Zoned Out in the Garden
At the back of most seed catalogs and gardening books is a colorful map that dictates whether we order and plant grapefruits or apricots; okra or onions.
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By Hilary Groutage Smith
Salt Lake Tribune
At the back of most seed catalogs and gardening books is a colorful map that dictates whether we order and plant grapefruits or apricots; okra or onions. Based on recommendations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the experts at Sunset magazine, the maps are designed to help gardeners.
Lately, they really depress me.
The USDA maps are based on minimum temperatures at which a plant is still hardy. Utah's USDA map looks like a crazy quilt of wavy lines in red, gold, green and blue. In the northern portion of the state, the zone is 3 or 4, similar to Alaska and Canada. To the south, we mimic Texas with a warm, golden Zone 10. That means crops in the Beehive State range from Bear Lake raspberries to Hurricane pecans without even a stretch.
Sunset magazine's zones are very different, based on more factors, they say, such as humidity, winter minimum temperatures and summer high temperatures. Publishers of the Sunset Western Garden Book say it offers a more accurate look at what plants will grow where. According to that map, Utah ranges from a 1 (cold) to 10 (hot). Still a wide range.
"Zoning out," I call it. On a trip to a local nursery, I decided to strictly adhere to the USDA zone I knew I must live in — the damn cold frozen zone with a growing season of 17 minutes.
"Show me stuff that grows in Zone 3," I said, tired of the weird freezing-to-broiling spring weather. I didn't want to remove one more little corpse from the garden.
Perhaps I overreacted, since I was asking for plants hardy to about 40 degrees below zero. Besides, my pronouncement seriously limited the shopping spree. I saw lots of plants with "Siberian," "Cheyenne," and "Snow" in their names.
There are ways to cheat Utah's growing season wherever you are. Tarps and flexible plastic water-filled enclosures help us even out the moody weather here; doing our homework does, too. There might be corners of my yard, microclimates, that are as warm as Zone 5, while others really are as cold as Zone 3. In my heart I know this, because gardeners with way more experience than I have said so. But last year my daughter got frost for her birthday on June 9, and a Labor Day freeze finished off our garden.
I am at peace with my zone, this year, however. I found plenty on my shopping spree, purchased a few tomatoes and shook out the old blankets and tarps we used to cover the garden last year. They are ready for the late-night pajama rush to the yard. I planted seeds that mature quickly and named and patted the heads of the new stuff I put around the yard.
I haven't dreamed of Zones 8 or 10 for weeks now and give the newcomers pep talks daily. Maybe that will give them an edge against the frost. I hope so, since "Cheyenne," "Siberia" and "Snow" were a big investment.
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