height, color, etc. In almost all software, not just garden design, a right-click on an item will give you a list that includes 'Properties'; click on it to view or change the properties of that item. In the first image below, you can see that I have selected the whole bed by clicking on an area with no plants (the points around the bed are blue). The selection box appeared when I right-clicked, then the 'Properties' box when I selected it from the list. One of the properties is 'Appearance', which can be viewed or changed in this box. There is long list of materials to choose from, most of which are not appropriate (paint colors, fabric swatches, metal finishes, etc.). You would pick from the list of 'Landscape Materials'. The last image is a try-out of what it would look like with white stone. Fortunately, it is easily changed back to the original mulch!

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Play with the drawing tool a bit until you get the hang of it and are satisfied with the way your finished product looks. You should be able to 'undo' or 'erase' or 'delete' to get rid of anything you don't like. The more 'points' you make on a curve the smoother your curve will look. After you are done drawing the outline, you should be able to grab the individual points and adjust them (drag and drop) to further smooth out your curves. To make a bed for foundation planting, just follow the straight lines of the house for the sides of the bed. Some of the more sophisticated programs have curve tools.

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Now is probably the time to add other basic foundation items, such as brick or stone walls, patios and pathways. Follow the instructions that are in your manual or tutorial.

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Now for the fun part...choosing the plants! The plant catalog, which many programs have, has a lot of information about the plant; size, color, bloom times, zone for perennials, pictures, light and water requirements and an image of what the plant will look like in your plan. Generally, you will choose your plant from the catalog, or a list of plants you have compiled from the catalog, and drag/drop it where you want it in your landscape. This part should be fairly intuitive. If you don't like where it is, select it and drag it to a new location. They should have common plants like Black-eyed susan, Rudbeckia hirta 'Goldsturm', that so many us have in our gardens. Most programs will also include the Latin, or scientific, names.

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3DHA plant catalog Selecting the plant ~ drag/drop Viewing in 3D

I did find that my program was somewhat limited in the variety of plants that were offered. If you have the same problem, you can choose a plant that has a similar look regardless of the name. All you are looking for here is an idea of what your garden will look like. After all, we are gardeners and we understand that all of these plants will not bloom at the same time the way they look here, unless you have a package that includes a four seasons growth view. What you are looking for is spacing, height, color, the ability to move the plants around until you get it the way you want it. Two paragraphs up I discussed 'properties'. Read your manual or check your 'Help' feature for how to resize plants in your program, but you should be able to view the size and other attributes of the plant, and possibly edit them, in 'Properties'.

ImageMuch like picking your plants, you will be able to add decor items, like trellises, arbors, benches and birdbaths. It all depends on what is available to you. But the principles are exactly the same as working with the plant items, including resizing and drag/drop. And if the item you want is not available, get creative. Pick something that has the shape you want and resize and color it to look like the item you want. I needed square terra cotta stepping stones and there were none in the catalog. So I took a square planter, made it 1" high and colored it terra cotta. It worked quite nicely (see image at right). You will have more choices in some packages. Some of the software allows imports of Google SketchUp™ objects, so you can either find them online or make your own.


This little butterfly/hummingbird garden in my backyard has a bench, birdbath & feeders, trellis and a weathervane

Seeing your own house surrounded by beautiful flowers or great foundation shrubbery is wonderful. You're not happy with it? Try again! If you have a package with 3D rendering, try looking at it after you get some plants in place. It's really quite amazing! Then try the walk- or fly-around...fun!! Whatever you decided to buy should be a great tool to design a new garden bed for spring...or redesign an old one.


Oh, yeah, did I mention that you should USE THE HELP feature!!? Pardon my shouting, but I used to teach software classes, and simple answers to many questions are yours just by clicking on HELP.

Image Get going, spring's just around the corner. Good luck!!

*Author's note: as I mentioned in the previous installment, 3DHA is no longer being offered or supported by Riverdeep.