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Time to Dig in!

Updated: Apr 26

It’s May and the warm weather is here to stay! Flowers are blooming and there’s an instinctive feeling to start digging in the dirt and planting a garden.  With plant sales and pop-ups starting, it can be overwhelming for a new gardener… problems include not knowing what to buy, impulsively buying too many plants or not fully considering the best places to grow them.  I’ve experienced all of these scenarios myself!


My garden has taken several years to cultivate, I’ve planted things that have thrived and died, making plenty of mistakes along the way. I’ve always approached gardening like an experiment, trying new things and observing how they perform throughout the season. I make notes about my plants, how they’re doing, and which ones I may need to dig up and move if I planted them in the wrong spot for sun exposure.  I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the years and am always happy to share what may be helpful to others.  For those new to gardening and looking to get started this May here are a few tips that may be helpful: 


(1) Start with a plan  - Start small and pace yourself (Rome wasn’t built in a day!) and continue to add to your garden over time. If you enjoy gardening, leave opportunities for future projects next season. 

(2) Draw it out  - Sketch or take a picture of your outdoor space to get an idea of what you’d like to plant.  Bring this with you when you go plant shopping to help nursery workers understand what you have in mind so that they can best advise you on purchases.  Things to keep in mind when creating your sketch of your new garden bed: 

  • Bloom times: Include plants that bloom throughout the season to keep your garden interesting. Don’t forget about spring ephemerals! They’re the first to bloom after the long winter and are a great food source for the bees when they’re just waking up….Virginia Bluebells are one of my favorites!

  • Heights: Check how tall the plants may get and plan those for the back rows so that they don’t block out shorter plants. Seedlings can be very deceptive in size and depending on the plant could reach 8 feet tall by the end of the season.

  • Light: Know what kind of light your garden gets so that you select plants that will thrive there (For example: Full Sun, Part Sun, or Shade). 

  • Need some ideas? The Western PA Audubon Society has some resources for garden bed designs and plant recommendations here: http://www.aswp.org/pages/backyard-habitat-program (select helpful resources)

(3) Shop for plants: Have your plan, sketch, and a list of plants you’re looking for when you go out shopping (have some backup plants in mind and be open to alternatives if you can't find a specific plant).

(4) Make a bed or find a container: Put your plan into action, create a bed (check out an easy way to do this here: https://empressofdirt.net/cardboard-method/), or get a large container and begin planting!

(5) Have an open mind and approach your plan and garden as an experiment. Gardens are like people, they evolve and change as they grow, and as gardeners, we need to help our plants be the best they can be, which sometimes means we have to adapt our plans and be willing to dig up and move our plants.

  • Keep a notebook handy and jot down your observations in the garden throughout the summer. Note when plants are in full bloom, where there are gaps in your bed you need to fill, and where you would like to see more color. 

  • Collect your observations and make edits to your garden in the Fall.


Sketch and photo of garden bed plan and plant selections

Rust Belt Natives (RBN) will return to Garfield again this season for their monthly plant pop-up sale! Stop by May 4th, June 8th, July 20th, August 10th, and September 7th from 10 am to 1 pm at the corner of N. Pacific and Gem Way to find plants for your garden. They are a great source of native plants, trees, and shrubs. Come by for the plants and share your garden plans and lists, I’m always happy to share what I know or resources that might be helpful, you can also see what some of the plants look like as they grow throughout the season.


Note from the author: This article is also featured in the May 2024 Bulletin, for the Gardening Advice and Earthly Delights column.

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