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.

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.



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?



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



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.”

Next: More ideas on perfect annuals and perennials 


Along with the wonderfully hardy hostas mentioned earlier, here are some fabulous native perennial suggestions, courtesy of the plant experts at Home Depot:

Creeping Phlox: Cold-tolerant and very hardy. The first perennial brought into the market. Great early-season color.

Dianthus (perennial variety): Great early-season color. Tolerant to cooler early-season nights.

​Aquilegia (Columbine): Great colors, showy flowers. Perfect for creating perennial gardens.

Heuchera: Great accent perennial. Many colors and textures. Perfect first layer for a perennial garden.

If you prefer annuals, here are suggestions for gorgeous native varieties:

Impatiens: Multiple colors available. Perfect for containers and shady areas.

Begonias: Another great variety for shady areas. Multiple color offerings. Great in containers and beds.

Petunias: Very popular species available in multiple colors, both solid and multi-color. Great in containers and beds. Great performers in full sun.

​Calibrachoa: Multiple colors and varieties available in both seed and vegetative species. Tremendous “flower power.”

Dianthus: Great early-season annual that is tolerant to cooler temps. Beautiful showy flowers in multiple colors. Perfect for beds and containers.

photo by ray saber



Some plants play better together than others. Ray Saber, owner of Blue Fox Landscape Design and Lady Fox Gardening in Gibsonia, points out that you’ll want to place plants that flourish in the same conditions near one another.

“Rhododendron and azaleas go well together because they both like acid (in the soil) and they tolerate shade,” he says. They also look good together, he says, because “the bigger leaf of rhododendron and the smaller leaf of azalea complement each other.”

If you’re planting veggies, flowers also can help them to grow.

“I plant marigolds in my potato, radish, turnip and rutabaga patch to deter parasitic nematode damage to these root crops,” Backus says. “I plant nasturtiums amongst the cucumber and squash to deter cucumber beetles and squash bugs. The flowers look good and worked fairly well for me last summer.”

Also, consider the eventual height of plants you’re putting near one another. For example, you wouldn’t want to plant a large False Indigo (baptisia australis) in the front of the garden bed, shading and hiding a beautiful, small clump of bellflowers (campanula), say the Urban Gardener owners. They say they are big fans of planting the right plant for the size of the space so that it grows into its natural shape. This goes especially for multi-stemmed shrubs, which often have graceful forms but usually are shorn — red twig dogwoods, deutzia, azaleas, forsythia, spireas, lilacs, even burning bushes.  PM

Next: 4 questions newbies are afraid to ask (but we've answered them for you)


4 Questions Newbies Are Afraid to Ask (But We've Answered Them For You)

Feeling a bit silly about your lack of horticultural knowledge? Your secret is safe with us. We’ve got you covered with answers to the questions you’re pondering but would rather not utter out loud.

Q: What’s the difference between perennials and annuals? Perennials bloom at least two years in a row. Annuals (despite the name, which seems to suggest you’ll see them annually) bloom only once.

photo by susy morris via flickr creative commons


Q: How do I keep deer and other woodland creatures from gobbling up my plants? There are powerful chemical options that work (Backus says she occasionally sprays her plants with a mixture of Ivory soap and water), and there are more natural options. Pet-friendly options include Deer Scram powder, available at several local stores such as McTighe’s Garden Center in Glenshaw, Best Feeds Garden Center in Gibsonia and the North Hills and Soergel Orchards in Wexford. One totally nature-friendly way to go is to plant things deer dislike amid the plants they enjoy eating for dinner. “I found that planting peppermint, spearmint or lemon balm with my flower plants seems to deter wildlife from eating my flowers,” Backus says. She suggests planting mint “in a flowerpot with the lip above the surface of the ground, since mint can be invasive.” And, of course, a fence always helps.

photo via flickr creative commons


Q: Do I really have to water my plants every day? That depends on the plant and the sun/shade conditions in your yard. Ask when you buy and read any tags that come with the plant. To minimize the frequency of watering for even the thirstiest plants in pots or containers, add water-absorbing crystals sold at garden centers. “Basically, it’s the same stuff that’s in a [disposable] diaper,” Saber says. “You mix it in at the root level, not at the surface … and it cuts your watering time immensely.” A plant that otherwise might need to be watered daily can be watered once every three or four days if you’re using crystals.

photo via flickr creative commons


Q: What is mulch? Do I need it? Mulch is any material (bark, wood shavings, even decaying leaves) that you layer around plants to nourish the soil. It’s also useful for making the space around plants or around the bases of trees look more attractive. Mulch is one of the best things you can add to a garden, according to the owners of Urban Gardener. They note that mulch helps to hold down weeds, retains moisture, keeps roots cool on beating-down hot summer days and breaks down over time, which continually adds organic matter to the soil. But the big warning is this: Do not use dyed mulch. It may look pretty, but it’s not healthy for your garden. “Hardwood, pine, shredded or nuggets are all good,” say the Urban Gardeners. “We also warn homeowners not to over-mulch. You really need only 2 to 3 inches to do the job.”

For more information:

photo by joanne lightner


Help Pittsburgh's Birds, Bees & Butterflies

Your gardening efforts can do more than just beautify your landscape. Some wild, native plants also can nourish birds, butterflies and bees, assisting in their role within the life cycle. “These pollinators are critical to our food supply, and their survival is in grave danger due to loss of native plants — ‘weeds,’ if you will — because of widespread use of herbicides on lawns and gardens in addition to the loss of pastureland,” says Marilyn Backus, vice president of the Garden Club of Monroeville. “I plant hollies, cotoneaster and barberries to provide food for the birds. I noticed robins eating red barberries that survived this past winter since the ground was frozen this last week of March.”


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