Is landscape design software worthwhile?

Free programs are good investments, but take care with pricier options.

Posted by Steve Graham | Feb 09, 2010
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Your yard is probably the largest design canvas on your property. It can be tricky to balance a manageable vegetable garden, lawn, shrubbery and flowerbeds while maintaining curb appeal and your lifestyle. Landscape design software can help you envision and lay out your garden revamp before starting the project.

Basic landscape design software is probably worth the price (especially the free programs). More advanced software has drawbacks, but can certainly pay for itself in the long run.

Good Values

Basic landscape design software is a cheap and fast way to reduce guesswork and try different ideas. It's easier to adjust the dimensions of a new rose garden with the click of a mouse than with digging and tilling. Free software offers plenty of help for simple projects.

Programs such as Showoff Home Design let you add features to your uploaded digital photos. Others, including Virtual Garden, help you sketch out the dimensions and features of your yard. Another option is Google's Sketchup. It is a free, three-dimensional design program. It does not have plant selections and other specific landscape design features, but it is very user-friendly.

Return on Investment

For complex landscaping, pricier software can bring a solid return on investment. A $70 software package or even the $250 upgraded version is probably cheaper than hiring a professional landscape designer. Realtime Landscaping Photo and other programs have a tool for visualizing the growth and development of plants over 20 years. This might save money in the long run. For example, you will know to plant fast-spreading species more sparsely and to buy fewer seedlings.

Other programs automatically generate a running cost estimate and materials list, helping save you money and stay on budget. It is also a good way to check the estimates provided by landscaping companies.

For more advanced projects, save the cost of hiring a professional architect by making the required blueprints and CAD drawings for zoning officials or contractors.

Drawbacks and Warnings

On the other hand, time spent with local experts can be more effective than time spend learning how to use advanced software. Many users complain about a steep learning curve for expensive landscape design programs. You may spend hours learning how to use a program and give up before laying out your new landscape. If you are working with professional landscapers, they will have already learned one of the programs, so you can save your time.

Similarly, Chief Architect Landscaping and Deck Designer lists 3,600 plants, which can be more overwhelming than helpful. Unless you want an exotic mail-order plant, it will be faster and easier to choose from the smaller variety at your trusted local nursery, where employees can advise you on the best plants for your specific soils and microclimate.

Use a free landscape design program for basic outdoor projects, but weigh the pluses and minuses of pricy software.

Photo credit: Idea Spectrum

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