Here I sit in my warm and cozy house while the snow is deep outside the window. There must be almost a foot of the white stuff on the ground. Not quite the time for gardening, you might say.
And if you define gardening as working in the soil you would be right, because there is no way I am digging through that snow to get to the frozen soil. And there is not much I could do at that point anyway. We really have to wait until spring for that.
However, winter is the perfect time for a different kind of gardening; one that is just as (or more) important than the digging in the soil kind. Planning.
You can have wonderful intentions for your garden, pick out the prettiest flowers at the nursery, even do the backbreaking labor of digging and preparing your garden, but if you don’t know what grows well in your area or how to care for the plants you have, your lovely green things will not live up to your aspirations for them. That is why it is so important to first understand the specifics of the climate you live in.
Here is a list of what you should consider about your climate before you start gardening:
1) Hardiness Zone
2) Average Temperatures
3) Growing Season (first and last frost dates)
Ok, now for an explanation of each.
First, you need to know the hardiness zone you live in. This is a measurement of how cold it normally gets in the winter and is important for knowing what perennials will survive your winter. The USDA came out with a new Hardiness Zone Map in 2012 and you can easily pinpoint your zone with their handy interactive web-based map.
You can click on your state to see a detailed version of the zones in your state, or you can even enter your zipcode to get your exact zone. The zones range from 1 to 12 with each divided into A and B.
In the US, the coldest climates (in the far north or at high mountain elevations) range around zone 3 while more southern states, and areas near the coast of the ocean or a large body of water tend to be warmer – up to a tropical zone 10 in southern Florida.
Knowing your zone will be very helpful when figuring out if a tree, shrub or herbaceous perennial will immediately die after its first winter in your yard. However, the hardiness zone only has to do with how cold a temperature a certain plant can survive. It in no way guarantees that the plant with thrive in your conditions.
If you live in zone 8 and are attempting to grow a flower hardy to zone 3 you don’t have to worry about the frost killing the plant. You may have to worry about the heat killing your plant though… So on to the next measure of climate:
This includes average day and night temperatures in all months of the year. You probably already have a good idea of this just from living in the place you do. But go ahead and google it anyways to get the specifics.
Now, we all know that it is going to be warmer in summer than in winter. But does your climate have hot summers and cold winters? Or maybe you live in a mild climate – warm summers and cool winters. Remember that climates closer to an ocean or other large body of water tend to have milder climates because the water holds so much heat and mitigates the temperature swings. Maybe your climate tends to be just overall hot or overall cold. If you plan to grow vegetables, figure out what your distinct growing seasons are. Warm weather vegetables generally like temperatures between 70 and 90 degrees without nighttime lows about 50 (frost will kill these crops). Cool-weather vegetables, on the other
Maybe your climate tends to be just overall hot or overall cold. If you plan to grow vegetables, figure out what your distinct growing seasons are. Warm weather vegetables generally like temperatures between 70 and 90 degrees without nighttime lows about 50 (frost will kill these crops). Cool-weather vegetables, on the other hand, prefer 50 to 70 degree weather and usually can withstand some frosts. If you live in a hot southern climate, you may not be able to grow cool-weather crops except in winter, and you will have a long season for warm-weather veggies. Or if you live in a colder climate you may have to use season extending techniques just to give those tomatoes long enough warm weather for them to ripen.
Growing Season (first and last frost dates)
Growing Season: To get even more specific on your temperatures, look up your local state university extension to find your last and first frost dates of the year. In Utah, our ag school is Utah State University, so I just look up Utah State Extension Frost Dates and pulled this page up.
It contains charts of different cities and regions around Utah with a lot of handy climate data besides just frost dates. You should be able to find something similar for whatever state you live in. The average last and first frost dates are just that, an average.
So they come in three numbers 90%, 50% and 10%. The 90% date for the last spring frost means there is a 90% chance that a frost will occur after that date, whereas at the 10% date, there is only a 10% chance. So the date you really want to be looking at is the 10% date – although of course there is still a 10% chance of frost. You just have to pay attention and protect your veggies as needed.
So the date you really want to be looking at is the 10% date – although of course there is still a 10% chance of frost. You just have to pay attention and protect your veggies as needed.
This category includes the general humidity, how much precipitation falls and when in the year, and if you tend to endure droughts. Water affects plants in such a huge way. Some plants thrive in humid, wet climates while others would drown in them.
In Utah, I have to look for perennials that are ok with very little water and can endure drought since that is a common reality for us (drought in Utah). The amount of water your climate receives will affect the plants you use in your landscape more than in your vegetable garden – since most veggies like a good amount of water, and I think that watering veggies is much more useful than watering a lawn.
But it is still good to know for your veggies since they may be getting enough rain as it is and don’t need extra watering. Or you may get a lot of precipitation in one season but not another… knowledge is power! Check out those climate charts and do some simple research.
Sun and Wind
These are factors you may not be able to find so much hard data on. But if you spend any time outdoors and pay attention you will know. Is it often sunny or often rainy/overcast? Do you have light afternoon showers that return to sunny days or does it spend all day raining?
Obviously, sun is very important for plants and you should have a general idea of how much sun you have and its intensity. Then ask yourself about wind. Do you live in a windy or calm place? Do you get strong gusts or light breezes? What direction does it normally come from? Veggies and some other plants tend to not like
Veggies and some other plants tend to not like strong wind, so you need to know if you have it so you can know how to protect your plants.
Still with me? And this is just the preliminary steps to planning your garden! But you can do it. Go ahead right now and do the research, write a short report and then share it with me! Here is my garden climate report:
Here in Salt Lake City, Utah I live in zone 7b which means it generally gets down to 10 to 15 degrees F in the winter. Summer temps can reach 100 degrees in the day but at night swing back down to 50 or 60 degrees. And the winter gets pretty cold (as you can tell from our zone!)
We do have three distinct growing seasons: cool-weather veggies from march to may, warm-weather June to September, and another round of cool-weather from September to November. Our average last frost date for the season is in May and first frost is in September. This means we have a 140+ day growing season (for warm-weather crops, although I like to use season extenders).
We really have to watch out for those spring frosts because we tend to have rather erratic spring weather (70 degrees one day and snow the next!) We have a very dry climate with an average of 16 inches of rain a year. It is spread out across the year, but we tend to get the most precipitation in May and the months surrounding it.
Drought is almost expected. Utah tends to be fairly sunny; the common adage is that we get 220 days of sun a year. People argue over if that is really true but let’s not get hung up on what counts as a sunny day. From my experience, it is much more often sunny than not, and even if we do get clouds and precipitation, it usually clears up and resumes sunny weather within the same day.
Our sunlight is also very intense which means plants which need a “full day of sun” do fine on just 6 hours here. It is also quite windy here on the plains but I have not yet figured out what direction it usually comes from.
However, we have a fence which acts as a wind block around our entire garden so I am not too worried about it.