There are few milestones in life as satisfying as buying your first home. Owning property creates a feeling of accomplishment, and decorating it with one's personal style is exhilarating.
Yet the same buyer who wouldn't blink at painting their home in bold colors is often hesitant to fiddle with a yard.
"If there's a tree in the garden that they can't stand, they totally freeze up," notes Katherine Whiteside, author of several gardening books and a gardening columnist for House Beautiful magazine. "People make changes on the inside all the time, but if it's outside it feels a little more daunting."
Don't panic if your new home comes with a garden that is mysterious and strange. And if the house doesn't have a garden, don't be too intimidated to start one. Either way, there are plenty of strategies for getting up to speed.
Reading as many gardening books and articles as you can is a good start. Then it's time for some fieldwork.
"You learn so much by looking at other people's gardens and public gardens around you, which saves a lot of heartache in the long run," says Nicola Ferguson, author of Right Plant, Right Place (Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 2005). "Take lots of notes. Take photos, too."
Those who acquire an existing garden when they purchase a home should wait a full cycle of seasons before making changes, Ferguson adds. "Take it slowly, because novice gardeners really don't know what they like and what they don't, and you don't want to have to replace those mature specimens that take years to grow because you ripped them out thinking they were boring."
Also, if something's thriving, resist the urge to pull it up even if it doesn't initially knock your socks off, Ferguson cautions. "If it's doing well, it's doing well for a reason, and whatever you're thinking of replacing it with may not thrive as well under the same conditions," she says.
Homeowners who inherit a garden have one big advantage over those who are starting from scratch. They can draw on the experience of the home's previous owner.
Most sellers are happy to do a walk through to help buyers identify what's there, as well as offer tips and advice.
Ask for a printout of any improvements to the property, including bills for landscaping, lawn maintenance, hedge trimming and the like, Whiteside says. That will give you an idea of what your expenses are likely to be. It also allows for continuity if you want to stay with the same vendors, all of who will be familiar with the unique quirks of the property.
Find out, too, what chemicals have been used on the lawn and garden, says Gayla Trail, author of You Grow Girl, (Fireside, 2005) That's useful whether or not you plan to continue using those chemicals. Even organic gardeners need to know what's been applied in the past.
It's also a good idea to try to find out the history of the land, Trail says. "Ask if the soil's been tested for pollutants, because you don't know what the land was used for before there was a house there, and especially in the city, lots turn over quite a bit," she says. "Where there's a loft today, there may have been a gas station before, or a paint factory. Those industrial uses create a lot of toxins. You don't want to grow edibles in soil that has a lot of lead or something."
At the very least, the previous owner should know where the land is dry, where it's moist, where it's sunny and where it's shady. They can also tell you where bulbs are planted.
If something comes up and you don't know what it is, look it up in a book or ask a neighbor, Trail suggests. "Neighbors will probably have the same sorts of weeds you do and can tell you if it's just a weed or something you want to keep," she says.
Barring that, you can always take a sample to a garden center, says Stacey Leon, a certified nursery professional and sales associate in the perennial department at Hicks Nurseries in Long Island, N.Y. A certified professional ought to be able to identify the mystery plant, she says. They also should be able to tell you how to maintain it, such as the best time to prune, and which fertilizers to use.
If you're starting a garden from scratch, your first order of business is to find out what kind of soil you have. Again, neighbors can be helpful here, or call the horticulture department at the nearest university and ask for names and addresses of soil testing labs.
Once you know whether your soil is acidic or alkaline, or has, say, lots of clay, you can choose plants that do well in that kind of soil.
Software manufacturers sell elaborate garden design programs that can help homeowners plot a new landscape.
Trail prefers to arrange plants in various configurations while they're still in the pots. That's a good way to get a reasonable preview of how they'll look in the ground.
One caveat, though: Newly purchased plants usually aren't mature, so leave plenty of room to make way for additional spread and height.
And once again, quiz the previous owner of the house. Even if there's no garden, they'll still know which areas are shady, or sunny and where puddles form when it rains.
It's hard work, but it's worth it. Once you get comfortable with it, gardening is very rewarding, Trail says. Even veteran gardeners are always discovering something new.
"It's a lifelong learning process," she says. "It never stops."