Network: Flower power

Don't want to go to Chelsea for inspiration? Meg Carter says you no longer have to, thanks to the latest gardening software
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The Independent Online
With the Chelsea Flower Show upon us again, this is the time when many of the less dedicated among the gardening fraternity finally dust off their spades and hunt out their hoes. But what about the hi-tech gardener?

There is a veritable mountain of software aimed at gardeners and the list is growing all the time. Databases allow you to search for plants on combinations of criteria such as flower colour, plant height, leaf size, perfume and soil preferences, churning out suggestions at speeds that will make gardening book browsers sigh with exasperation. Design tools allow you to place specific plants and garden furniture on a representation of your plot and then make minute or large-scale alterations with a click and a drag, toying with new ideas to your heart's content.

Garden designers incorporate a range of handy functions to help get your design just perfect. Imagine being able to predict the growth of plants over a period of years, to make sure that the saplings you plant today won't overshadow the back bedroom window in 30 years' time. How about checking how shadows fall during different times of year, to make absolutely certain that the new pond will get maximum light at all times, or that your windbreaks don't throw the patio into a dismal shade at the most undesirable moments.

And for that final flourish, why not generate a 3D view of your new garden design which shows plants at the right size, shape and colour. The more sophisticated of these 3D applications even allow you to walk through your virtual garden, or fly overhead and check the view as if from a helicopter. With the right software, you can do it all without even getting your hands dirtyn

Perfect Plants

The core of Perfect Plants is a 2,000-plant database that can be searched by criteria such as plant height, growing conditions, flower and leaf characteristics, planting and pruning needs. By combining criteria the database can be whittled down to a suitable subset, each member of which can be seen as a full colour picture with little pop-up data boxes full of plant care information.

There is added value in the shape of a library of plant-care movies on everything from how to prune shrub roses in July to camellia shaping in February, and a set of six virtual garden tours that walk you through a range of typical gardens. To cap it all is a facility to create a slideshow of plants which you can watch with accompanying music - Haydn, Bach, and a little light jazz; surely better than any screensaver for the horticulturist.

pounds 39.99, Macmillan Interactive Publishing (0345 697008)

Multimedia Guide to Garden Plants

This plant guide is half the price of Perfect Plants, and it has a database half the size to match. The search capabilities are rather limited - you simply select plants of interest from groups such as annuals, biennials, perennials, bulbs, climbers and herbs, then work your way down a proffered list. You can't refine searches any further, so working through the data becomes a simple matter of looking at the text provided on each plant for information on key characteristics, propagation and care. In this respect, there is little by way of added value over more traditional plant books. On the plus side, there is a notebook in which to save your own thoughts and gardening notes, and plenty of on-board animation.

pounds 19.99, Koch Media (01256 707767)

Geoff Hamilton's Garden Designer

In terms of value for money, this is a good buy. It incorporates both a garden designer and plant database. The database includes about a thousand plants and is searchable by plenty of criteria selected from a simple, highly visual user interface. As you put plants into your garden a care calendar is automatically generated, and there are two separate notebooks for your own use - one that stores information for each plant in the database, and another for general garden design notes. The garden designer lacks the 3D view offered by the competition but is quite adequate for most users, and includes the essential options to view your garden at different times of day and months of the year.

pounds 19.95, GSP (01480 496575)

3D Garden Designer 3

Mid-range in both price and functionality, this product offers a 1,500- plant database as well as a landscaping module. The plant-searching interface is a little difficult to get used to, but it is highly effective, with an excellent range of search criteria. The quality of the 3D rendering of your garden design is not as high as others, but added value comes in the form of a jobs organiser with built-in pruning schedule which is automatically produced for the plants which you have chosen. There is also an auto-design feature for those with no idea where to start. It will fill a space with a suggested garden design.

pounds 29.99, Europress (0800 454330)

3D Landscape 2 Deluxe

This is a top-of-the-range garden designer for home users. The database includes over 2,000 plants and, joy of joys, you can add your own to it, though to integrate them fully you will need to include plenty of information about their characteristics and care. A how-to guide offers practical help on a wide range of relevant topics, from building a gate to getting the most from privacy screening. The designer allows you to place a good range of garden furniture on your plot as well as any plants. Most impressive of all is the 3D element, which creates a full-colour impression of your design at a nice high resolution. You can go for a virtual walk, complete with footfall sound effects.

pounds 49.95, FastTrack (01923 495496)

The Plant Finder Reference Library

Plant Finder is a long-established paper directory which lists suppliers of thousands upon thousands of plants. This is its second year in CD-ROM format, and this version is bigger and better than the last. For your pounds 25 you get the Plant Finder database in all its glory, along with lots of extras such as the seed search database, fruit and veg finder, arboreta and garden guide, plant photo finder, National Trust properties guide and a lexicon of Latin names. If you are prepared to pay extra there is a range of other databases that you can unlock, including several international plant finders and garden guides. The disc has been put together in a solid, no-frills style. There are no videos, no sound clips, and no natty little animations. Just the data. This means the disc will even run on a 386.

pounds 25, Headmain (01273 476151)