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How can a computer help you in the garden?

How can a computer help you in the garden?

Can computers help you be a better gardener? Will the future find floppy disks hanging next to your rake and shovel in the garden shed? That's what we wanted to find out, so we ran a query in the February Sunset asking readers to tell us how they use their computers to help them with their gardening. At the same time, we rounded up and tested every type of gardening software we could get our hands on.

What did we find out? First, Westerners are using computers to help them garden. Second, while there isn't a computer out there that will pull your weeds or cut your lawn, computers can help you be better organized, keep records, and even provide the latest information on pest control.

What type of computer and software can you use?

The type of computer you use is not as important as the software you have. Many Westerners are using standard wordprocessing, database, spread-sheet, or filing software to simplify garden activities or keep records. However, if you want to use software designed specifically for gardening, your choices will be very limited unless you have an IBM PC (or PC-compatible) or an Apple computer.

In computer jargon, gardening software is "in its first generation"--though each year usually brings not only new software but also improved versions of old. In part, its slow development is due to the fact that many manufacturers disappear as fast as they arise (about half the companes producing gardening software three years ago are now out of business).

This has several repercussions: most such software is available for either the IBM or the Apple machines but not both; not all of it is easy to use; and not all of it comes with thorough instructions. These types of problems are usually worked out as software becomes more widely used.

Keeping track and planning ahead-- with a little help from your machine

Remembering what plants and techniques have worked and which haven't (and why, if you know) is critical to successful gardening on a year-to-year basis. And the most common gardening purpose to which Sunset readers put their computers is keeping track of successes and failures, and then using the information to better plan their next flower, fruit, or vegetable gardens.

Typical were the comments of Avrom Green, of Phoenix: "I've planted over 400 kinds of seeds in the last five years. I use my computer to keep track of how they perform. My categories include where I got the seed; germination dates; when and where seedlings went outside; a ranking of flower and fruit size, longevity, and vigor; and comments on what I thought of the plant."

Other gardeners use their computers to plan monthly chores. Says Jean Selzer, of San Diego, "My husband and I use a database to record every plant we have and the specific care it needs--for example, when it needs to be fed, pruned, or sprayed. We also include the Sunset Western Garden Book page number for additional information. We have a printout for every month that tells us what needs to be done."

But using databases and other organizational software to keep records is only the beginning. Several software packages-- including three described on page 266-- are specially designed to help you monitor and plan gardens and landscapes.

A mouse around the house might be just what you need for landscape planning

Computers with strong graphics capabilities, such as the Apple Macintosh, can be very helpful in landscape planning. Jane Zinke, of San Diego, is one gardener who think so. "When my neighbor asked my advice on how to landscape his boring front yard, I drew a picture of his house and yard with the mouse on my computer. I drew my plant ideas on one sheet, and printed out two blank house outlines for him to photocopy and fill in with his own ideas." Landscape architects use several highpowered programs to design and draw landscapes. However, such software usually is very expensive, uses more memory than is common in most home computers, and may require a special printer.

One software package, Design Your Own Home Landscape (described in the box at left), is more practical for homeowners-- if they have Apple computers. We found it fun to play with, but brief directions wake it rather hard to master.

Waht it to help choose plants?

Let's say you live in Pasadena and you want to plant a shrub that produces white flowers in May, is 4 feet tall at maturity, and grows best in full sun and with little water. Can a computer help you find the right plant? Maybe.

Three of the six software packages listed on page 266 are specifically designed for plant selection. Each has strengths and weaknesses. The biggest drawback--common to all of them--is a lack of adaptation information specific to Western climates. Two of the three use USDA plant zone recommendations (more appropriate for the eastern United States), and the third includes no specific claimate recommendations at all, although it is designed for mild climates of the West.

Noble Bashor, of Salem, Oregon, makes another point: "I have considered buying one of the plant selector databases, but one of the first things I learned about using a computer is that many things should not be done with them. I think it's much quicker to open a book than to turn on a computer and load a program in order to look up a plant that may not be described in the database anyhow."

If you have a telephone modem, you'll find more sources of information

One of the more exciting aspects of a computer is its ability to put you in touch with external databases through a telephone modem. With one call, you can gain access to larger, more powerful compurters --and the wealth of information they contain. Currently, only a few databases include plant information. Most cater to professionals and are expensive to use on a minute-by-minute basis.

However, the future looks bright for this method of sharing and retrieving information; state universities and government offices are generally making their computers more accessible.

For example, the University of California maintains an integrated pest management database, called IMPACT, which provides up-to-date information on pest control guidelines and weather. You can use it at a cost of $13 (for a user manual) plus calling charges. (Private individuals can use the system only during nonbusiness hours.) For information, write to IPM Computer System Manager, IPM Implementation Group, University of California, Davis 95616.

Photo: Computer gardening tools: computer, printer, software (people still do the dirty work)
COPYRIGHT 1988 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles on designing landscape
Date:May 1, 1988
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