Pop quiz: What makes Earth different from all the other planets that have been discovered so far?
Location. Location. Location. We happen to be in this magical Goldilocks-zone of being close enough to the sun to have warm(-ish) temperatures and liquid water—at least at some times of the year across most of the globe. And we’re also not so close that the climate is so scorching hot that water evaporates immediately.
This “just right” spot in the Milky Way is what allows us to have life on Earth—including and especially plant life. We have plants and that they grow well—at least when the weather is warm enough.
The challenge of living in a cold climate is that the temperatures are too cold to sustain plant growth year-round. Air and water temperatures need to be above freezing for photosynthesis to occur and for plants to grow—not to mention that many plants lose their leaves for the winter. The colder the climate, the more plant growth will be challenged.
How cold is your climate?
There are a few methods to help describe how cold—or warm—a climate is. Understanding these different ways of describing your climate will help improve your gardening game.
- You’ll understand different aspects of climate that limit plant growth for different types of plants—like minimum winter temperatures and the freeze-free season.
- You’ll be able to efficiently find plants that match your local climate, helping you sift through catalogs more quickly and giving you the best chance of gardening success.
- You’ll have a common language to share with other gardeners when discussion your gardens or potential plants. Someone can tell you that they are gardening in zone 4b, and you’ll have sense of whether their gardening climate is similar to yours.
Plant Hardiness Zone (Minimum Winter Temperature)
The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map provides one of the most common ways of defining growing regions in the U.S. Hardiness Zones are based on the average coldest (minimum) winter temperatures that were observed during the period 1976 to 2005. These average winter minimums are grouped into zones in increments of 10°F, which are represented by numbers. The lower the number, the colder your zone. The zones are further split into two sub-zones, represented by letters. (Follow these links to find information on hardiness zones in Canada and other countries.)
For example, the extreme minimum temperature in Zone 5 in the winter is between -10 and -20°F. Zone 5a is colder, with average minimums dropping down to between -15 and -20°F, and Zone 5b is a bit warmer at -10 and -15F. It’s important to note that these maps just show averages, and so winter temperatures can be lower than what is mapped, and that the maps can’t capture local climate conditions (i.e., microclimate, described below).
Hardiness zones are particularly useful for perennial plants, because many of these plants are damaged or killed by extreme winter temperatures. Once you know your hardiness zone, you can look for plants that will tolerate the cold temperatures where you live. For example, if you live in Minneapolis and want to plant a cherry tree or an azalea, you’ll want to look for a variety that is hardy to zone 4 since Minneapolis is in zone 4b.
In general, hardiness zones can provide a quick way to describe your general climate. Many garden catalogs that sell plants will include a map of the hardiness zones or a similar maps that show “growing zones” or “planting zones” to help with plant selection. And, if you frequent gardening sites, the hardiness zones can be used to quickly get a sense of an area’s climate.
Growing Season (Frost-Free Season)
As useful as it is, plant hardiness zones only describe one aspect of your climate. Another important thing to know your growing season. The growing season, also called the frost-free or freeze-free season, is the time of year between the last frost in the spring and the first frost in the fall. A frost is generally defined as low temperatures reaching freezing (32°F). A freeze can be used to indicate an even lower temperature, such as when temperatures drop to 28°or 30°F; this is what you might call a “hard frost”. Knowing the average number of days in the growing season can be helpful for purchasing seeds or planning your annual planting plan.
It can be a bit harder to locate this data for your location, but Dave’s Garden has a simple zip code search that will find the information for many locations in the US and save you from digging through oodles of climate data. The site provides tables that show the probabilities for the the dates of the last spring frost and the first fall frost at three different temperatures (24°, 28°, and 32°). For example, the spring 32° date with a 10% probability for my local zip code is May 24; this means that there’s less than a 10% chance that a spring freeze of 32°F would occur after that date. It works the same way in the fall—my 32°F fall date for 10% is September 19 and so there’s only a slight chance that a frost would occur before them. The 10% dates are the most conservative. The 50% dates represent the average frost dates—so half of the time frost comes before that date, and half the time it comes after.
Feeling overwhelmed with all these probabilities? If so, you might prefer to look up your average frost date with the Farmer’s Almanac. It provides less information on the risk of frost in spring and fall, and will just give you the average dates and the total number of days for your (average) growing season.
Microclimate (Your Personal Gardening Climate)
This brings us to the last part, but perhaps most important, part of the understanding your climate: your personal and entirely unique gardening climate.
The tools described above are extremely helpful, but they are limited because they use data from a network of climate stations across the country. Your local weather station may be many miles from you, and it’s unlikely to have the exact same climate as your garden.
Microclimate refers to differences in climate that are founds at very local levels. Just a few examples of influences on microclimate are:
- large bodies of water on nearby land—such as the “lake effect” that we see near to the Great Lakes
- pavement, buildings, and the built environment—which can create warmer conditions though the “heat island effect”
- the direction that a piece of land faces (aspect)—such that south-facing locations tend to be warmer (in the Northern Hemisphere)
- landscape patterns that affect air movement—such as cold air drainage that can lead to “frost pockets”
Microclimates can be extremely tiny. Even in your own yard, you might observe that more tender plants can grow near the south side of your house because the building helps collect and radiate heat. Over time, the observant gardener can locate cold spots (and wet spots, windy spots, sunny spots, and all manner of spots) within a single garden. My vegetable garden is located on the slightest south-facing slope, but it’s enough of a difference that I can be planting early greens in the higher (by 6 inches) and drier end of my garden while the other half of the garden—only 20 feet away—stays stuck under snow for an extra two weeks.
Pay attention to your garden to discover these microclimates. There are many different clues when you look up close. Spring and fall can be particularly good for discovering where cold air or frost settles, and for seeing which parts of the garden “wake up” first. You can use your hands (and even a meat thermometer) to find places where the soil heats up (and probably dries) more quickly, compared to where it tends to stay cold. As you identify these places, be sure to note—actually write them down if you can—where they occur, so you can adjust the plants to more suitable locations as you need to.
After all: Location. Location. Location.