When starting out gardening, it’s easy to get wrapped up in wanting to grow all your favorite produce. Who doesn’t want to walk out to their garden and harvest all their herbs, be able to source their salad, or pick a handful of fresh strawberries? That’s what gardening dreams are made of! Watching seeds turn into plants, pruning with care, then reaping the rewards of the harvest.
Unfortunately, your favorite fruits and vegetables may not be compatible with your climate. It’s easy to forget when shopping at a grocery store that produce is imported from all over the world, providing shoppers with a large variety of fresh food year round. According to the USDA, in 2017 over 13,677,400 metric tons of produce were imported from Mexico alone! We have major imports from Canada, China, Chile, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Peru, Brazil, and much much more ( https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/us-food-imports/ ). Even American grown fruits and vegetables are sourced from all over the country; asparagus and citrus fruits from California, tomatoes from Florida, lettuce in Arizona. We are fortunate enough to be able to have fresh produce available year round due to fast and efficient shipping methods.
So you may be wondering, what does this have to do with gardening? It’s simple. You have to understand that even if you can purchase produce in your area, it doesn’t mean you can grow it. In order to survive, plants need air, water, sunlight, and nutrients. What amount of each changes from plant to plant. Texas has much longer growing seasons than Maine, and Washington has far more rain than Nevada. While every area has different pros and cons for gardeners, there are specific plants that have adapted to certain environments.
So how do you know what to grow where, and when? It’s not as daunting as it seems. It all comes down to Plant Hardiness Zones. Hardiness is “the ability to endure difficult conditions” which in terms of plants is areas of similar climatic conditions that a plant can survive in. Luckily, the USDA has created a fantastic map that outlines each zone and can identify your zone simply by inputting your zip code (check it out here). Knowing your zone will help you determine a few key factors that will improve your garden’s overall health and your harvest significantly: knowing what to plant, when to plant, and when to let your garden rest.
What To Plant:
Now you may be familiar with this style of map because it’s what you commonly see on the back of a seed packet. It helps you determine what can be grown in your area. That’s great, but it gives you a very narrow picture (just one type of plant) of what can be grown and when. The problem with this is you are trying to plot your whole garden for the season so you need to see a bigger picture. No problem! This is when identifying your zone is going to help you not only find the best plants for your area, but you are going to be able to do it quickly and easily. I like to use the Old Farmer’s Almanac website to scroll through what plants are compatible for my area, listing all the plants I would be interested in growing.
When To Plant:
I live in San Antonio, TX which is in zone 9a. This means I can grow a lot of different crops twice a year because of the warm climate, but the peak of summer is a no go planting time due to extreme heat. This is extremely different than zone 6a (in Southern NH) where the planting season is primarily isolated from March to October due to cold weather, where the peak of summer is ideal growing time. Once you have identified what plants you want to grow, I like to see when they should be planted and harvested. This allows me to not only map out my garden in terms of spacing, but also allows me to plan out succession planting to get a harvest more consistently throughout the season. This also allows me to capitalize on “down time” between planting. If I want to plant beans in my garden, I know I can plant them in February and harvest in from April to May but I can’t replant them until September. What do I do with this down time from May to September? I can plant something like peppers in July to use up the space and start harvesting at the beginning of October. I like to use planting schedules like this one from The Urban Farmer that allows you to quickly visualize when plants should be started and harvested.
When To Let Your Garden Rest:
Lastly, using a hardiness zone map allows you to know when not to plant. In most northern US states, the middle of winter is mostly down time. This is when you start to prep your garden for the next growing season by adding amendments and nutrients that will need time to break down and be evenly distributed into the ground. By using this down time wisely, you are giving your soil a chance to replenish all the nutrients that were depleted during the growing season (check out our article on soil below to learn more).
Want to Learn More?
Gardening is a life long learning process, but planning and using the appropriate information available to you will help you not only have a healthy garden, but will reduce the work involved to sustain your garden and increase your harvests. The most vital piece of information in the planning process is knowing your hardiness zone so you can properly choose what would be best to plant and when.
Hardiness zones are just the beginning, however. You can further increase your odds of success by taking factors like plant nutrition, soil components, and companion planting into consideration. This will help your plants get the tools they need to grow and produce, while careful and strategic planting designs will help reduce weeds and harmful pest, while attracting beneficial insects like bees and butterflies. Check out our other gardening articles today to learn more:
- Soil Types and What It Means To Your Garden
- Growing Plants- Essential Nutrients for Healthy Plants
- An Introduction to Companion Planting