Some people have vivid imaginations that allow them to picture their thoughts and ideas with great clarity. For the rest of us, there is landscape design software. If you're planning a landscape project, free design software can help you visualize your new outdoor space and lets you experiment with various elements of landscape design. The right design tools allow you to tweak and perfect your project before you start digging up the yard and can help you stay on track once the work begins.
Landscape Design Software Basics
When planning your outdoor space with the help of landscape design software, you can choose to use an online program, download free software to your computer or install a design app on your phone. Each program is unique, offering different features and suffering from different limitations. It can seem overwhelming to choose a program, but there are some things for which you can look to narrow the field. For starters, make sure the program you choose is truly free because sometimes, free trials of paid software expire before you're finished with them.
If your outdoor space is hilly or uneven, choose a software program that allows you to modify the terrain. This will give you a more accurate idea of what you can and can't do in your specific situation. You'll also want to find a software program with an easy-to-use interface. Unless you're planning to go pro, there is simply no reason to invest the time in a program with a steep and time-consuming learning curve.
Keep in mind what you plan to do with your finished design. If you plan to show your vision to a professional landscaper, make sure the software you choose allows you to print out your design, save a digital copy of it or otherwise share it. Take care not to limit your choices. Some landscape design software focuses heavily on plants or hardscape features but not both, which can limit your options.
Better Homes & Gardens's Plan-A-Garden
Created by the folks at Better Homes & Gardens, Plan-A-Garden is an excellent tool for those who love to DIY. The software is easy to use, and once you've completed your design, it allows you to print out the design itself along with a shopping list of the tools and supplies you'll need to turn your idea into a reality.
Plan-A-Garden also lets you input your U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone. When you do, the program will offer only plants that grow well where you live, making it easy for even novice gardeners to choose plants that will thrive. The program also lets you easily drag and drop a wide variety of items into your garden design, including fire pits, swing sets and sheds. According to creator Better Homes & Gardens, the program lets you upload a picture of your lawn so you know how your plan will actually look in your space.
There are a few negatives about Plan-A-Garden, however. For one, you'll need to give Better Homes & Gardens your email address in order to access the software. You'll also find that although you can look at your design from a bird's-eye view or in 3-D, you can't turn or otherwise manipulate the image to view it from alternative angles.
GARDENA's myGarden Program
The myGarden program from GARDENA lets you design your landscape entirely online, eliminating the need to download any software to your phone or computer. MyGarden is extremely user friendly and intuitive, making it fun to work with. It also takes garden planning a step further than some other programs, allowing you to plan an irrigation or sprinkler system if necessary.
If you're not sure where to start, myGarden offers several templates you can use as is or customize to get the basic shape and layout of your landscape. If you prefer, the program allows you to map out your unique space on your own and makes doing so quite easy. This software is perfect for gardeners who aren't super tech savvy and for those who want to start planning right away. This program lets you jump right into designing, letting you create an account only if you like the software and plan to stick around rather than forcing the issue.
GARDENA's program shows your lawn as a drawing, however, so you won't see your new landscape in the more realistic detail that some software provides. While myGarden does offer excellent hardscape options, it's somewhat limited in the plants it offers. Unlike many other landscape design software programs, you'll notice that this one fails to provide any plant care information and offers only a 2-D view of your plan.
Trimble's SketchUp Planner
SketchUp is a good choice for those who really want to drill down the details of their landscape design. According to Backyard Boss, the SketchUp program's designers made the software to work as an extension of an artist's hand, allowing you to draw any shape you wish anywhere you want it.
If you opt for the free version, you'll work with SketchUp online rather than downloading software to your computer. You can then save your design to Trimble's cloud, where you'll have 10 gigabytes of storage space. SketchUp also allows you to export your files in a wide variety of formats, making it easy to share your landscaping ideas.
SketchUp is a powerful tool, but it's not for the faint of heart. This software is diverse and can do a lot, but this flexibility comes at a price. In this case, that price is ease of use. If you're not good at figuring out new software or don't want to deal with a learning curve, SketchUp probably isn't your best choice.
Apple's iScape Product
Downloadable to an iPhone or iPad, Apple's iScape lets you plan your perfect landscape design and easily share it with others. Like all Apple products, iScape is designed to be intuitive and user friendly so that you can start designing right away. Like Better Homes & Gardens's Plan-A-Garden, iScape can help you make a shopping list of the things you'll need to create your design in the real world. IScape takes things a step further, however, and will tell you where you can buy what you need to make shopping easier.
Like other programs, however, iScape does have its shortcomings. The most obvious is its limited user base; without an iPhone or iPad, you simply can't use iScape. The app also contains a very limited object library and cannot show your landscape design in 3-D. It will show your design basics and get you there quickly, but it may not have enough detail for some users.
NCH Software's DreamPlan
If you're looking for landscape design software that offers the most features while still being easy to use, DreamPlan may be your answer. DreamPlan allows you to design both the inside and outside of your home and lets you do so in two or three dimensions. You'll have to actually download the software rather than accessing it online, but most users feel that DreamPlan is worth a little bit of hard drive space.
Compatible with Mac OS X 10.5 or Windows XP and above, DreamPlan lets you input any special terrain features so you can plan around them and get an accurate picture of your project. You can even import image files. If you don't see the feature you want in the built-in options, you can add an image yourself and use it. This feature allows you to get even more specific, importing pictures of your particular grill or patio set for an incredibly accurate rendering of what your finished space will look like.
DreamPlan's flaw, however, is speed. Although you may not notice it on a newer computer, DreamPlan wasn't built for swiftness. The program does a lot, especially for free, but you may find yourself waiting for it to do it.
Showoff.com's The Visualizer Software
Although it does force you to register before installing, Showoff.com's The Visualizer software is a helpful landscape design tool. The Visualizer allows you to upload a photograph of your home and lawn and use it as the base for your design. This makes it easy to work around any existing landscape features you want to keep and gives you an accurate view of your design.
The interface is easy to use and sorts landscape features into seven categories so you can find them easily. The Visualizer is easy to work with, but perhaps its best feature is the user community. The Visualizer is backed by a robust online community willing to help you if you need ideas, if you want opinions on your design or if you do happen to get stuck while using the software.
Along with the need to register and download software, some users note that The Visualizer's downside is that the design renderings don't look realistic enough. It's only compatible with Windows systems, so those running other operating systems on their computer can't use the software at all.
A Tiny Tribe's Moodboard Lite
If you have a clear idea of what you want out of your landscape, this probably isn't the app for you. Moodboard Lite is perfect, however, if you're overwhelmed by your choices or if you plan to work with a professional landscape designer. As is true of iScape, Moodboard runs only on an iPhone or iPad. Unlike iScape, Moodboard doesn't actually let you plan your entire landscape.
So, what does it do? Moodboard allows you to easily import pictures of plants and other landscape features you like. You can scour the internet searching for landscape ideas and then easily gather the ones you like on Moodboard. You can then show your plan to a landscape designer. Doing so gives your designer ideas about what you like so she can plan your landscape accordingly.
Even if you're planning to DIY your new landscape, Moodboard is an excellent tool if you don't know exactly what you want, but you know what you like. If you have no idea where to even start in planning your new landscape, Moodboard is an excellent place to gather your thoughts. When you start collecting ideas and images you like, you may see patterns emerge or find certain features you definitely want to incorporate in your landscape design.
Home is where the heart is, and Michelle frequently pens articles about ways to keep yours looking great and feeling cozy. Whether you want help organizing your closet, picking a paint color or finishing drywall, Michelle has you covered. If she's not puttering in the house, you'll find her in the garden playing in the dirt. Her garden articles provide tips and insight that anyone can use to turn a brown thumb green. You'll find her work on Modern Mom, The Nest and eHow as well as sprinkled throughout your other online home decor and improvement favorites.