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Sage Garden Blog

Contemplating gardening zones

One of the least hard and fast variables in gardening is the concept of "zones". This is the rating system(s) developed to guide gardeners in choosing perennial plants that will survive and thrive in a particular region. Zone ranking systems are actually quite different depending on where in the world one gardens, and even the Canadian vs. American zones are established based on different criteria (although the zone names sound the same!). So, it is not a surprise that it can be confusing interpreting zone information.

Canadian gardening zones

The modern zone rating system in Canada ranges from zone 1 - 9, and is based on more complex data than the USDA system. For more information on this visit the Government of Canada website that describes Canadian zones... there are a lot of data points involved which give perspective on what zones really mean.

For gardeners in southern Manitoba, we typically fall into a zone 3a - 4a rating depending on where we are located (the area around Morden is rated zone 4, while Winnipeg is zone 3; within these regions, there are also lots of micro-climates that influence hardiness). So, when planning for perennials, a first step is having these numbers in mind.

With a general idea of zone rating, the next step is to poke around the neighbourhood! Microclimates are a big variable; for example, if you live in a dense urban area your garden is likely much more protected from winter cold and wind, while an exposed prairie garden will experience much harsher winter conditions. Even the exposure of your garden spaces (north side vs. south side), placement of fences and similar structures and the tendency for snow to accumulate (or not) will influence the microclimate. With this in mind, I find the best guidance on what survives well in a particular garden often comes from looking at gardens very close by.

A common confusing situation occurs when a perennial that has survived the winter for several seasons suddenly does not return. Why would a plant rated and successful through some winters not come back? This has a lot to do with the range of fall, winter and spring conditions that occur in our area. For example, we may get a few seasons of heavy snow cover followed by winter (like last year), with very little insulating snow. Alternatively, if we get an early melt in March followed by prolonged cold into April, perennials can suffer from damage to their crowns (growing tip of the plant at the soil level - very important for returning each spring). The best ways to mitigate against these unknowns include not cutting perennials back in fall, mulching with loose organic materials such as leaves or wheat straw, and only cutting perennials back in spring once new growth is well underway.

What about zone envy?

I think just about every cold-climate gardener has at one time or another wished to be in a "better" climate. After all, we are exposed to so much garden content on socials and traditional media that relates to warmer parts of the world. 

This concept was actually the reason I wanted to reach out to Donna Balzer, author of No Guff Vegetable Gardening and Three-Year Gardener's Gratitude Journal. Donna has lived and gardened in five very distinct regions of Canada, ranging from zone 3 to zone 7, so I thought she would be the perfect person to answer the question, "does gardening life get better when you move to a warmer climate?".

For full a deep-dive and cool discussion, have a listen to the interview on the Grow Guide, but in summary, Donna emphasized that zone is really only a part of the equation. She has discovered that soil type, summer heat units and frost-free days are all integral parts of her satisfaction across locations. In fact, soil type is the number one factor that has influenced the crops she enjoys in each area, with the mineral-rich clay soils of the prairies being a stand-out for the quality of certain veggies and the pure sand soils of her zone 7 garden presenting the biggest challenge.

So, while it is clear that growing in a warmer climate can be transformative to the variety of perennial planting options, satisfaction and ease of success with certain crops are better suited to cooler zones and particular soil types. So we only have to be a little bit to be envious about...!

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