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Hang ups

All the teachers I know seem to be devoting their weekends to a relentless round of marking and preparation. I warn them of the dangers of "all work and no play" and encourage them to take up some healthy outdoor pursuit - especially one that doesn't put them to the inconvenience of actually going outdoors.

I've just spent a pleasant wet Sunday in my garden. The only implement I've had to use has been the mouse and I haven't been called upon to do anything more strenuous than pull down the odd menu. Most gardeners wouldn't regard a couple of megabytes on a hard disc as sufficient space for an allotment, or a computer simulation as a patch on the real thing. But I confess that I have found it so fullfilling that I am tempted to abandon the no-man's land where I normally dig and delve, to the moles, the convolvulus, the neighbour's cat and the New Zealand flatworms that seem to get so much more pleasure from it than I do.

There are several gardening simulations on the market but only the one from Global Software Publishing comes with the blessing of Geoff Hamilton, the loved and respected television gardener who died earlier this year. The millions of us who never missed his appearances on Gardeners' World regarded him as the authority on all things horticultural. Whether it is compost, cucumber or a computer program, if Geoff gives it the thumbs up, it's good enough for us.

Geoff Hamilton's Garden Designer provides a stretch of virgin lawn - acre upon rolling acre of the stuff - on which you can create your perfect garden. So, for instance, if you fancy laying a path, you go to the relevant menu where you can choose which sort - cobblestone, gravel, crazy paving, etc. The path appears. You drag it to the ideal spot and generally twiddle with it until it is the length and shape you want it to be. Similarly, you can add walls, borders, ponds, fountains, arbours, a barbecue, chairs, tables and all the other items that no suburban garden should be without.

But the software really comes into its own when you start adding the trees and plants. You select these from an on-screen encyclopedia of more than 1, 000 specimens, each accompanied by a screen of useful data and a beautiful colour photograph. Once you have made your choice, you click on the appropriate icon and the plant appears in your garden.

And now the really clever bit: when every border's brimming, you can click through the months of the year and see how the garden changes with the seasons. So those daffs that look so good in March have become a green splodge by May and disappeared in August. If you decide that any of the plants are in the wrong place, you simply drag them around or replace any of them with something else. Using the package, I discovered why so few schools are really at their best this time of year. I was trying to design a folly for the bottom of my virtual garden. I built a walled rectangle, and then, stuck for inspiration, added some rather tacky tables and chairs. I had accidentally created the first virtual school staffroom.

I had to turn to the encyclopedia to find teachers to plant there. It wasn't terribly satisfactory but I made do with a motley collection of hardy perennials, a few shrinking violets and a couple of creepers. I could watch as they changed with the seasons - and it was remarkable to see just how many of them seem to blossom in late July and August only to fade to a shadow of their former selves by this time of year. All work and no play, as I keep telling them.

* Geoff Hamilton's Garden Designer (Pounds 19.95), Global Software Publishing, 01480 496 666


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