Those of us possessed by gardening often resent, or prefer to ignore, questions of what a garden costs and what it's worth. We've probably all been...

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THOSE OF US possessed by gardening often resent, or prefer to ignore, questions of what a garden costs and what it’s worth. We’ve probably all been asked about how much time and money we’ve invested in our gardens. I’d prefer not to face up to either. After all, what other investment pays back a constant source of wonder, inspiration, beauty and activity?

So I was taken up short last summer when the appraiser for our house sale asked what I thought my garden was worth. His eyes glazed over when I explained how my husband had built most of the structures — how to put a value on time? — and that many of the plants were irreplaceable (in my mind, anyway). How about 14 years of hard labor, the maturity of a stewartia or the hundreds of bulbs beneath the soil? Did the fact it was all organic count for something? All the thought, love, effort — and yes, money — that had gone into the garden was impossible to quantify, let alone guess what it might mean to a buyer.

I’m afraid that when we sell, that’s what it all comes down to: Are our gardens a liability or an asset?

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The National Gardening Survey, a vast compilation of statistics, ignores the subject. However, if we’d put our efforts into a bathroom or kitchen remodel, the results would be easily quantifiable. Recognized formulas determine return on investment with sinks, countertops and toilets. The average kitchen remodel in Seattle costs $46,352, of which 87.6 percent will be recouped in a sale; bathrooms cost an average $11,160 and recoup a whopping 125.7 percent. (Check out www.realtor.org.)

I’ve now looked through dozens of articles and charts, and find little mention of landscaping. Decks “have become more desirable,” making 70 to 75 percent of their cost recoverable. Mostly, gardens are relegated to the squishy category of “curb appeal” not unlike a fresh coat of paint.

But what about a real garden — one with flowers, fences, arbors, shrubs and trees? According to the Council of Tree and Landscape Appraisers, a mature tree can have a replacement value between $1,000 and $10,000. (Remember the flap in 2001 when Mayor Paul Schell paid $35,000 for a venerable Japanese maple?) The Gallup Organization says landscaping can add between 7 and 15 percent to a home’s value, while a study at Clemson University reports that “excellent” landscaping raises a sale price by 6 to 7 percent.

Residential appraiser Rick Bungay says, “I always consider landscaping; it’s a line I insert on the form to help come up with value.” Notice that landscaping isn’t on the form, but a consideration initiated by the individual appraiser. “Good landscaping definitely enhances a home’s marketability, but it’s hard to say how much,” concludes Bungay, adding that he mostly notices if a garden is up to the neighborhood standard and how well it is maintained.

I sought out a couple of real-estate agents who are also gardeners. “Lenders tend not to recognize landscaping because they think it could all die,” says Phyllis Hanen of Windermere realty. Maria Rippee, also with Windermere, says clients ask for privacy, views, light and exposure, but a garden is rarely high on their list. “More often than not, larger or complex gardens are a drawback because people don’t want maintenance,” Rippee explains. “Younger people are busy, and older people know better.” But all the realtors I talked with agreed a garden can evoke an emotional reaction from buyers, inspiring multiple offers and higher price tags for a property.

I remain convinced that my summer-blooming garden made a big difference in both price and how fast our house sold. All the numbers and opinions should probably curb a gardener’s unrealistic expectations as to value, but certainly not the impulse to garden. Gardeners tend to be optimists. Why else would we be outdoors on these chilly winter days sticking brown bulb lumps into the ground while visions of tulips and lilies dance in our heads?

Now In Bloom

The winter-flowering cherry (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’) is in full bloom, its pale semi-double blossoms a hopeful sight against dark skies. This cherry blooms on and off during warm spells November through March, its ruffled blossoms dangling off bare limbs. The mid-size tree needs near-perfect drainage to prevent blight. P. x subhirtella ‘Pendula’ is a small, weeping version; ‘Rosea’ has more profuse single pink blossoms.


Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net.