The new force in software: Geoff Hamilton outsells Spiderman

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The Independent Online

Move aside, computer nerds - the gardeners are here. A piece of software that lets its user design a garden is outselling even the most heavily marketed games such as Fifa 2003 and Spider-Man.

Proving that the garden makeover concept can be as strong on the computer screen as it already is in the television schedules, the new version of the software, Geoff Hamilton's 3D Garden Designer, which costs £30, has been a surprising bestseller in the eight weeks since it was released, according to the high-street chain, Game.

Its popularity is particularly strong in the agrarian parts of England, especially East Anglia. The branch selling the most copies was King's Lynn, followed by Lowestoft in second place and Norwich in fourth place, after Nottingham in third.

The software, named after the BBC Gardeners' World presenter who died of a heart attack on a charity bicycle ride in August 1996, lets people choose from a selection of about 37,000 plants, decide how well the choices would do in a particular soil and aspect and shows how they would look in a garden. The popularity of television gardening programmes has been cited as one reason for a new generation turning to the land - at least with some computer help.

Game refused to reveal exact figures on the latest sales but said it was outselling other big names available for personal computers. The data does not apply to consoles such as Sony's PlayStation 2. A Game spokeswoman said the software had sold "thousands" since the new version was released. "We noticed it a couple of weeks ago, because we have real-time reporting back to the warehouses when shops get low on stock."

Anna Macario, marketing director of Game, said: "We have suddenly had a surge of people who normally come to us to buy presents for their grandchildren, but they're now shopping for themselves.

"They know they can be a step ahead in the race for the perfect garden by using their computer to do some of the hard work. The keenest gardeners are now disappearing into their sheds clutching a laptop as well as a trowel and a pair of secateurs."

Some, though, seem to be sticking with traditional methods - even if they do have access to a computer. In the internet discussion group uk.rec.gardening, one user who had tried a number of the products wrote: "Dunno if I'd use garden design software in anger. Graph paper or better, a sketch pad if you're artistic, give the most flexibility and allow you to work on it onsite." Others agreed. "You are much better off with some squared paper and a pencil, it's quicker and you can get a better idea of what you're doing," wrote "Pete the Gardener" in March.

The popularity of the newly released product may partly be due to users of the earlier version hoping that it has overcome its glitches. That garnered many complaints from users who found they did not understand how to apply it. One disappointed user, reviewing it on the Amazon website, complained that it was "very difficult to use (unless maybe you are a software wizard).

"There are no instructions supplied with it, and the help menus are useless. They merely explain what you can do but not how to do it."

Tim Rumball, editor of Amateur Gardening, said: "I'm astonished that this is doing so well - though to be fair, whenever we run a poll, Geoff Hamilton tops the poll, despite being dead all these years. He's almost deified by amateur gardeners."

Good for getting your hands dirty - virtually

Geoff Hamilton's 3D Garden Designer offers budding horticulturists the chance to act out Alan Titchmarsh fantasies from the safety of their own computer consul. Dream gardens can be planned, planted and grown in seconds, all in glorious colour.

This new-fangled gardening tool - and it is a tool rather than a game - has a wide array of functions to tempt users away from traditional resources such as books, TV programmes and magazines. The CD-Rom includes an encyclopaedia of 3,700 plants, demo gardens and the ability to create 3D designs, plus the option to see how your garden of choice will look throughout the seasons.

The idea behind this software is compelling, letting gardeners enter details of local soil and weather conditions, choose plants and then sit back and see how their creation will develop, without risking time and money.

But be warned, it takes time to get to grips with the software, and the number of features may put off the more faint-hearted. Initial accuracy is essential when entering garden measurements and some gardeners may find it rather cumbersome.

Those who are computer literate may lose patience with slow loading and limited graphics.

But the search facility and plant advice are useful and well designed, with information on the natural habitats of exotic plants and tips on how to revive any that don't like their new home.

It's hard to resist the idea of creating 3D plans of a garden, then walking through the virtual results. This is a useful tool for those with green fingers and for those who want them.

By Rebecca Armstrong