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Landscaping Programs for the Everyday Dabbler

Image from Artifact Interactive’s Garden Planner

By William Uhl

There are countless programs for landscape and garden planning available, ranging from free web apps to hundred-dollar software packages. For the average homeowner thinking of planning out a new garden or backyard pool, it can be confusing and time consuming to find an up-to-date program at a reasonable price. The following three selections are low- or no-cost options for any adventurous amateur.

Artifact Interactive’s Garden Planner

Artifact Interactive’s Garden Planner is an excellent choice for the amateur landscaper who still wants to experiment, but wants to get into the nuts and bolts of their new backyard. Its top-down view is cleanly presented and accessible, 3D mode is incomplete but still a helpful addition, and its $34 price tag combined with a lengthy free trial period make it one of the best.

Aesthetically, the top-down design mode is excellent. Colorful icons show hundreds of different plants in clean detail. Each iris, marigold, and chrysanthemum has a unique graphic, many of which have multiple colors.  Surfaces like grass and dirt are able to naturally curve and bend seamlessly. The art style is clean, colorful, and readable: everything a landscape or garden planner needs to be.

Functionally, it misses a few elements that may be important to some landscapers — such as accounting for varying elevation — but for the majority of cases, Garden Planner has everything an amateur planner needs. Resizing, recoloring, rotating, labels, vegetable garden management; Garden Planner has the tools landscape tinkerers need to tweak things to their preference without presenting overwhelming lists of tools options.

The part that elevates Garden Planner from acceptable to excellent is the 3D view. Though it is still a work in progress, it’s impressive nonetheless. After laying out your garden, 3D view lets you walk about a 3D-rendered version of your landscape, complete with animated flowing water, lighting and shadows, and scaled 3D models of most of the plants and objects placed in your plot. Being able to walk around a digital version of your new backyard provides a tremendous sense of scale and gives a sense of what the final product might feel like. All of these elements combined make Garden Planner one of the strongest choices available.

Image from Better Home & Gardens’ Plan a Garden

Better Home & Gardens’ Plan-A-Garden

Better Home & Gardens’ Plan-A-Garden offers a satisfying, simple interface that trades off breadth of features for ease of use. Plan-A-Garden presents a two-dimensional canvas with a suburban backdrop that allows users to assemble arrangements of plants and decorations, as well as place lawns, dirt paths, and other textures by painting over the background picture.

For the drag-and-droppable objects, Plan-A-Garden will attempt to scale things relative to the picture’s “horizon line,” though with inconsistent results. That’s as close as it gets to a 3D mode; if you want to be able to plot a garden or backyard and digitally walk through it, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Plan-A-Garden is simple enough for someone anyone to hop right in and try some ideas. Importantly, it’s free to dabble with, and only $19 to expand the number of plants available, as well as opening up other features. Notably, the feature to put a custom picture as the backdrop is behind the $19 paywall.

Ultimately, Plan-A-Garden is a great tool for aesthetic decisions— deciding which kind of rhododendron looks best with bright red wax begonias, or if an old brick path should go on the left or right of the wisteria vine. When it comes to more practical concerns—estimating how much all of the plants onscreen will cost, or how far apart they need to be to coexist — Plan-A-Garden falls short.

Image from Gardena’s My Garden

Gardena’s My Garden

Lastly, Gardena’s My Garden provides an alternative to Garden Planner, losing the breadth of specific foliage selections and the 3D view, but bringing a stronger aesthetic presentation and several valuable new features, including an automatically-generated shopping list and an automatic sprinkler planner.

The pencil-drawn art style is by far and away one of the most pleasing aesthetics in landscape planners. It scales well and gives a personal, natural feel to the landscape creation process. Save for a glitch here and there, finished projects look more like professionally-composed illustrations than computer-generated mockups.

My Garden’s list of utilities are useful but inconsistent. The sprinkler planner’s automatic layout is fantastic when it works, though it will sometimes leave you high and dry, forced to manually lay out each sprinkler and manually connect them to faucets around your house. The automatic shopping list is entirely geared towards the sprinkler planner; while it will automatically create a shopping list for your sprinkler system once it’s complete, it doesn’t include anything else.

Overall, My Garden may be the best-looking piece of software to plan your backyard, but the limits of its features makes it hard to place at the top. However, as a completely free program without any hidden price tags or trial periods, it stands as a fantastic tool for assembling aesthetically pleasing backyards without spending a dime.