Feb. 1 2007 12:00 AM

Of course, when it comes down to the possibility of working such magic yourself, it seems impossible. You're a landscape contractor, not a magician, and don't think you could possibly have the right computer skills to pull it together. That kind of thing is best left to the experts, right? Wrong.

While there aren't (yet) computer programs out there that will dig your trenches and plant your trees, there are programs available that can help you map out where to dig and plant -- and much, much more. Computers can perform tasks faster and more accurately than you could ever hope to do by hand. Landscape design software can make the entire design process take up to half as much time as it takes now -- and it's not that hard to learn.

"The benefits of design software are numerous," says John DeCell, president of Software Republic, Houston, Texas. "It makes the design process faster, lends you a more professional appearance, allows you to close more sales calls and earn a higher dollar amount per call, and differentiates you from your competition."

In other words, design software puts you on the very efficient -- and very profitable -- cutting edge.
While making such a fundamental shift in your design process can seem frightening, or even foolish, design software is truly an innovation worth investigating.

What a picture's worth

Typically, they say it's about a 1,000 words. However, contractors who use computer design software often translate the worth of a picture not into thousands of words, but rather thousands of dollars.

"People are visual. They think in pictures," says Marilyn Dorota, owner of Flower Bed Designs, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. "They don't know the names and colors of shrubs -- those are just words. The symbols on a CAD drawing are just as meaningless to customers. They need to actually see the landscape you're proposing."

The photo imaging tool in design software allows you to do exactly that: show a client a picture of what you envision for his property. Imagine -- presenting a client with a photograph of what his future landscape will look like, before you install it! All you need is a digital photograph of the client's property to manipulate on your computer.

Photo imaging software typically comes with a photo library of hundreds or thousands of pictures of plants, flowers, trees, hardscapes, and other landscape elements. To begin designing a landscape, you click and drag these pictures onto the photograph of your customer's property. Want to line a driveway with daylilies? Click and drag them into position. Think the fence needs some ornamental shrubbery? Click and drag. "It's as easy as playing Solitaire on your computer," says Pete Lord, president of Drafix Software, Kansas City, Missouri.

Of course, once you place your plants, you might discover that some of the colors clash. Or perhaps the colors are too bland, and don't make enough of a statement. No problem. Just click and drag them right back out of the picture, and click and drag some new ones in. Then hit 'print,' and show your client just how good his landscape could look.

With this kind of visual aid, it's hard not to win more bids. Your competitors will probably still be showing clients rough sketches of landscapes, or expecting customers to use their imaginations. How can a customer not be impressed when you walk in with an actual photo of the front of his house or business?

One potential problem with the photo imaging tool is that no matter how many thousands of images a program's photo library includes, it's impossible for the program to include everything. Luckily, manufacturers have found a way around this drawback. The best programs on the market allow you to add to the library -- you can upload photos you take of plants, hardscapes, and other landscape features, and save them in the library for use in future designs. You can snap shots of plants from a local nursery, a water feature you recently constructed, or a well-designed retaining wall you drove past, and then it's all fair game to be used in your next design.

Chris Walter, owner of Computerized Landscape Design, Liberty, Missouri, uses photo imaging software as a marketing tool. If he's hired to do a landscape in a new development, he'll drive through the area and take pictures of other houses in the neighborhood that need to be landscaped. When he gets home, he spends ten to fifteen minutes on each one with the photo imaging tool, adding landscape elements to give each a professional, unique look.

"I print the pictures out and give them to the homeowners, offering to help them with their landscaping when they get around to it," Walter says. "Most of the time, I end up with the jobs. It's a worthwhile deal -- I spend ten to fifteen minutes on a house and land a $10,000 to $15,000 job."

6_3.jpgWhen being a CAD is good

Being called a 'cad' isn't usually a compliment, unless it's CAD, and you're talking about computer-aided design. A CAD tool allows you to create a plan for the landscape, with exact measurements and distances. Drawing this out accurately by hand is tedious at best, requiring a great deal of time and effort. The purpose of CAD software is to take some of that work away, except for the creative work. For example, if you want a certain plant placed every two feet along a garden path, some CAD programs can automatically place the plants for you. You can concentrate on your design, not measuring out distances with your ruler or trying to draw a straight line.

CAD is often seen as the most intimidating aspect of landscape design software. Because CAD programs are often used by architects and engineers who have years of formal training, contractors expect them to be difficult to use and filled with esoteric jargon. In truth, 30 minutes of working with one will probably leave you saying that it's downright user-friendly; spend the rest of the weekend with it and you'll be basically proficient.

"Our goal is to get the contractor up and running as soon as possible," says Anne Behner, sales manager and end-use development for Visual Impact Imaging, Akron, Ohio. "We've created a program that gives professional results, but that uses simple, intuitive tools and functions to get there."

Most landscape design packages include CAD software that's been totally customized to use landscape terminology in its menus and buttons. Whereas a general CAD might have an option to 'draw a 2D poly line,' the CAD portion of a landscape design program will often say, 'draw edging,' 'draw mulch,' or 'draw pavers.' It couldn't be more straightforward.

Once you've completed your CAD design, estimating is a breeze. Most programs allow you to assign prices to various items, and then when you use them in your design, the program keeps track of how many there are, and how much they will cost. You can quickly and easily get an estimate on what your materials will cost, with no fear of underestimating and losing money because you forgot to count those shrubs in a corner.

The design software can also generate a list of all the materials you'll need for the job based on your CAD design. It can count everything, down to fittings, nozzles, and solvent. You can even group items, so that whenever you place a tree in a design, the program knows that you'll need to buy not only a tree, but also a tree stake and wire. Comprehensive material lists like this can make you many times more efficient, as you'll never have to waste time running back to your distributor in the middle of a job because you miscounted and purchased too few of something.


Above and beyond Landscape

design programs have a variety of special features beyond basic photo imaging and CAD tools. One of the newest and most exciting features coming to some programs is the ability to take your photo imaging or CAD plans to the next level by showing them in 3D. This means that you can actually get 'inside' a landscape, spinning it around and viewing it from different angles.

Used with photo imaging software, 3D is an amazing sales tool. Clients can experience their future landscape in the most realistic way possible. You can even spin the viewing angle to replicate what the client will see out of his windows. If customers are impressed by photo imaging displays, they'll be floored if you offer them what's practically a virtual walk-through of their landscape, before it's even built. Even the CAD plan can be made to pop up in 3D, with 3D photos of plants automatically inserted in place of their symbols.

Computer design software can also have a significant impact on irrigation design, enabling you to craft water-efficient designs that would be almost impossible on paper. Irrigation designer Lorne Haveruk, principal of DH Water Management Services, Inc., Toronto, Ontario, Canada, was recently asked to work on an irrigation design for a complicated project at a local zoo. Although he has been designing for 17 years, the project initially had him stumped for days.

"It was a mess. Someone had tried to design the whole thing on paper, and it was just impossible. He had been designing as if the whole area were flat, but what made the project so difficult was the fact that it had numerous slopes, caves, planters, etc., all of which had to be irrigated differently and efficiently," Haveruk says.

His irrigation CAD program helped him to find the best irrigation solutions for each individual problem area. Instead of turning the property's terrain into one flat sheet, it showed him the contour lines on slopes, giving him a clear picture of exactly what he was designing for.

"I resisted using CAD software for as long as possible," he says. "It looked complicated and intimidating, but it's not. It's a huge asset. If you want to design irrigation properly, a good irrigation design program is essential."

Irrigation design software makes quick work out of the calculations that are integral to an efficient system. It calculates every factor from total flow to total volume to distribution levels, and even the number of parts and feet of pipe you'll need. The best programs are even expandable: if there's a sprinkler you want to use that's not in the database, you can simply input its specs. The program can then use the sprinkler in all of its flow calculations, just as if it had been in the program's database all along.

Adding night lighting to your menu of services can be a huge profit center for your company, and while it's an easy add-on service to start with, it becomes even easier thanks to computer design software. Rather than setting up a demo kit on a property, some design programs make it possible to show a customer what night lighting would look like in his landscape with a few clicks of the mouse.

Using the photo imaging interface, the program allows you to click and drag various lighting elements into place to light the landscape features of your choice. Some programs even let you adjust the cone size and brightness of each light. The resulting picture, when shown to the client, is almost certain to help you make the sale. A similar function can help you design and sell holiday lighting.

If you're still unconvinced that a design program is worth your time and money, consider the fact that many programs pay for themselves within one or two jobs. It's just about the fastest return on investment for any tool you own. Additionally, look at the equipment in your warehouse. If you're like many landscapers, it's worth tens of thousands of dollars. But how many jobs has your equipment sold for you?

"It's true that good equipment is vital to delivering good work once a job is secured, but rarely is it the reason that you get a job. Landscape design software has been proven to help companies sell more jobs," says Dorota.

Bottom line? Design software is an excellent investment. By spending as little as a thousand dollars now, you're setting yourself up with the tools necessary to win more jobs and increase your revenues by tens of thousands of dollars -- or more -- down the road.