A Green Thumb Is Only a Click Away

FOR avid gardeners, this is the season of anticipation. The seeds are ordered and the plans are drawn for the best garden yet. For the rest of us, spring is more likely the season of confusion.

Besides telling the difference between, say, crabgrass and the real thing, we are at a loss at how to begin the perfect garden. Do we want pachysandra or pine trees? Daffodils or day lilies? It is for us that landscape and gardening software was invented.

With a little help from your computer, you can not only pick the right flowers and trees, but also plant them on-screen and see how they'll look in each season. You can view how the garden will grow over a decade and spot how the shade will fall for a particular time of year. If you're a little greener at this green-thumb business than you care to admit, this kind of expertise can be invaluable.

A big advantage of this software over gardening books is that the computer can do much of the research. Plant databases let you choose plants by climate zone, type of soil, desired color and height, and blooming season. So, for example, if you have a garden in Memphis with alkaline soils and partial shade, and you want an early blooming yellow perennial, the plant database can tell you which flowers would work.

If you want to try out a plant database, don't spend your seed money on software just yet. Try Time Warner's excellent Internet site called the Virtual Garden (http://www.vg.com). It boasts some 3,000 plants in its database. And if you're not exactly sure which planting zone you're in, the site allows you to find out by typing in your zip code. The site - and its links to other on-line gardening locations - may be enough to answer all your questions.

Others may want to design their gardens on-screen before taking up shovel and rake. For about $50, several software programs allow users to do this. Here is a review of three of the better-known titles: LandDesigner by Sierra On-Line, 3D Landscape by Books That Work, and Mum's the Word Plus by Terrace Software. Only 3D Landscape works on both IBM-compatible and Macintosh machines. LandDesigner is IBM-compatible; Mum's the Word Plus is for the Mac.

All three programs do much the same thing: They include extensive plant databases, examples of landscaped gardens, and drawing tools for designing your own creation. These features can get quite sophisticated. Once you have designed your on-screen garden, these programs allow you to visit it during each season to see what's blooming. You can view the garden from different perspectives and even from various heights. LandDesigner and 3D Landscape even allow users to make a three-dimensional "walk" through their gardens.

Like most sophisticated drawing programs, landscape software takes some time to learn. True to its Macintosh heritage, Mum's the Word Plus has the simplest drawing program. But its palettes of tools weren't well-labeled and were more limited than the other two, newer programs.

LandDesigner uses "wizards" to guide users through the design process, But I preferred 3D Landscape. Even though its plant database isn't as large as those in the other two programs, its drawing tools were comprehensive without being overly complicated when drawing an unusually shaped house or piece of property. And users who purchase the next version of the companion Garden Encyclopedia can boost 3D Landscape's plant database from some 800 to more than 3,000 varieties.

Version 3.0 of Garden Encyclopedia should be out next month. A new version of LandDesigner is due to hit the store shelves in June and 3D Landscape is scheduled for an upgrade this fall. These titles may be just the thing to get us into the garden and off of our ... uh ... laurels.

Send comments to lbelsie@ix.netcom.com or visit my In Cyberspace forum at http://www.csmonitor.com

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