Getting Started and Plant Selection

There are hundreds of wonderful books on gardening, and, of course, the internet, which has thousands of sources of excellent information – mostly free – on every aspect of gardening. But all that information can be overwhelming if you are just beginning your gardening adventure. Here are a few simple but important questions to consider before you start digging; answering these questions will be time well spent in the long run.

What do I want from my garden?
Gardening is work, sometimes hard work, but it should also be enjoyable and rewarding. What are some of the reasons you want to create a garden?

  • Grow your own food
  • Make your outdoor space more beautiful
  • Provide a habitat for wildlife
  • Feel closer to nature
  • The simple pleasure of making something grow (from seed or seedling)
  • Spend more time outdoors
  • Enjoy a common interest/hobby with a partner, friend or neighbor
  • Not sure why … it just seems like a good idea

These are all good reasons, and, in fact, there are no bad reasons for creating a garden; however, the more you understand your motivation, the easier it will be to design your garden and achieve your goals.

How much time can I spend on my garden?
This is an important question, especially if you are new to gardening. Depending on the amount of time you can (and want) to devote to gardening, your garden can be as simple or as elaborate as you like. 

You can create a beautiful container garden on a balcony, patio or deck, or you can go big with many gardens on your property, each featuring different plant groups or themes.

Every gardener, at one time or another, gets carried away with the large variety of beautiful plants available and buys way more than they can plant. In other words, our eyes are bigger than our backs are strong.

Just keep in mind that in addition to purchasing (or growing from seed) the plants you want, and getting them in the ground, your plants will need to be watered, weeded and occasionally fertilized. The more you plant, the more time required. 

You might consider starting small with a small plot and expanding over time. The advantage is you won’t feel overwhelmed at the outset, and you’ll learn as you go.

What are my growing conditions?
Sun. Soil. Water.  Wherever you choose to situate your garden these three factors are essential.  Take some time to analyze them and your plants will thank you for it.

All plants come tagged with their sun, soil and water requirements, so your job is to match the plant to the location that meets its specific needs.

Below is very basic information about these three elements … the briefest of overviews.  But it will get you started. As you grow in experience you will learn more about each of them.

Sun Exposure
Spend some time studying the sun patterns in your yard and, over time, how the patterns change with the seasons. If you hope to plant flowers that require full sun (or vegetables, also full sun), your garden site needs a minimum of six hours of full sun per day. That means at least six hours of direct sun on the plants themselves.  If your house, a large tree, or other structure will block sun from 1 p.m. onward, then full-sun plants won’t thrive as they could elsewhere.

Partial sun means the plants get at least three to four hours of direct sun a day, but less than 6 hours of direct sun.  If the plants are under a tree and receive filtered light most of the day that can also be partial sun.

Partial shade is approximately two to four hours of sun per day in a given location. Partially shaded sites receive both sun and shade at various intervals. Plants in partial shade may receive direct sun throughout the day for a few hours with at least half the day spent in shade. For this reason, plants that are shade tolerant are preferred in these areas.

Here in Southwestern Pennsylvania our soil is heavy with clay. With few exceptions, you will need to amend the soil by adding organic material such as compost. This isn’t difficult; you can do it as you plant.  After digging the proper size hole for your new plant, mix some organic matter into the ground with some of the dirt you’ve unearthed, and place your new plant in the hole. Backfill will more of the organic matter/dirt combination. Over time you can add additional compost around your plants (it will seep in with watering); likewise, mulch decomposes over time and further enhances the soil.

In a couple of seasons your clay soil will be transformed into a rich, dark mixture filled with healthy microscopic bacteria, worms and other great stuff.

Remember the basic goal of Sustainable Landcare is to FEED THE SOIL…THE SOIL THEN FEEDS THE PLANT.

Do you have a source of water for your garden, like a spigot and hose, or will you have to carry water to it? In the heat of July and August, plants need a lot of water, so factor in the heat, time and effort required before planting too much. 

Having a hose makes watering much easier and, generally, most outdoor plants (those in the ground) are pretty forgiving if very occasionally over-watered or underwatered. 

  • It’s best (and easiest in the long run) to group plants with the similar water requirements together.
  • Focus your watering on the roots not the plant itself. The root is the foundation of the plant, which is also why amending the soil (where the root lives) is so important.
  • In general, most full-sun plants like to be watered in the morning, so that the heat of the day dries the water from the flowers and leaves, helping to prevent mildew.
  • Pay attention to areas where rainwater collects. Some plants will decay if their roots are wet for too long (root rot) so these plants should never be placed in an area where puddles form. 

How much will this cost?

This depends on what you want to achieve.  Again, think about starting small, especially if you are new to gardening. Pick a few plants you really like that will work well in the spot you’ve selected (yard, patio, deck), and go from there.

Assuming you have basic tools – a hand trowel (good for smaller plants), a shovel (for larger plants and digging large beds), garden shears (for trimming dead stems and plant material) – then your budget will mostly be spent on the plants themselves, plus any compost/soil amendments and fertilizer (optional, but a good idea).

If you’re planning a patio or deck garden, you’ll need to purchase some pots or repurpose interesting “artifacts” as containers by drilling drainage holes in the bottom.  In this case, in lieu of compost you’ll need a quantity of potting soil.

Annuals v. Perennials
You may have heard the terms “annual” and “perennial”, describing different types of plants. In the simplest terms, annuals are plants that live for one year and die, while perennials return year after year.  Annuals you have to plant annually, while perennials survive the winter and come back again and again.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each.  Annual flowers (think marigolds, petunias) bloom throughout the summer months providing long-lasting beauty and color.  Perennial flowers tend to bloom for only a few weeks, then the flowers die although the plant itself remains green and attractive. 

What plants should I start with?
This is the fun part of gardening, but it’s also the most difficult question to answer. Click here for some ideas for “themed” or purpose-designed gardens that may pique your creativity.  But first and foremost, plant what you like … what makes you happy. The great thing about a garden is that it’s a living, growing, ever-changing canvass of creative expression.  If you don’t like where you planted something, or it’s not thriving in a given spot, can move it elsewhere.  Experiment, play, have fun.  And enjoy the fruits of your labor as you watch your garden grow!

Butterfly/Pollinator Garden
Here’s a Partial List of Plants for Attracting Butterflies

  • Agastache
  • Asters
  • Bee Balm
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Butterfly Bush
  • Coneflower
  • Daisy
  • Goldenrod
  • Lantana
  • Lavendar
  • Phlox
  • Rosemary
  • Salvia
  • Sunflower
  • Verbena
  • Yarrow

Bird  Garden
Here’s a Partial List of Plants for Attracting Brids

Flowering Plants

  • Sunflowers
  • Milkweed
  • Cardinal Flower
  • Purple Coneflowers


  • Trumpet Honeysuckle (not Japanese Honeysuckle, which is invasive0
  • Virginia Creeper


  • Buttonbush
  • Elderberry

Cutting Garden 
Select a variety of flower colors and shapes, height and texture for greater variety. Here’s a list to get you started.


  • Ageratum
  • Bachelor’s Button
  • Baby’s Breath
  • Cosmos
  • Gladiolus
  • Larkspur
  • Lisianthis
  • Phlox
  • Salvia
  • Sunflower
  • Sweet Pea
  • Zinnia


  • Achillea (Yarrow)
  • Aster
  • Campanula
  • Coreopsis
  • Delphinium
  • Echinacea
  • Foxglove
  • Iris
  • Lilies
  • Lupine
  • Phlox
  • Poppy
  • Rudbeckia
  • Sage
  • Shasta Daisy
  • Sweet William


  • Hydrangea
  • Peony

Foliage Plants

  • Coleus
  • Dusty Miller
  • Euphorbia
  • Heurchera
  • Hosta
  • Lady’s Mantle
  • Lamb’s Ear
  • Sage

Shade Gardens
There are many plants that thrive in shade, including:

  • Astilbe
  • Bleeding Heart
  • Brunnera
  • Coleus
  • Coral Bells
  • Ferns
  • Hosta
  • Hydrangeas
  • Impatiens
  • Japanese Forest Grass
  • Lamium
  • Lenten Rose
  • Pulmonaria
  • Solomon’s Seal

Phipps  annual list of Top 10 Sustainable Plants. This is a wonderful resource for plant selection
Smart plant selection is the single most effective way to create a low-maintenance, high-enjoyment garden. Phipps offers an annual list of Top 10 Sustainable Plants, selected for their non-invasive habits, as well as for their resistance to disease and insects. Once established, these plants require minimal watering and fertilization. Many of these plants are on display in the Outdoor Garden at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Consult our lists, and ask for these plants at your local nursery. Click Here for link