Why You Should Know Your Zone (and Know When to Ignore It)

Know Your Zone

Every gardener should know the zone in which she gardens.

I write that out with confidence now, but I admit that I gardened for a decade in Chicago without knowing my zone, and I gardened for two years in Florida, where I knew my zone but didn’t know why it mattered.

Pictured above is an image for U.S. gardeners (who can find their zone right here), but Canadian and European gardeners have zones as well. Begin with a google search and then confirm by asking a gardener in your area.

The lower the zone number, the colder your winter temperatures.

Use Your Knowledge

Your zone is your first guide for which plants will be “hardy” in your garden. In other words, your zone tells you–with reasonable accuracy–which plants will still be there in your garden after a typical winter for your area.

When I am shopping for roses, in particular, I look for information about their hardiness. If research or a plant label tells me that a rose is only hardy to zone 7 or 8, I won’t bring it home to my  zone 6 garden.

If I find an inexpensive flower or vine that isn’t hardy in my zone, I may grow it as an annual, tossing it onto the compost heap when cold weather comes.

If I’m interested in a plant, and the label says its hardy to zone 4, then I know that this plant can handle bitter winters, and I won’t bother with extra winter protection.

Set Your Knowledge Aside

Fortunately, there are no garden zone police! And you are welcome–invited, even–to experiment with plants outside your hardiness zone.

For instance, if I really want to grow a camellia that is only hardy to zone 7, I will choose a very protected spot, and I will research the details of camellia care. If I can give that camellia ideal conditions and a little additional care, there’s a good chance it will thrive.

A Few Additional Thoughts

Growing zones aren’t a perfect guide, and they work more effectively in some areas than in others.

For instance, the growing zones are based on temperature, not precipitation. An insulating layer of snow can protect plants from extreme cold, and frequent freeze/thaw cycles, of the kind I often have in my Pennsylvania garden, can devastate certain plants that should be hardy.

Summer heat, humidity, precipitation levels: all these must also be taken into account, but a garden’s growing zone is a good place to begin the privileged task of knowing your own place well.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.


Posted on

May 15, 2020

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