My goal is to create a landscape plan/map for my yard. So, basically, the first step is to create a scale drawing of my lot. I recently attended a couple of local workshops on "site planning". In the workshops, the idea is to make measurements to identify the house "footprint" on the lot using graph paper. From there, one creates "bubble diagrams" with ideas for various plant material and hardscapes like in the following pictures (click to enlarge)

Source: Left, Right

I'm looking for some software options to help me along with this. So far, I am exploring Google SketchUp and also Inkscape. What are other options for creating such layout maps?

Cross-platform solutions would be nice, but if not, please indicate which OS it supports. Free and commercial software are both welcome.

Note: I am personally using a MacBookPro and an Ubuntu machine. Windows options are certainly welcome as well.


Exactly which design software package for landscape planning is best for your needs will come down to a number of factors, some of which are listed below:

  • Freeware.

  • Commercial.

  • Which Operating System platform you run.

  • How much time you're planning, willing to invest in learning the software - some of these packages are extremely powerful (and complex once you get below the surface of them).

  • Do you require an API.

  • Are you interested in a strong user community (eg User help/support).

Whatever package you decide to use, I can't recommend strongly enough that it be vector based.

My first recommendations are "simple" (and free) CAD/Drawing packages, that's not to say they're not powerful, just can be viewed as somewhat limited by (some) "professionals" in the design community:

Personally I would go with Google SketchUp, as it's:

  • Simple to use.

  • Large user community (eg Lots of freely available content, tutorials, support, etc).

  • 2D & 3D.

  • Allows for an easy upgrade path to Google SketchUp Pro if required further down the road.

My second recommendations are "powerful" (commercial) CAD/Drawing packages, bias to Autodesk products, as that is where my somewhat expertise lays:

It's a difficult one to recommend, but for landscape planning I would probably have to go with AutoCAD Map 3D.

My third recommendations are "powerful" (commercial) non-Autodesk CAD/Drawing packages, though to be honest I can't really recommended any of them as I don't have any "real" experience with them, I'm aware of them, have very! limited experience with a couple of them:

For the "average" homeowner that wishes to do some, get into, landscape design, I would have to recommend starting with Google SktechUp.

Personally I would use Autodesk products, but that's because I have 15 years experience with them...

  • As mentioned in the question, I am exploring Sketchup and Inkscape. From your answer, I've also started to take a look at Draftsite. How would you rate that software in terms of suitability to my purpose and ease of use?
    – wdypdx22
    Oct 18 '11 at 21:32
  • @wdypdx22 All the options I listed are more than capable of doing what you want to do (IMHO) & all of them listed under "My first recommendations are "simple"", are relatively easy to learn/use compared with the "powerful" (commercial) options. Do keep in mind, all of them come with a learning curve... As I stated in my answer, "I would have to recommend starting with Google SktechUp", but that's not to say any of the others would be bad choices...
    – Mike Perry
    Oct 19 '11 at 4:11
  • Ok. Guess I'll go with SketchUp. Appears to be simple and to the point. Draftsite does appear interesting though, so, is there any reason why I should not consider Draftsite? I've used Photoshop for years now for print and web design, so not intimidated to learn software for the task at hand.
    – wdypdx22
    Oct 20 '11 at 0:35
  • @wdypdx22 The only reason not to use Draftsite would be it's purely a 2D CAD program. If that's not a deal breaker for you, go for it :)
    – Mike Perry
    Oct 20 '11 at 0:44
  • 2
    I designed my yard in Vectorworks and hated the process. The problem is that CAD focuses you on precision when it's not warranted. Sketchup frees you up a little. But I was more productive designing in game software like Railroad Tycoon 2. Yes, it's a landscape design package! Another good choice at the time was the editor for Bungie's Myth. You might investigate level editors for some current 3D games.
    – Erik Olson
    Oct 20 '11 at 15:23

I think for all amateur-level landscape design Google Sketchup free version (Windows XP/Vista/7 and Mac OS 10.5+ platforms) is a pretty decent. I used it to design our backyard (only a fraction of which has come to fruition in reality so far) and it was fine. We passed the Sketchup model file on to a professional landscaper who used in as a base for dimensions in creating a professional-quality 2D plan. He also updated the 3D sketchup model with any details he'd modified or added and sent it back to us.

The advantages of Sketchup:

  1. It's free for everyone involved (so you can use it to collaborate easily), or you can pay for the pro version (which no one I know has bothered to do).
  2. It has extensive tutorials for you to figure out how to use it quickly.
  3. It supports import of third party models. For instance, I imported a very simple tree model to demonstrate where our screening trees would be placed. You can also import complex models but more than 20-30kb worth of 3D points and it crashes Sketchup.


  1. I found it difficult to include detailed organic shapes in the model, so just kept it simple. Sketchup's not particularly focused towards displaying the overlapping nature of shrubs, trees, etc., like a landscaping program would.
  2. There are more features in landscaping-focused softare (Sketchup is all-purpose). Some listed on Wikipedia.

I've used different software in the past. Punch Landscape Architect which was pretty decent.

3D Home Design Deluxe which has a great plant encyclopedia that gives you a lot of information regarding the plants including how to care for them. The plant encyclopedia I believe is a third party tool that may be available from other software as well. You can even see how your garden will look at different times of the year and plant growth over time. With the plant encylcopedia you can filter based on your USDA hardiness zone, soil type, sunlight, watering and other criteria to help select the best plants. (Edit: looks like punch and 3d home architect are now owned by same company and merged?)

I was looking for something that could make those cool looking landscape plans that you have in your question and came across Realtime Landscape architect which I reviewed on my blog at http://diyorganiclawncare.blogspot.com/2009/05/realtime-landscape-architect.html where I have more details including some screenshots and walkthrough videos.

The trial version I used didn't have an extensive library of plants, materials or plan design styles so I couldn't get the look I wanted but according to other pictures I've seen it's possible. I think it has the nicest looking plan views from all the software I've run across so far.

All of them had ways to render photorealistic scenes, create walkthrough movies but Realtime Landscape architect was the fastest rendering. You could actually walk through a rendered scene in realtime, hence the name. It's not photo realistic but it beats waiting all day for a rendered movie to generate.

Something with a large plant database and good plant encyclopedia would be my first choice though. It makes garden planning faster. All of the dedicated landscape design software will be better than using Sketchup, which I use extensively for other projects and have tried for landscape planning.

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