The Beginner's Garden: How to Easily Create a Summer Eden
From ferns to forsythia, there are ample growth opportunities for creating a gorgeous, low-maintenance garden this year in your own backyard.
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photos by renee rosensteel
It's easy to develop a serious case of garden envy in Pittsburgh. Many homeowners in Shadyside make the most of compact, manicured plots that surround their houses. Ditto for the folks along so many streets in Squirrel Hill. Outside the city, things get even greener. From Mt. Lebanon to Moon Township to Cranberry Township to Monroeville, you'll find neighborhoods full of blooming bushes, colorful perennials and ornamental grasses that flutter in the summer breeze.
photo by ray saber
Who wouldn’t want such a garden? For some of us, the challenge is that our busy schedules leave no time for our gardening ambitions. We gaze at calendars overstuffed with career and family obligations, and then we decide to put off planting for one more year. Next summer, we promise ourselves, we’ll finally get around to gardening.
Fortunately, starting your very first garden doesn’t have to be all that complicated — as long as you keep it small and choose wisely. We’ve gathered wisdom from some of Pittsburgh’s many gardening professionals (and some truly talented amateurs) to create a primer on starting and maintaining a simple garden that won’t require a huge investment of time or money. Even if you’ve got only a handful of weekend afternoons to spare, this could be your year to join the ranks of Pittsburgh’s backyard gardeners. Gorgeous gardens aren’t built in a single season, but you can begin this summer by literally planting seeds for a landscape you’ll develop year after year.
ANALYZE YOUR AREA
Take a walk outside and choose one spot — perhaps right around the area where you enjoy sitting during good weather. Maybe it’s the first few feet of ground around your patio or maybe it’s along the bases of the trees you see from your deck. Accept that you’ll confine this year’s gardening efforts to this manageable area that you have in view often.
“Remember, Rome was not built in a day,” says Marilyn Backus, vice president of the Garden Club of Monroeville. It’s far better to start small, she advises. This year’s fledgling garden can grow each year until it matches that ambitious image you’ve got in mind.
Once you’ve chosen the space, observe it through the course of a full day. How much sun does this area get? Is the soil wet, dry or in between? You’ll need this information to choose plants that can thrive with minimal care. And ask yourself: Are you all about color or would you rather take in a vista of soothing green?
TALK TO THOSE WHO KNOW
You’re in luck: People who love to garden also love to discuss gardening. Avid gardener Samantha Gray-Pelch of Shaler Township suggests starting close to home. Scope out the prettiest gardens in your neighborhood and ask those neighbors which plants grow most easily in their yards. Chances are they’ll be proud to share their knowledge and encourage a gardening newbie.
Gray-Pelch also has found that staff members at local garden centers are happy to dole out useful advice. Some are certified horticulturists, and most will know a great deal about the soil and weather in our region. At the Urban Gardener shop in California-Kirkbride, co-owners Lynne Weber and Joan Kimmel take time to help many customers plan the contents and arrangement of their gardens.
Another great way to learn which plants might be best for you: Backus suggests reaching out to your local garden club and checking out free online gardening courses at craftsy.com.
CHOOSE NATIVE PLANTS
Whether you’re seeking bright flowers or lush green plants, go with “native” plants. They have adapted best to being ignored because they grow naturally in Pennsylvania, according to Weber and Kimmel. There are many low-maintenance native plants from which to choose.
A shady garden full of ferns, hostas, (pictured above) epimedium [and] lady’s mantle is relatively maintenance-free, say Weber and Kimmel. A sunny garden full of ornamental grasses, sedums and knockout roses also will take care of itself.
If your soil is dry, they recommend butterfly weed (asclepias tuberosa) and beardtongue (penstemon digitalis). For moist spots, they suggest wild geranium (geranium maculatum) and cardinal flower (lobelia cardinalis).
“We often recommend that gardeners plant in ‘drifts’ of perennials, where you get a large massing of, say, coneflowers (echinacea) moving into a stand of ‘Helen’s flower’ (helenium), shasta daisies (leucanthemum) or our native switchgrass (panicum),” they say. “That’s usually more attractive than one plant here, another one there and a single one over there.”
As you look at native plants that would work with your yard’s water/sun combination, consider the style of garden you have in mind. If you’re seeking easy and low-maintenance, then a fancy, symmetrical English garden may not be your best approach. A slightly less formal look will make life easier. Plants that grow wild but look beautiful untamed include milkweed (asclepias) and catmint (nepeta).
For a burst of gorgeous green, says Backus, “pachysandra and English ivy are my favorite ground covers because they stay green year-round.”