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Savvy Canadian buyers seek out professional real estate advice and cutting edge mortgage info before signing on the dotted line to purchase a new home, but how many take a close look at the impact the garden is having on property value? Home inspections have become fairly standard in resale and new home purchases, but who can help you evaluate the cost of maintaining or transforming this personal oasis?

"When buying resale, most people are bowled over by a beautiful garden and don't give a thought to the kind of maintenance it takes," said Ontario garden and landscape consultant Janette Higgins, who, from her Port Hope base, helps property owners plan their own garden make-overs. "It only takes a year of no maintenance and things look bad, and in a couple of years everything has gone to wrack and ruin."

Since buyers may pay thousands extra for a breath-taking garden or a cleverly-landscaped lot, this money is wasted if they can't manage the time, money and expertise to protect this investment. Even an experienced amateur gardener may not appreciate all that is involved in taking over someone else's garden design. Since plant-growth rates demand planning in years (trees in decades), buying a garden can mean jumping into an existing continuum of plantings without knowing what the big plan or overall vision was.

"The first thing would be, if you can, connect with the previous owners or with the neighbours," said Sheila Whiteley, co-president of North Toronto's Leaside Garden Society (LGS), which is currently celebrating a 20 year anniversary. "If no one can give you that information, it is probably a good idea to live with the garden for a year. In the first year, enliven the garden with annuals, with colour, and take that next winter period to plan what you are going to do. If you are the sort of person who wants it more instantly, there are many landscape companies around. If you want to do the work yourself, give yourself time to become acquainted with the garden and to decide what kind of gardener you're going to be -- how much time and energy you are going to put in."

Are you interested in a low maintenance, drought-resistant garden because you'll be at the cottage most weekends? Or, will your green space be a get-away substitute without the hassle of a long drive? There are books, radio phone-ins, television programs, online chats, local nurseries and garden societies galore to help you discover your gardening style.

The Ontario Horticultural Association (OHA), celebrating its first centenary this year, describes itself as "a well-rooted tree with many branches (19 Districts); twigs (277 autonomous local societies) and leaves (over 40,000 members)!" Visit the OHA website and search, by district or alphabetic listing, for the garden society near you. Prospective home buyers may also find local garden or horticultural societies a great resource in learning about a neighbourhood's roots in more ways than one.

"I don't think that garden societies expect that people who are going to join have the same interests, needs or knowledge areas, or that they want to move as an homogeneous mass around the knowledge" said Whiteley, explaining that LGS's 150 members range from founding members and gardening veterans to novice gardeners and green-thumbed apartment dwellers. "We have a lot of increasingly-younger gardeners who just moved into a house and novice gardeners -- enthusiasts throughout the continuum. We welcome the fact that we have a lot of diversity in the audience and that is reflected in the kinds of activities we have."

Nominal society membership fees offer great value when weighed against the advantages of joining -- access to a wealth of information and sharing of a common passion, camaraderie and participation. This may be your opportunity to get out in the neighbourhood and contribute to the design and care of gardens at libraries, hospitals, schools and in other public areas. Junior gardening programs that ensure children gain "dirty-hands-on" experience are particularly rewarding for all concerned.

"When children have a sense, get to see what happens and who does the work, they may be less [prone to] vandalism," said Whiteley, describing the way grade-school students were affected by a public planting project. "How many had been back to see the flowers? Everyone! With their families! This creates ownership ... I think for people who might have an interest in making a difference, societies offer a level of contribution in the community in the area of something that is a hobby and an interest."

Gardening can become a lifelong passion since it adapts to any lifestyle and planting opportunity. Size does not matter when it comes to growing things -- high-rise balconies, townhouse patios, window boxes, roof top containers and indoor pots are all as important to their gardeners as urban lots or rural acreage are to theirs.

Whiteley cautions the gardening exuberance found in magazines and other media may overshadow a gardening reality: stay in your zone. Plants from a warmer zone than yours may not survive winter. Select for your zone or colder and perennial plants should thrive for years with the proper care.

"People are very generous when asked, and with plant material," said Whiteley, reminiscing about plant gifts received from neighbours when she began her garden long ago. "Spring is a constant stream of 'a root of that' and 'a spring of this' going here and there. Now those original neighbours are both gone, but we have sweet memories of them by what comes up each year."

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