Unless the weather is a washout, Britain will be out in the garden en masse for tomorrow's Bank Holiday. According to Alliance & Leicester's movingimproving index, 16 per cent of people contacted for a survey will be working on their garden to get it ready for barbecues and al fresco entertaining. But the respondents clearly realise the limit to their DIY skills, with only 2 per cent intending to lay a patio.
That said, whether you are digging a pond or mowing the lawn, a garden can add value to your home as well as bring pleasure - as long as you do it right.
If a garden appears complicated and labour-intensive, with lots of topiary or a rockery, it could deter prospective buyers. Equally, while naturalistic planting is in vogue, letting waist-high brambles and stinging nettles take over is offputting. Eco gardens may have featured heavily at last week's Chelsea Flower Show, with ferns, wild flowers and meadow planting, but the look was more that of a wood filled with bluebells and foxgloves than a garden jungle full of thistles.
When planning your garden, be wary of water features as these might deter families with small children. "A small feature - such as a fountain set in the middle of a pile of stones - looks great, is low maintenance and shouldn't be a problem," says John Roberts from Mica Landscaping in Haslemere, Surrey. "But if you've got a pond, you should fill it in before you put your house on the market as it will put off swathes of potential buyers."
Greenhouses are also offputting for families as it is easy to smash a pane or two during a game of football. And broken glass doesn't rot, so it will stay in the ground for years, cutting the bare feet of anyone who ventures near it.
Decking looks great but presents its own dangers, being extremely slippery when wet. Caring for it can be labour-intensive as well: it needs pressure washing on a regular basis so you don't get a build-up of slime, making it even more slippery.
You should also bear in mind that the "must haves" of back yards today can be bound for the bonfire tomorrow. Fashions come and go and gardens are no exception. Sales of decking are falling, while Indian sandstone is being touted as the next big thing, says Mr Roberts. Cobbles are also coming back into vogue, as are reclaimed bricks and gravel - for a seaside-style garden.
If your back yard is in need of some tender loving care before you inflict it on friends or prospective buyers, a few simple steps should produce results.
Start with colour, as this will quickly brighten up the place. You don't have to go as far as Diarmuid Gavin's brightly coloured lollipops in his National Lottery Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show - vivid plant pots are an easy way of injecting vibrancy. You don't have to spend a fortune: you can pick them up cheap at school fetes, jumble sales and car boot sales. And the other advantage of pots is that you can take them with you when you move. But make this clear in the inventory of what is staying and what you are taking to avoid confusion.
Subtle lighting can also improve the ambience of your garden: outdoor candles and glass lanterns are cheap but effective.
To make a large garden more interesting, plant ornamental flowerbeds, with bright annuals, near the house. Shrubs should be situated further away from your property and you could also include a "wild" section, with bluebells and foxgloves.
If your garden is small, your priority should be to keep it neat, so remove brambles and stinging nettles. If it is really tiny, or you live in the city, a chic solution is to turn it into a courtyard for al fresco dining, with a decent table and chairs, lots of flowers and lanterns.
"Adding interest adds value," says Mr Roberts. "There are a lot of things you can do to spruce your garden up but you mustn't make it look as though you spent a lot of time and effort on it."
If you are trying to sell your home, and have some say over the timing, put it on the market during the spring or summer, when the garden is at its best. Selling during winter is far harder as potential buyers may lack the imagination to see beyond the barren landscape.
MAKE SURE YOU'RE COVERED AND STOP THE GREEN-FINGERED THIEVES
The research company Mintel reports that some £4.4bn was spent on gardening products last year. So it is perhaps not surprising, according to Saga Home Insurance, that 5,000 British gardens are targeted by thieves every week.
Check, then, that your home insurance covers your garden's contents.You could also read the Saga guide "Secure Against Crime", which it has produced in association with the Home Office.
This offers a number of useful tips on securing your garden:
* Make your shed as secure as possible. Put up metal grilles over any windows, and hang curtains inside to stop people looking in.
* Power tools should be secured to a fixed point in the shed with a bicycle lock or padlock.
* Spiky hedges such as hawthorn can deter thieves from trying to break into your garden.
* Install outside lighting to illuminate dark corners.
* Lock away tools and ladders so that burglars can't use them to break into your home.
* Mark your equipment and take photographs to help police identify any items that are stolen.
* Keep boundary fences and walls well-maintained so thieves can't just slip into your back garden.
Watch out for accidents to yourself, your family and friends as well. "Each year 300,000 people are hurt badly enough to need hospital treatment while in their gardens," warns Howard Posner, managing director of Halifax General Insurance. "While many of these accidents are caused by tripping over flower pots, misusing garden spades or failing to control lawnmowers, a rising number of injuries are barbecue-related."
Check that your home insurance covers you for fire damage to property; injury to guests (personal liability); theft of the barbecue from your home; and garden damage, including potted plants and ornaments.
For a copy of Saga's 'Secure Against Crime' guide, call 0800 068 8412 or www.saga.co.ukReuse content