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Best landscape design software 2020: Create your perfect garden

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

The best landscape design software is essential if you want to give your garden a serious makeover. We’re talking about more than planting a few flowers of throwing a garden gnome into the mix, this is for the big jobs. But even once you’ve decided you need a landscaping program to help you out, there are still a lot of choices out there that vary greatly in terms of price and functionality.

As things stand right now, we think that the best landscape design software out there is Realtime Landscaping Pro thanks to its extensive library of plants and objects, along with the immersive 3D walkthroughs it provides to let you get a sense of what being in your finished garden will look like. With that said, which landscape design software is best for you depends largely on what your project is, how much you’re looking to spend and how much detail you need.

If you’re just looking to roughly lay out your garden plans then there are plenty of excellent free landscaping software available. These are great for getting the general structure laid out, but don’t have as extensive object libraries as the premium versions. Premium software allows you to get a much more comprehensive design plan set-up, down to getting the correct plants into your garden.

If you’re more interested in transforming your home rather than your garden, check out our guides to the best home design software and best interior design software too. Now here are our choices for the best landscape design software for 2020.

1. Realtime Landscaping Pro: Best landscape design software overall

Realtime Landscaping Pro Review

(Image credit: Ideas Spectrum)

Realtime Landscaping Pro

Powerful, versatile and easy to use

Price: $99.95 | Format: PC only | Plants: 5,700 | Total objects: 12,000 | Other versions: Plus ($79.95); Architect ($399.95)

Immersive 3D walkthroughs
Extensive library of plants
Huge total object library
No Mac version

Realtime Landscaping Pro is a premium-quality landscape design tool that's powerful enough for professional designers to use, but accessible and intuitive enough for homeowners to get to grips with too. 

Design an accurate model of the exterior of your house, and sculpt the surrounding land to match your own backyard using the built-in topography builder. 

Then plan your garden using the extensive library of 5,700 realistic plants, and thousands more garden accessories – many of which are replicas of real-world brands available for purchase. 

Once your design is complete, you can view it in 3D from the perspective of your choice, or activate the immersive walkthrough mode – complete with realistic lighting, shadows, running water and even moving leaves – to help you visualize how your finished garden will feel.

This impressive feature set makes Realtime Landscaping Pro hard to beat among landscape design tools – especially for less than $100 – which is why it's our overall pick for best landscape design software on the market right now.

2. TurboFloorPlan Home & Landscape Pro 2019: Best landscape design software for custom decking

TurboFloorPlan Home & Landscape Pro 2019 Review

(Image credit: TurboCad)

TurboFloorPlan Home & Landscape Pro 2019

Great for designing custom decking solutions, plus model your house interior too

Price: $99.99 (PC), $149.99 (Mac) | Format: PC or Mac | Plants: 3,800 | Total objects: 4,700 | Other versions: Deluxe ($49.99)

Smart decking design tools
Provides cost estimates
Models house interior also
Smaller plant library than rivals

TurboFloorPlan Home & Landscape Pro is an easy-to-learn yet feature-rich tool that includes both landscape design and home design functionality. At just under $100 it's in the same price bracket as our overall top pick Realtime Landscaping Pro, which makes direct comparison inevitable.

While it has a substantially smaller object library than Realtime Landscaping Pro – including around 2,000 fewer plants to choose from – the fact that TurboFloorPlan Home & Landscape Pro also enables you to design the inside of your home may be a factor that swings it in your favor.

TurboFloorPlan Home & Landscape Pro is particularly effective for designing custom decking for your garden, with a range of easily customized template designs, as well as the IntelliDeck tool, which follows the contours of your house as you draw.

Additional useful time-savers include the Visual Array tool, which makes complex planting schemes easily by aligning plants to a pre-determined path, with custom spacing. You can also drag and drop into zone-specific groupings. 

Another reason to swing your decision away from Realtime Landscaping Pro is if you're a Mac user, as our top pick is PC-only. Be warned, however: the Mac version of TurboFloorPlan Home & Landscape Pro is substantially more expensive.

3. SketchUp: Best landscape design software for professionals

SketchUp Review

(Image credit: Trimble)

SketchUp

Great for landscape design pros, with tiered subscription options for home users

Price: SketchUp Shop: $119 per year | Format: Web-based; dekstop version for higher tiers | Object library: Unlimited access to 3D Warehouse | Other versions: Free; Pro: $299 per year; Studio: $1,199 per year

Can model anything from scratch
Millions of free models in 3D Warehouse
Pro subscriptions expensive
Some 3D modelling skills needed

Favored by professional landscape designers and architects, you'd think that SketchUp would be far out of the reach of the average home user. Indeed, the most advanced version, SketchUp Studio, costs an eye-watering $1,199 per year.

But don't be put off by the maximum price-tag. SketchUp is also available as a free, web-based 3D modelling tool to help visualize your landscape design ideas. To take things to the next level, a subscription to SketchUp Shop is $119 per year, putting it in a similar ballpark to the other pro-standard landscape design tools in our guide – Realtime Landscaping Pro and TurboFloorPlan Home & Landscape Pro.

SketchUp offers almost endless potential for modelling your perfect landscape design. Even the basic free package provides a suite of landscape-building tools, a palette of useful garden textures, and access to a vast online repository of pre-built models for free in the online 3D Warehouse.

More expensive subscription tiers unlock extras such as real-time shadows to reflect the season and time of day, photorealistic rendering, fly-overs, walkthroughs and even virtual reality (VR) integration. But SketchUp Shop is likely to be the best fit for home users – it's affordable, and intended for non-commercial projects.

4. Total 3D Landscape & Deck Deluxe: Best landscape design software for beginners

Total 3D Landscape & Deck Deluxe Review

(Image credit: Individual Software)

Total 3D Landscape & Deck Deluxe

Basic, cheap and cheerful

Price: $19.99 | Format: PC only | Plants: 4,600 in encyclopaedia | Other versions: Home Design Deluxe ($19.99); Home, Landscape & Deck Premium Suite ($29.99)

Large plant encyclopaedia
Import your own items
Crude, unrealistic graphics
No quick-start tool

Compared to the other landscape design tools in this guide, it's fair to say that Total 3D Landscape & Deck Deluxe is the rough-and-ready option. At just $19.99, this is entry-level software for beginners who want to see their ideas rendered in 3D – provided the accuracy and level of detail isn't a top priority.

There's a very impressive-sounding library of 4,600 plants, which on paper puts Total 3D Landscape & Deck Deluxe squarely in between TurboFloorPlan Home & Landscape Pro and Realtime Landscaping Pro in terms of its inventory. 

However, this is a 'plant encyclopaedia' rather than an object library of an equivalent standard to those other packages. You'll find useful information about the different plants to help you choose, but when added to your landscape design they are flat, blocky and pixelated renditions.

There are some useful time-saving tools to be found within Total 3D Landscape & Deck Deluxe, however. The Smart YardBlock tool, for instance, uses drag-and-drop functionality to add entire lawns, decks or pools to your landscape design.

If your budget only stretches to $20, this is a very affordable way to visualize your garden ideas, if the free versions of iScape or SketchUp don't suit your needs. 

5. iScape: Best landscape design software for iPhone and iPad users

iScape Review

Browse thousands of plants and elements to design with, including trees, shrubs and flowers (Image credit: iScape)

iScape

Visualize ideas quickly and easily

Price: Free basic app | Format: iPhone or iPad | Modes: Flat image or AR view | Subscription options: iScape Plus: $9.99/month; iScape Pro: $19.99/month, $99.99/year

Tiered subscription options
Immersive AR experience
Apple devices only
Limited functionality

iScape is an app that uses the built-in camera of your iPhone or iPad to capture data about your current garden environment, and then uses augmented reality (AR) to overlay your landscape design plans on top in real-time.

Whereas some landscape design tools include an immersive 'walkthrough' function, iScape enables you to simply walk around your garden carrying your device, exploring your design proposal from different vantage points.

A fully searchable library of trees, shrubs, flowers and other plants and garden accessories can be found within the app, complete with info and planting tips to help you make the right decisions.

Although the basic version of the app is totally free to download and play with, the restricted functionality may make it worth taking out a subscription to iScape Plus if you find it useful enough for your needs.

The AR mode is an enjoyable extra, although the app overall is much more limited than the other specialized landscape design software in this guide.

Best landscape design software: How to choose

Before making a decision about the right landscape design software for you, you need to consider exactly what you need it for. Here are a few useful questions to ask yourself as a starting point.

Are you planning a total redesign of your garden, and if so, are you doing it yourself or hiring a professional? Do you need to be able to work out the costs of each aspect of your plan, in order to meet a budget?

Does the plan you create with this tool just need to help you quickly visualize how your idea might look before you head to the garden center, or are accurate dimensions important? Do you need to recreate the topography of your garden, for instance, or get the angles of your boundary walls or fences spot-on?

TurboFloorPlan Home & Landscape Pro

Example of an accurate plan view of a project, created using TurboFloorPlan Home & Landscape Pro (Image credit: TurboCAD)

And when it comes to planning a planting scheme, do you need a tool that can help you select what to plant and where – based on your local climate, the available sun, soil type, and other factors? And how much choice do you need?

All of these factors – and more – will help determine which landscape design software is right for you, so pay attention to their feature-sets carefully.

Best landscape design software: How much it costs

As our guide above shows, landscape design software can vary enormously in price depending on the capabilities of the tool, the desired realism of the final result, and also whether certain functions are necessary. 

If you're a home user, we would generally recommend paying between $50 and $120 if you're working on a 'live' landscape design project.

SketchUp Free or the basic iScape app are completely free of charge, of course. Both enable you to experiment with your landscape design ideas, and see how certain plans could look in situ. But when you get to business end of the design process, these free options may not suit your needs for an actual project.

Both offer tiered subscription options tailored to your needs. An upgrade to iScape Plus is $9.99/month, or $19.99/month for iScape Pro. Significantly more powerful than iScape, SketchUp prices rise more dramatically: $119, then $299, then $1,199/year, but most home users will only need the first tier.

Realtime Landscaping Plus and 3D Home & Landscape Deluxe

If budget is an issue, the cheaper versions of popular landscape design tools could suit your needs (Image credit: Idea Spectrum / TurboCAD)

In terms of the specialized landscape design packages, we've primarily looked at the upper-tier 'Pro' versions of TurboFloorPlan Home & Landscape and Realtime Landscaping here, both just under $100 (for PC). However there are also cheaper versions of these packages, with correspondingly fewer features.

At $79.95, Realtime Landscaping Plus is also an excellent choice – your main compromise is the inability to add water features to your design, which may be a deal-breaker. TurboFloorPlan Home & Landscape Deluxe is even cheaper at $49.99 (for PC), although its feature-set is significantly pared-back by comparison.

Best landscape design software: Features to look for

Certain basic features should be available in any landscape design software. These include, for instance, searchable libraries of plants and other objects to place in your design; useful keyboard shortcuts to make design process smoother; and the all-important undo/redo buttons.

More advanced features include topography designers to sculpt the terrain to match your garden; cost estimators, to ensure your design comes within budget; and  import tools to customize your design with your own photos. These are less common, and may help you make your choice if they're important to you.

Another factor to consider is what methods are available to preview and present your landscape design, over and above the plan view you'll use to create it. These range from positioning a camera to show a 3D render of a particular perspective, to fully immersive walkthroughs and flyovers, and even AR and VR.

Plus, of course, there's the size of the available object library to consider – not just the number of plants, the information about them and how accurately they are rendered in your design, but also other accessories such as lighting, grills, furniture and any other additions. If you want a perfectly accurate rendition of your dream garden, you need a well-stocked object library.

Consider all the available features, and only pay for what you actually need. Many software companies offer a free trial of between 7 and 30 days – take advantage of these, especially if you're still not sure which option best suits your needs.