Growing zones are a rough guide to what type of climate you have for growing a garden. In the U.S., these zones have shifted over the past couple of decades due to climate change, so it can be challenging to know when to plant your garden. Even if you’re getting a late start, you can still plant a summer and fall garden, or even plant through the winter in some locations. Here is how to figure out when to plant your garden by new growing zone.
How hardiness zones work
U.S. Hardiness Zones, as they’re called, are actually a guide to how low temperatures get in your area on average and how early or late you can plant your garden to avoid plants freezing. They are not an exact guide, however. Your area might vary in precipitation, heat waves or have other challenges or benefits. The first thing to do when planting your garden is to check your planting zone.
If you are in a northern location, you might have a longer growing season since the Hardiness Zones have shifted north by about one-half to one full zone in the last 30 years or so. But you have to accommodate the fact that you won’t be getting a better angle of sunlight. That hasn’t changed. In southern climates, you may have moved from a sub-tropical to a tropical climate over the last decade or two, which means more tropical fruits. Live in the southwest or west coast of the U.S.? You already know you have less water to work with, some odd wet and cold winter storms, and you might even have shifted into a desert climate. Many people are learning how to plant drought-resistant gardens or work with traditional irrigation systems to conserve water in areas where there is now not reliable rain or ground water.
Succession planting your garden
In Michigan where I am planting, we have gone from a 5a to a 6b growing zone since I was a child a few decades ago, and that means that we often have to account for heat waves early in the spring, followed by drought conditions and a lot of weed and pest pressure. I can’t get hedge trees or fruit to grow to save my life (or theirs) unless I water them regularly.
The summers have gotten hotter, and they last longer. But that presents an opportunity you might notice in your area as well: you can now plant a spring garden, and then succession plant through summer and fall and maybe even into the winter. What was previously considered an annual or “tender perennial” that could only over-winter in the south now can sometimes make it through northern winters if I mulch heavily. We have started to see plants that didn’t used to over-winter returning on their own for a second year if they are a tender or biennial perennial.
Spring, summer, fall and winter gardens
A spring garden often involves tender greens like lettuce, herbs, kale, and cucumbers. In northern climates or where there are late frosts, you can grow this early spring garden under a cold frame or low tunnel, which protects your plants from freezing by increasing their hardiness by about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
Summer gardens are planted when your zone moves past its average last frost date. Summer gardens come in one or two phases by zone: the first major planting happens after your average last frost date to avoid freezing the plants. This is especially important for fruit crops, as you can lose your entire crop for the year if the plant flowers before the last frost. Killing off the blossoms makes it impossible for the plants to produce fruit for the year. Summer gardens usually start with popular flowers and vegetables that grow in most zones: tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and corn. If your area is hotter, you will want to plant your sweet peas and cucumbers early just after the tender greens, because they won’t grow well if it’s too hot.
Later in summer, you can succession plant your summer garden with more peppers, beans, tomato plants, greens, herbs and even melons. But pay attention not only to when you’re planting but how long a growing season each plant needs to produce fruits. We started growing watermelons in our area, which are traditionally a southern crop, but we just barely got away with it as our summers aren’t quite long enough and we had to pull up the patch last minute before first frost when most of the melons were barely ripe. Still got a full wheelbarrow though, and we gave away melons to everyone from neighbors to the piano tuner for weeks.
If it’s heading toward fall, you can plant late blooming flowers and winter squash, or dry string beans and corn on the vine to harvest for dried seeds you can plant next year. That works best in a dry climate. In our climate, it’s often too wet to work well, plus I’m too lazy to harvest seeds for finicky flowers. You can always buy more. But if your goal is self-sufficiency or to create a garden that doesn’t require new seeds and starts every year, look into how to properly harvest seeds from each type of plant you’re putting in, and then wait a bit longer in the fall to harvest them.
In some areas, you can even plant through the winter. Arkansas has a particularly nice climate, as do surrounding states, for planting raspberries in the fall and harvesting in the cool months. If you live in a growing zone like this, you can plant your greens in the fall for winter. If you live in a northern state or a dry location where dust storms are common, you might want to consider planting a winter cover crop, which holds down the soil and prevents erosion as well as drawing up nitrogen to the surface of the soil to help your spring plants succeed. If this is too much work, consider putting down tarps with a black surface facing up to keep down weeds until your next planting. Then you won’t have to work so hard to till the soil or weed.
Planning your seasonal garden
The final step before planting is to plan out how much space each type of plant will take. Melons and squash take up a lot of space, but carrots and cut flowers can be placed close together. Be careful to give your plants the recommended amount of space found on the packet to avoid extra disease, mold and pests spreading. We tried a cover crop of vetch and beans our first year, and because we planted close together for a cover crop layout, white flies spread through the crop and into the potatoes. Do not recommend.
Finally, regardless of your zone, make sure you rotate your crop locations every year or two within the garden. This helps bugs in the soil from finding your kale and broccoli repeatedly in the same spot and ruining your plants. Different crops take different nutrients out of the soil. You could test your soil with a home test kit and amend it with fertilizer or compost, or make a habit of spreading organic compost from your scrap pile on the garden every year to prevent your soil from becoming too poor to grow plants properly. Berries need more acidic soil than vegetables, too, so the perfect soil balance depends on what you want to grow.
I hope this has given you a starting place for planning your garden, whatever the season. Remember that we’re all learning together and it’s never too late to start a garden. Even if you live in Michigan like I do, you can start your dahlias, snapdragons, sunflowers, herbs and tomato and pepper plants indoors under a grow light in late winter, or grow micro greens indoors all year. Or, you know, other greens if it’s legal in your state. But that’s a different post.
Not sure where to start? Look up the best plants to grow in your hardiness zone here. Happy gardening, and may your green thumb for fruit and hedge trees be better than mine and as luscious as my thistle patch.
Images via Pexels