I have been gardening since I was 2 years old, and I think that when I’m 90 I’ll still call myself a novice. One of the things that I like most about gardening, in fact, is that it is constantly a learning process. Different people can grow the same plants with completely different results. The variations not only depend upon soil type, ph, microclimates, zones, and watering schedules but also on the personality of the gardener. Therefore when people tell me that they cannot grow anything, I respond that they simply haven’t found the right plant yet. And yes, artificial plants are included in that scenario!
Since I have received so many questions from people wanting to garden, I thought I would start a series, passing on some of the gardening know-how that I’ve learned over the years. I encourage you to send me any questions you would like addressed about beginning gardening. If I can answer them, I’ll do so. If I can’t answer them, I’ll do what I can to either find the answer or direct you to a resource for the answer. Keep in mind that I’m not a master gardener. If you want information on landscaping, soil structure, or some exotic plant species, I’m not the gal for you. If, however, you are interested in growing more of your own foods, teaching your children about plants, or clipping your own flower arrangements from your yard, I’m happy to help.
The first step in the process
Before you order your seeds or till up your yard, you first need to know in which gardening zone you are located. The USDA Hardiness Zone Map divides the country into different zones based upon how warm an average winter is in each zone as compared to the adjacent zones.
I prefer the maps that offer an “a” and “b” behind the zone number. For instance, in Knoxville we are in zone 6b. In the higher elevations of East TN, they are zone 6a. The letter designations give you a little more accuracy for how far you can deviate from what a plant’s hardiness level is.
Example, if a plant tag says that it is hardy in zones 7-9 then I can usually grow it in our area during most of the year. Whether or not the plant will “overwinter” is determined by how close I am to the correct zone. If I’m in zone 8, I should be safe. Since I’m in zone 6b, though, I will be taking a chance to leave the plant outside. If it were an inexpensive plant, then I might treat it like an annual and leave it in the ground—if it survives, great; if it dies, no big loss. Otherwise, it will be best to move the plant inside or at least to the garage where it is warmer.
Gardening magazines and seed catalogs can give you the same feeling as a kid in a candy shop. I want it all! They are all so pretty. They all have such neat descriptions! This would be beautiful as a cut flower, that one would look lovely near my garden bench.
Research has shown that people given too many choices are significantly less satisfied and are much more unhappy than those given limited choices. The zone range helps to limit your choices. My relatives in southeast TX can grow oranges and lemons. My cousin living on the Gulf in Mississippi can grow bananas in his front yard. I won’t have much luck growing those foods in our climate.
The garden zone map helps you to succeed. By choosing plants that are realistic to grow in your climate, you will save money. You will have significantly less plant failures (aka dead plants). With those successes you will build momentum and get a little more courageous with your plant choices.
Understanding your zone will help you to determine when you should start planting what. If you were to plant tomatoes outside right now in my zone, they would surely die by the time spring rolled around. And, if they didn’t die, they would probably be stunted because they spent so much of their energy trying to survive. I wait to plant my tomatoes until after April 15th, and even then, I look at the forecast. If it is still cold outside and if the forecast is scheduled to remain that way, I might wait another week or more before planting tomatoes. Peas on the other hand like cold weather. They can handle frost and are fine to plant as soon as you can work the soil, meaning when the ground is no longer frozen. If they get a little snow on them, they will most likely bounce back. And, if they don’t, peas grow fast and can easily be planted again.
If you do not already know in which zone you are located, find out now.