23 May 2011

Hardiness Zones

There seems to be confusion at times among some gardeners as to the definition of perennials and annuals.  For those of you that this applies to, this posting is for you! J

The definition of “perennial,” simply put, is a plant that continues to grow in your garden year after year.  The simple definition of an “annual,” is a plant that needs to be planted each year.   Perennial plants can be perennial in some areas and also annual in other areas.  To know if a plant will be perennial in your area, you need to know what hardiness zone you live in.
The USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map helps us determine which zone we are in.  This hardiness map is based on winter temperatures and each zone has a span of ten degrees.  The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map was first introduced in 1960 with the last revision in 1990.   This map divides the U.S. and Canada into eleven separate zones.   The temperatures for each zone are based on the average annual minimum temperatures for a given area.   Zone 1 has the coldest winter temperature averages while zone 11 has the warmest winter temperatures, generally 40 degrees.  For our purposes, the picture shown illustrates zones 2-10 for the United States only.
So if we look at a plant tag that states the particular plant is hardy in zones 5 through 8, and you live in zone 5, then that plant should be hardy for you.  It will also be hardy in zones 6, 7 and 8.  Likewise, if the plant tag states it is hardy to zone 3, the plant will also be hardy in zone 5.  These same zones that apply to plants also apply to shrubs and trees.  There are some things to take into consideration here as well. 
First, the map is effective for plants that are actually planted in the ground.  It may not hold true for plants that remain in pots above the ground as ground temperatures are typically a few degrees warmer.  Temperature fluctuations will usually result in the pot freezing and thawing several times over the winter, decreasing the plant’s hardiness.   A suggestion would be to plant the entire pot in the ground so that the top of the pot is level with the ground.  This will insulate the plant and you can dig it up, pot and all, in the spring if you plan on keeping it above ground for the growing season.
Sometimes a plant that is not listed as perennial in your zone (by a one zone difference) may also be hardy for you.  This may be possible due to certain areas of your garden being a few degrees warmer than the rest of the area.  Areas near your house, such as the foundation, retain more heat and I have seen annual plants left in the ground continue to grow the following spring. 
For more information and to see what zone you live in, please visit http://www.usna.usda.gov/Hardzone/index.html

02 May 2011

Increasing Your Garden's Fertility & Productivity

Adding organic matter can be the best thing you can do for your garden soil.  It is the only amendment that affects both fertility and texture of the soil.  Organic matter is simply dead or decaying animal or plant material;  i.e.  animal manure, green manure such as a cover crop planted specifically for tilling into the soil, or garden compost such as grass clippings, leaves and kitchen scraps.  Organic matter provides nutrients for your soil and also provides beneficial microbes, which help make the nutrients readily available for your plants as well as helping to keep disease from your soil. 
It is usually best to allow organic matter to decay for a period of time.  If using manure, allow it to decay until it turns dark brown in color and has no odor.  Nutrients found in manure are generally readily available, but if overused, can provide excessive amounts of some nutrients.  A good example of this would be ammonia.  Excessive amounts of ammonia can burn your plants and while fresh manure is great for heavy feeding crops such as corn, it may not be best suited for use on crops such as greens.  Also with fresh manure, is the possibility of crop contamination.  If you are planting greens or root crops, then you’ll want to compost the manure for about three months prior to spreading to avoid the possibility of contamination.  If you are planting flowers, or taller crops such as staked tomatoes or corn, then this is not a concern. 
Composting bins provide plenty of nutrients for your soil also.  Do your research as there are many different types of composting bins and certain types of scraps and waste should be added in certain proportions.  You can even make your own composter.  Kitchen scraps, recyclable papers, twigs, hay, straw etc can be added to the compost pile.  Compost should be turned weekly and some gardeners turn their compost after every new addition.  Aeration, moisture and warmth are all important in the composting process.
A great way to speed up your composting  is by investing in a worm composter.   Most gardeners realize the presence of worms in the garden indicate a nutrient-dense soil.    Worms can live in a worm composter while eating and breaking down your kitchen waste and recyclable paper and turning it into compost for your garden.  One pound of worms will consume about one pound of food daily.  Worm composting bins are self-contained systems and the worm compost is virtually odorless.  There are even small worm composters that you can keep right in your kitchen!   Red worms have the best appetite and breed quickly, thus are the most popular for this purpose. 
There are other types of bins and composts worth looking into as everyone’s needs differ.  Work your compost into your beds well before planting and you will have nutrient-rich, well developed soil and a more productive garden.