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What is a hardiness zone?



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Chris Monroe / CNET

Gardening seems simple at a glance. Dig a hole, plant a seed and water it. Still, a little planning goes a long way, and you should consider the size of your garden, the richness of your soil, and the hardiness of the region where you live.

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What are winter zones?

A hardy zone is a geographical zone where certain plants grow best in that specific climate. The USDA Hardiness Zone Map divides the United States and Canada into 1

3 zones, with Zone 1 being the northernmost and Zone 13 being the southernmost. In winter, each zone is on average 10 degrees warmer or colder than the zone next to it.

Most zones have very different weather conditions than the others. For example, zones 4a and 4b in the US will almost always get snow every year, while zones 8a and 8b are unlikely to ever see snow.

A plant's hardiness is largely measured by how well it can withstand cold winter temperatures, so something that can survive the minimum temperature in zone 5 would find zone 4 too cold.

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The USDA 2012 Plant Hardiness Zone Map


USDA

Many plants, fruits and vegetables sold at your local nursery or hardware store contain a hardiness zone suggestion on their labels based on this map. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map 2012 is the most recent version developed by USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Oregon State University (OSU) PRISM Climate Group.

Maps are available for the UK and Australia, but they are not as current as those for the US. Still, they can be a useful tool for deciding what to plant in your garden.

Why do I need it?

You can adjust many factors in your garden, such as shade, water drainage or soil quality. What you have no control over is the weather.

That's where the Plant Hardiness Zone Map comes in. It helps expert and amateur gardeners know which plants are most likely to succeed in their climate and avoid planting something that would never survive winter or a spring frost. If you want a plant, vegetable or tree to survive and grow year after year, it must be able to tolerate the conditions in your area.

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The map is also a good way to compare your climate to the ideal climate for a particular plant you want to grow. It doesn't always mean you can't grow that plant in your area. It just means you have to be extra careful to deal with the sensitivities. For example, if a vegetable grows better in a warmer climate, cover it when your area has a frost warning.

Inconsistencies and Exceptions

The USDA map is a good guideline, but it is not a strict rule to follow. The National Gardening Association notes that while the map does a good job with the climate in the eastern half of North America, it does have a few shortcomings, especially in the west, where the climate is much more varied.

For example, Seattle and Tuscon are both in Zone 8, although there is a big difference between Seattle's rainy coastal climate and the drier interior of Tuscon.

Zones are a handy guide, but you should also consider the direction and amount of sunlight your garden receives during the day. The orientation of your garden to the sun and shade play a major role in the life cycle of your plants. Winter zones may vary by city and even within the same city.


Screenshot from Sarah Mitroff / CNET

To view the zone for your area, you can use the USDA interactive map to find the plant hardiness zone at your exact location. And yes, winter zones can differ per city.

My neighborhood is in zone 6b, but the part of the city a little further west is categorized as zone 7a. While you may not notice major differences in how plants can survive in two zones that are so similar, it is still important to know where your garden is on the map. In my area, vegetables like radishes, lettuce, peas, and tomatoes are likely to thrive if cared for properly.

Armed with the knowledge of your home's hardiness zone, you can confidently sow, grow and harvest the plants this season that are most suitable for your part of the country.

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