Confessions of a Hose Dragger…
When gifted people get “In the zone” great works of art and beautiful music are created. When athletes are “In the zone” games are won, records are broken and medals are won. When a gardener is “In the zone” it means that plants, shrubs and trees are carefully chosen to match the climate of their local area in order for the plants to not only survive but thrive.
In 1962 the United States Department of Agriculture developed the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to be used as a rough guide for gardening. This map was updated in 2012. Did you take note that it is only a ROUGH guide!? Gardeners and growers use this ROUGH guide to determine what plants are most likely to thrive in any given location.
How low can you go??? The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature and is divided into 10-degree temperature hardiness zones. Hardiness zones are a geographically defined area in which a specific category of plant life is capable of growing, as defined by climatic conditions, including its ability to withstand the minimum temperatures of the zone. Parts of Alaska are in USDA planting zone 1. Parts of northern Minnesota are considered to be in planting zones 2 and 3. Central and southern Florida lie in zones 9-11. The bulk of America lies in planting zones 4-8. Our local area from Denver to Loveland boasts a solid zone 3 to 4 hardiness plant zone with the occasional dalliance into 5b. 5b you ask? Adding to the mystery of all this, zones can also be subdivided: 5b being the cooler portion of zone 5 and 5a being the warmer portion of zone 5. Ugh! Please simplify! Plants from your local nursery or from mail order that are labeled zone 3 or 4, ( -40 degrees F to – 25 degrees F), do very well in our area. Ummm…. should do well…I’ve certainly killed my share of hardy zone 3 plants in my day! Fancy gardeners call killing plants that should be thriving in our area lack of good cultural care. Please feel free to use that phrase “Lack of good cultural care” when you spy a dead plant in your neighbor’s garden! Let them know you care! Another killer of hardy plants in our zone, (besides me!), are the wild temperature fluctuations we experience in our area. 30 degrees and snowing one day and 65 degrees the next. This can really stress a plant out not to mention the difficulty involved in deciding what to wear.
So, and I did not know this, evidently the good people at Sunset Magazine thought that perhaps the USDA Hardiness zone map was too simplistic. Being denizens of the west where wild weather can occur and usually does, they choose to draw up a map that ranges from Zone 1 – Coldest Winters in the West and Western Prairie States, to Zone 15 – Northern and Central California’s Chilly-winter Coast-influenced Areas. According to Sunset, our area is zone 2B.
Zone 2B: Warmer-summer intermountain climate. This is a zone that offers a good balance of long, warm summers and chilly winters, making it an excellent climate zone for commercial fruit growing. That’s why you’ll find orchards in this zone in almost every state in the West. You’ll also find this warm-summer, snowy-winter climate along Colorado’s Western Slope and mild parts of the Front Range; in Nevada from Reno to Fallon, then north to Lovelock; in large areas of northern Arizona and New Mexico; and in mild parts of the Columbia and Snake River basins. Winter temperatures are milder than in neighboring Zone 2a, minimums averaging from 12 to 22°F (–11 to –6°C), with extremes in the –10 to –20°F (–23 to –29°C) range. The growing season here in Zone 2b runs from 115 days in higher elevations and more northerly areas to more than 160 days in southeastern Colorado.
Why, oh why, do we have these zones??? It is standard practice for seed dealers and nurseries to label their products according to their USDA Plant Hardiness Zones…Sorry Sunset Magazine…that is, the planting zones in which you are most likely to be successful at growing those particular plants. As such, these “zone” designations serve as guides…ROUGH guides remember!
Gardeners “In the zone” plan their gardens carefully, and part of that planning means consulting maps showing the USDA planting zones or the Sunset Magazine guide. Growing plants not suited to our area climate is sometimes possible, but it is not recommended for beginners. Those experienced in gardening (you know, those show-off gardeners!) often make use of what are known as “microclimates.”
Hey Linda, just what are these microclimates you speak of? Local terrain can sharply modify the climate within any zone. South-facing slopes get more solar heat than flat land and north-facing slopes. Slope also affects airflow: warm air rises, cold air sinks. Because hillsides are never as cold in winter as the hilltops above them or the ground below them, they’re called thermal belts. Lowland areas into which cold air flows are called cold-air basins. Microclimates also exist within every garden. All else being equal, garden beds on the south side of an east-west wall, for example, will be much warmer than garden beds on the north side of the same wall. Hardscaping can also give microclimates. Heavily populated urban areas having lots of asphalt and concrete, create their own microclimates. This is why such a wonderful palate of plants can be found at the Denver Botanical Gardens but not in my backyard.
So, here in my little zone of the world things are really happening! I have culled the tomato starts in the basement down to 172! After failing the first time to get any of the peppers seeds to come up, I replanted, put the tray on a seedling heat mat and in three days time the little darlings emerged. Sigh, I still have way too may little starts under the grow lights in the basement but I love them all. I go down almost every morning and we have coffee together – well, I have the coffee, they enjoy a light fertilizer/water concoction.
Outside is a joy! Tete-te-tete daffodils abound. Surprises burst from the soil daily. This is a great time of year to survey the garden and make a note of where more beautiful spring blooming bulbs can be planted next fall. The Species Tulips are just beginning to bloom. Species Tulips are diminutive, long-lived beauties that are ideal for rock gardens or the front of borders. They are also the most perennial (long-lived) of all Tulips and they naturalize (more bulbs are produced each year without you doing a darned thing…how great is that?!) Come next fall, I will remind you to plant a bunch!
The plant shopping for the season has already begun. Some nurseries offer their 2017 stock at discount prices. I was able to snag a wonderful gallon-sized Forthegilla shrub for $8 and another for $12. Plant sales that profit local groups and organizations are beginning. The last Saturday in March featured the Cacti and Succulent Sale at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Yes, I was there. A packed room full of exuberant gardeners carrying boxes full of spiny plants…ouch! Also, at the Denver Botanic Gardens is The Rock Garden Society Plant Sale, April 20th and 21st. The best way to keep track of plant sales along with educational opportunities is to visit The Flower Bin, buy yourself a little somthin’ somthin’ and pick up the latest copy of The Colorado Gardener.
Well, I hope you are “In the zone” and your spring gardening is going great. Let’s all light a candle in hopes that Mother Nature will decide not to dump snow on us yet again this year in May. Any bets?