I may not have some people’s talent for gardening, but I enjoy dabbling. Designing a flower bed, however, is entirely beyond my abilities. So when I decided to spruce up a neglected patio in back of my house, I looked for help online.
It turns out there are a number of services available to those of us who are more comfortable with technology than nature. Whether you have an overgrown suburban backyard or a 34th-floor balcony in the city, these tools promise to help you visualize a solution.
I tried out a handful, opting for the most basic packages. The goal: to make over a roughly 80-square-foot space and turn it into a lush, inviting space where friends and family could relax.
Created by Allison Rhodes Messner and Adam Messner, a husband-and-wife team of tech entrepreneurs in Mill Valley, Yardzen is an online service that uses a combination of satellite imagery, publicly available property information, user-submitted photos, videos and email to create a design plan without ever setting foot in your yard.
You take a photo of your outdoor space and complete a questionnaire that involves sharing your address and answering questions like, “Who uses your outdoor space today?” (A: me, my husband, children, guests, cat) and “Which of these deck railings do you like?” followed by a series of styles to choose from.
Using this information, along with satellite imagery of your yard based on your address, a Yardzen designer confirms your property’s boundaries, determines the sun and shade patterns for your planting zone and redesigns your space.
I opted for the least expensive package: a $249 “botanical makeover” that included a two-dimensional rendering of my reimagined space and a plant list to take to a local nursery or hand off to a landscaper. (Yardzen also offers more elaborate options, starting at about $1,000 for projects ranging from outdoor kitchens and decks to children’s play spaces; clients receive three-dimensional renderings, at least one revision, unlimited consultations with the design team and referrals to professional landscapers who can execute the design.)
After sending my details and payment, I quickly received an email asking if there were any specific plants I wanted to use. (My answer: native grasses and florals, please.) Two days later, I received a detailed rendering of the redesigned space. In place of the 1960s-era concrete in my patio, there were sleek concrete pavers that extended out to the lawn, surrounded by native grasses and purple-and-white flowers selected for the New York planting zone and the amount of sun the area receives.
A second image labeled each of the eight plant species depicted in the rendering, including four garden lupines, two blue fescues and eight silver carpet lamb’s ears. There was also a detailed plant list, including Latin names, and the number of plants required for my space. A meticulous diagram showed how to plant everything, right down to the space required between the flowers, the depth of the mulch (2 inches) and how deep the root ball of each particular shrub should sit in the soil.
One shortcoming: While I indicated that my total budget was $2,500 in the initial design profile, there was no mention of how much this would all cost, or where I might buy those concrete pavers. Yardzen, which was started in March, said this is on its to-do list. “One thing we’ve been kicking around to figure out how we solve this for people is shopping the bid from the local nursery,” Rhodes Messner said.
The bottom line: Even without the prices, I was pleased with my patio makeover. The process was fast and easy; I did not have to measure anything, and there was very little thinking required on my end. Armed with the plant list, digging diagram and rendering, it would be easy to head to the nursery and then get to work in the garden.
Landstylist, another online service, was started by Julie Farris, a landscape designer in New York City, with the aim of making stylish and sustainable landscape design accessible to those on a budget.
It offers three options: a “looks board” of inspiration based on your specific needs and criteria (about $200); a garden plan that includes a layout and plant suggestions (about $300); and an individual consultation (starting at $300) to help you create a garden tailored to your personal style and budget – and to execute it, if you so choose and can afford it.
To get started, you send Landstylist an email about what you want to do with your outdoor space. Following my request for a looks board, I received a quick reply asking for three photos of my patio, measurements, ZIP code, goals (“sitting/entertaining/gardening”) and style (“traditional/modern/mix of both?”).
A couple of days later, my looks board arrived, with a list of plants (hydrangea, viburnum or buddleia) and links to tasteful accessories (including the Acapulco black egg chair from CB2 and the Fermob bistro furniture and an outdoor rug from Restoration Hardware). The board even addressed my garden-tool clutter problems by recommending the Hindo potting bench from Ikea.
While I had to get out my tape measure and take some photos of my space, the overall process was simple and efficient, and the looks board offered some useful ideas. A detailed description of where to put the recommended plants and accessories would take this service to the next level – a step the company said it is working on.
The bottom line: Knowing the recommendations came from professionals who have tested various planters and furnishings and that the plants were chosen according to my planting zone made the cost worthwhile.
If you want to spend less money and do not mind doing your own renderings, your best option may be iScape, an iPhone app that was created by Patrick Pozzuto, a landscaper-turned-tech-entrepreneur, after a particularly difficult project in which he nearly threw out his back digging up and replanting sago palms until he and a client were satisfied they had the optimal arrangement.
This app allows you to be a virtual landscape designer (thereby avoid ing Pozzuto’s fate) by snapping a photo of your outdoor space and decorating it with two-dimensional images of trees, shrubs, pavers, plants, furniture, birdhouses and other elements that you can pinch to resize and drag around your photo.
While this sounds easy, it was actually somewhat arduous, as it required no small amount of guesswork to figure out whether a pergola, for example, would fit in my tiny patio. Pozzuto said the company plans to address that issue later this year by introducing a new version of the app that will use augmented reality to allow users to virtually walk through an outdoor space; it will also superimpose and automatically size three-dimensional images of plants, so you can see if a particular tree would block your view or how hydrangeas would look instead of petunias.
Another issue: If you are using the free version of the app, you are limited to choosing just 10 of the 150 images of plants, hardscapes and outdoor furnishings in the database, and you can save only one design. If you want to use more images and save two designs, you have to subscribe, which will cost $4.99 a month (or $19.99 a month if you want unlimited storage).
The bottom line: Whether you are planning to go it alone or hire a landscaper, this app offers an easy way to design an outdoor space.