House & Home

Landscape design: There’s an app for that

A good garden plan helps you realize the potential of your site. The stone wall and raised garden bed here, designed using the Home Outside garden app, are shown in plan view and installed in the garden.
A good garden plan helps you realize the potential of your site. The stone wall and raised garden bed here, designed using the Home Outside garden app, are shown in plan view and installed in the garden. Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio

Designing your own garden is half the fun, whether you do it all at once or a bit at a time. But you don’t have to do it alone: help, advice and good ideas are as close as your smartphone, where you can find garden design apps and other online gardening tools.

Garden designers often use sophisticated software to design and present their ideas. The computer-assisted design programs they rely on are made for professionals, and they’re tricky to master — and frustrating, especially if you’re just going to be a one-time user.

Apps and online tools, on the other hand, have been developed to help you work comfortably with the fundamentals of design so you can transform your property into a garden you can be proud of.

“You’re not ready to pick up a shovel until you have a plan,” says Jennifer Silver, communications manager for Julie Moir Messervy Design Studio in Vermont.

Four years ago, Messervy’s six-person garden-design firm introduced a design app called Palette, now renamed Home Outside (which is the also the title of one of Messervy’s most popular books). The app, which is free, puts professional design tools in your hands, but you don’t have to be a pro to use them.

Home Outside enables you to make an overall garden plan for your property. Even if you’re only thinking of installing a patio in the backyard, drawing up a master plan is a good idea, Silver says. It helps establish flow, so the whole garden — from the curb to the back fence — will be more graceful, coherent and accommodating.

A full-garden plan also helps you avoid expensive mistakes, she says, because it forces you to look at each part of your yard and think about the way the spaces work and feel and relate to one another.

With Home Outside, users can simply import a Google Earth image of their property, which neatly solves the challenge of measuring and mapping existing features. This image is the essential first layer of the landscape design. From there, the app guides you through the process of adding more layers or overlays — paths, walls, flower beds, water features and plants. You can even add labels and notes, make a list of materials or sources, or jot down the names of specific plants you’re interested in.

If you decide you need professional advice (for a fee, of course), you can use the app to contact and collaborate with garden designers in Messervy’s office.

Another design app, Garden Planner, which costs $34 (though a free 15-day trial is available), lets you sketch the layout of your property and drag icons representing walls, paths, trees, shrubs and flowers around the space and reshape them. Putting a plan together like this feels like playing, which encourages experimentation.

HGTV also offers landscape design software ($80) that includes a Deck Wizard feature to help gardeners design decks and patios. You start with a plan view or by importing digital images of your property, then use a simple drag-and-drop process to add paths, fences, flower beds and other features.

The software allows your design to be viewed both as a plan and as if you were standing looking at the garden (in elevation). It shows how the landscape changes through the seasons and even projects how trees and shrubs will grow from garden-shop size to maturity. A built-in plant encyclopedia will help you choose the best plants for your climate.

For first-time designers, the options may appear overwhelming. Garden design is a complex process, and it really starts with taking stock of your property, making lists of priorities and possibilities, and trying to imagine a garden where there is nothing.

Designer-based apps and software help you do all these things and keep you from going down a lot of dead ends. It will be helpful to listen to the thoughts and comments of experienced designers, which you can do from any spot with a Wi-Fi connection.

YouTube, the champion of do-it-yourself projects, is a great source of short garden design videos.

Houzz, an online design resource, presents hundreds of thousands of garden images — a deep well of ideas — with links to designer websites where you can find videos, workbooks, galleries of projects and, in general, lots of inspiration.

Looking at pictures, watching videos and moving garden features around on a template on the screen of your phone, computer or tablet may not seem like hands-in-the-dirt gardening, but the point of a design is that you’re interested in the overall effect, not just the beauty of individual flowers scattered around your yard.

It’s hard to design a good garden until you explore the territory. Dig in online first, and you’ll be sowing the seeds for a successful garden plan.