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Best landscape design software: create your perfect garden

Best landscape design software: create your perfect garden
(Image credit: Getty Images)

When you need to make your garden or plot around your house look its best, there used to be two ways to plan it. A: Get out a pencil and paper and rely on your creative flair, accuracy and imagination, or B: Call a landscape or garden designer. Now, however, landscaping design software is sophisticated enough to not only give you a detailed idea of what your yard will look like, but cheap enough to make the purchase completely worth it. 

Editor's Choice: Realtime Landscaping Plus

Landscaping software should be easy and functional. Install a program and you're good to go. Unfortunately, almost all programs tend to be difficult to use. They're often not very intuitive and complicated, requiring extensive training to learn.VIEW DEAL ON Idea Spectrum

Many of these programs will help you lay your backyard ideas out neatly in a highly visual way and even give you an idea of how much your landscape design is going to cost. They come with tools that will help you design the perfect yard layout with plants, playground equipment, water features and other elements dropped into your preview of the dream garden. But which of the many options is the best for you? Which software offers the most for your money? In this guide, we’ve compared the leading options for the range of features they offer, how helpful they are to someone who may not be an expert designer, and whether they offer good value for money.

After some thorough testing, we chose Realtime Landscaping Plus as our top pick for landscaping design software. It has a comprehensive design toolset, is easy to understand and use, and includes advanced virtual preview options. Realtime stood out from its rivals in almost every way, scoring highly in every category of our test. If you're looking for the best of the best, this is the program you want.

1. Realtime Landscaping Plus: best overall 

Realtime Landscaping Plus

(Image credit: Idea Spectrum)

Realtime Landscaping Plus

A landscaping software suite with excellent tools

 Easy to learn and use 
 Best variety of tools 
 Over 10,000 objects and plants 
 No online support forum 
 Takes up a lot of storage 

Realtime Landscaping Plus is our top choice. It consistently performed better in our tests than all the other programs we reviewed. It's easy to use, learn and navigate, making it a prime choice for everyone, regardless of design or computer skill. Its complete design toolkit makes it ideal for experienced designers as well.

In addition to using this program to design alterations to your yard's topography, you can fill the space with more than 5,300 realistic objects, including lawn furniture, lamps, decorations and more. There are also more than 5,100 trees, shrubs, flowers and other plants you can place wherever you want. This program has a plant encyclopedia with information about different types of vegetation to help you make informed decisions about what to plant in your yard.

Further, this software has a cost estimator tool that can give you an idea of how much your design will cost to implement. It also has great preview options – in addition to viewing 2D and 3D previews of your design, you can take a virtual-reality stroll through your yard to make sure it looks the way you want.

2. Virtual Home and Landscape: best value

Virtual Architect Home and Landscape

A landscape software that provides excellent value for content

 Costs about $30 less than our top pick 
 Large selection of tools
 Helpful building wizard 
 No VR preview 
 No images of people to insert into your designs 
 Limited help and support 

If you don’t need lots of advanced tools or simply want to save some money, Virtual Architect Home & Landscape is worth considering. It isn't the cheapest program we reviewed, but you get a lot for your money. The program doesn't have a virtual reality preview, and you can't place faux people in your design – but apart from that, it includes every tool and feature found in our top pick, Realtime Landscaping Plus. Also, while it isn't as easy to learn and use as our top pick, it comes close. Plus, it costs about $30 less.

One of the program's most useful tools is its building wizard, which walks you through the design process step by step. This feature is great for novices because it explains each tool and provides directions for using it, making the learning curve easier to overcome.

This program has a combined object and plant library of more than 7,500 items to place in your yard. It shows you how plants will grow over time so you can make long-term plans or at least anticipate how your yard will look in the future.

3. Home Designer Suite: largest object library

(Image credit: Home Designer Software)

Home Designer Suite

A landscaping software with a vast library of objects

 Over 6500 objects in library 
 Online support forums 
 Preview shows shadows 
 Hard to learn 
 No different season preview 
 Only 3600 plants in library 

The object library is a critical component of any landscaping software, and Home Designer Suite lets you furnish your yard with outdoor lighting, playground equipment, patio furniture, grills and more. With over 6500 objects to choose from, it has the largest library of all the programs we reviewed. 

This means you can develop a more comprehensive plan for your yard than with other software. Additionally, there are 3600 plants for you to put in your design – Home Designer Suite doesn't have the largest plant library, but it has more than enough foliage to get the job done. It also has great tools for designing outdoor features such as patios, pools and fences.

Unfortunately, this program scored the lowest in our ease of use, learning curve and navigation tests. If you’re an inexperienced designer, you should look elsewhere. And even though it has a large toolset, it’s missing some features we look for. For example, you can't view how your yard will look in different seasons or see a virtual reality preview. It's also missing step-by-step guides for topography and deck design. The result is a mixed bag – albeit one that’s stuffed with objects.

4. TurboFloorPlan: best for designing a deck

TurboFloor Plan Home & Landscape Deluxe

(Image credit: TurboCAD)

TurboFloorPlan Home and Landscape Pro

A great landscape software that is ideal for gardens with decking

Great 3D tour system
Fantastic deck templates
Good for long-term planning
Hard to use
Have to recreate garden from scratch

TurboFloorPlan 3D Home and Landscape Pro is a great tool for designing both a house and a yard. 

What sets TurboFloorPlan 3D apart from the other landscaping design software that we reviewed is its intellideck tool. This tool is unique to this software and will help you design decking - or is fantastic if you are redesigning a garden with decking present. This feature will let you drag and drop decking templates anywhere into the design.  

Another feature we loved was the Visual Array Tool which let you add plants along a set path. It even let you determine the space between the plants. This tool had a fast forward function letting you see what your borders and  flower beds would look like in the future to help you prevent planting flowers and trees too closely together. This was fantastic for long term planning. 

The software was a little difficult to master and is mostly best left to people who have experience of using CAD software. The tricky nature was mostly due to having to create the garden design piece by piece, which could get a little fiddly. 

The 3D aspect of the landscaping design software is also fantastic. It allows you to walk through the garden you've plan on a virtual tour. This gives you a good sense of what the garden you designed is going to look like. 

5. Total 3D Landscape & Deck Deluxe: best for beginners

Total 3D Landscape & Deck Deluxe

(Image credit: Individual Software)

Total 3D Landscape and Deck Deluxe

A great landscaping design software for inexperienced designers

Great for beginners 
Loads of tutorials 
Low cost
Too basic
Poor graphics

Total 3D Landscape and Deck deluxe is a very basic landscaping design software. This means it is an ideal choice for people who don't use CAD based software often and is a great piece of software for learning how to design your garden. 

The software helps budding designers with extensive step by step guides and video that will take you through the process of designing your garden. This makes it invaluable as a learning resource. It is also very affordable, which means after you've learned the basics, you can upgrade to more complex software with minimal loss. 

The program is very basic. It has poor graphics, and often leaves the garden you've designed looking very unrealistic and poor. 

We'd only really recommend this software for people who want to learn about CAD software to create a garden - as it is the best landscaping design software for beginners. 

What makes for good landscaping design software

We have reviewed landscaping software for more than a decade. In the latest round of testing, we spent 50 hours hands-on testing the 10 worthiest pieces of software, during which we designed landscapes with every application. Each program we reviewed was subjected to the same tests. A combination of hard data and real-world experience informed all our scores.

How we tested landscaping design software

Every product we reviewed was subjected to a battery of tests. We used each program to create a test landscape, gathering data and taking notes about our impressions of the software as we did so. We focused on how easy the program is to use and learn as well as its navigation features. We also noted how well the program worked overall. We then assigned each application a grade that takes into account overall ease of use, learning curve, ease of navigation and functionality.

In addition, we created a list of the most important features and tools for landscaping software to have, then combed through each program looking for them. Our list included basic features such as undo/redo buttons, library searches and keyboard shortcuts, and we found them in all the programs. Additionally, we looked for advanced features such as topography designers, cost estimators and photo importers, all of which are useful but not found in every product. We used all these features to create and customize our landscape designs. Our opinions about how well these tools work and how easy they are to use played an important role in our ratings.

Reviewers also evaluated each software’s object and plant libraries. Big, diverse libraries are important because the more objects and plants you can choose from, the more realistic and complete your design will look.

What we looked for in our landscaping design software tests

Is it easy to use? 

We put each program through its paces and noted how easy its tools are to use. During our evaluations, we also looked for basic features such as undo and redo buttons, which allow you to quickly backtrack your work in case you make a mistake or don’t like the changes you made.

Another feature that makes landscaping software easy to use is a search tool – you can enter keywords for objects and features to pull them up quickly. Additionally, we looked for programs that let you use keyboard shortcuts to make changes to your design and checked to see which applications compile shopping lists as you create your plan so you know exactly what you need to bring your vision to life.

Does it work as advertised? 

During testing, we created a list of the most important features found in the best landscaping software and looked for them in each application we tested. This list included topography designers, which help you recreate your yard’s unique landscape. We also favored programs that let you edit 3D objects, since they allow you to fine-tune the items you place in your design and preview them as they appear in real life. In addition, a photo importer is a great tool that can help you replicate real-life yards and landscapes you love. Further, a cost estimator feature can give you an idea of how much it will cost to make your dream design a reality.

The three top-scoring programs in our lineup include a seasonal change preview. This allows you to toggle between all four seasons to see what your plan will look like throughout the year. This can help you make more informed choices about what will work for your specific climate, especially if you live in an area that has more pronounced weather differences during the summer and winter months.

Another tool worthy of note is the virtual reality preview. This tool exports a preview of your design into a format that can be used by the Oculus Rift so that you can walk through it as though it was already built. This is great because it can show you any flaws in your design that you might not have noticed in your plans or in previews on your computer screen.

Does it have a lot of good content? 

We examined each program’s object and plant libraries to see what types of lighting, grills, outdoor furniture and foliage they contain. In general, the larger the library, the more complete you can make your landscape design.

As you place vegetation, it’s helpful if the program has a plant guide with information about which types of plants thrive in your part of the country as well as info about how the trees and shrubs grow and their upkeep.

How much does landscape design software cost?

The landscaping software packages we reviewed range in price from $20 to $100. And most programs have multiple versions and tiered pricing. Versions with more advanced tools cost more – if you don't need those extras, you can purchase a basic version, so you only pay for the tools you’ll actually use.

Before you buy a program, check to see if they offer a free trial period. This allows you to check out the program before you pay for it. Trial periods usually last from a week to a month, which provides time to see if it works for you. Alternatively, some programs offer a money-back guarantee if you buy the program and decide it’s not right for you.

When should I call a landscape designer or architect instead?

As useful as landscaping software is, you may want to opt for professional help instead of trying to design your yard yourself. We spoke with several landscape designers and contractors, and they cautioned that it is difficult to create a useable outdoor space without professional knowledge. Nearly any landscaping software can give you a good idea of how you want to set up the zones in your yard. However, the professionals we spoke with stressed that it’s much harder to get a good-quality planting design that suits your local climate – in fact, they claimed it is next to impossible to do without the help from a local professional. They also advised checking with local contractors to see if they work with plans made with these applications, since many don't accept homemade designs.

Additionally, you should check with your municipality to learn about local ordinances. Many cities and counties list certain types of plants that are either required or forbidden – if you violate local ordinances, you risk being cited and having to pay fines. All cities have a code services office you can check with before you start planting or construction.

We have reviewed landscaping software for more than a decade. Within the past year, we’ve invested more than 150 hours to researching, rating and comparing these programs. This time includes more than 50 hours of hands-on testing, during which we designed landscapes with all 10 applications. Each of the programs we reviewed was subjected to the same tests. A combination of hard data and real-world experience informed all our scores.