Know your back yard like the back of your hand

Close observation can help you figure out what to plant

In The Garden

February 06, 2005|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,Universal Press Syndicate

Most gardeners are amateur meteorologists, striving to perfect their understanding of the weather and climate in their own back yards.

Years of watching the clouds roll by do not necessarily translate to an ability to understand the weather as it affects your garden, but careful observation, common sense, and a few basic implements will build up your confidence.

The tools of the trade are many: Gardeners buy thermometers and rain gauges, mount weathervanes on garages, and consult barometers and almanacs to find out whether the weather will accommodate their plans to plant roses, set out tomato seedlings, or fertilize the lawn.

It's not always safe to trust the calendar: It's the actual weather you're waiting for, and it changes from day to day and from year to year. The more you know about it, the better you'll be able to choose the right plants and grow them successfully.

If you choose plants that thrive in your climate and situation, gardening is much easier and demands less time, says Marc Cathey, president emeritus of the American Horticultural Society and a passionate weather watcher.

"I'm always trying to find ways to simplify my gardening, because of my time," he says. You have to know about the wind, rain, light, shadows, cold spots and heat zones in your garden in order to make the right decisions. "All those things add up," Cathey says.

In every garden, some areas are a little bit colder, or warmer, or windier than other areas, and discovering these micro-environments is a subtle matter.

Robert Dash, an artist and owner of Madoo, a stunning garden (www.madoo.org) on Long Island, once told a group of gardeners at a symposium that the best way to find and understand a garden's microclimates is to walk around outside naked. It brought a nervous laugh from the crowd, but Dash had a good point: Usually you scarcely notice the small variations in temperature within your own garden. If you can familiarize yourself with your garden's microclimates, it will help you decide where to place the hollies, the roses, the daffodils and the vegetable garden.

Cathey recommends keeping a diary of observations so that, over the years, you'll have a record and a reference to help you keep track of drought and deluge, for example, and the plants that survived each. You might also take note of where shadows fall in mid-winter and mid-summer, measure the growth rate of a newly planted tree, and watch how your garden reacts to a big wind up from the south. Such information can guide you when you're planning a hedge, building a patio or shopping for shade plants.

Farmers are the country's traditional weather-watchers, and the Old Farmer's Almanac (www.almanac. com), published every year since 1792, is the standard weather reference for city gardeners, too. The 2005 Almanac predicts a good amount of snow and cold temperatures this winter, a moderate summer, drought on the West Coast, and an active Atlantic hurricane season. Regional forecasts are more specific, but they all read a little like horoscopes: You can't take the forecasts too seriously, and you still have to make your own decisions.

The Almanac says its forecasts come from "a secret formula" based on sun spots, climatology and meteorology, and the editors claim they're accurate 80 percent of the time. The little book is also full of perfectly good old-time weather wisdom and anecdotes.

Gardeners know the season is advanced enough to plant corn when the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel's ear, and that when the lilacs are in bloom, the soil is warm enough to plant beans. Your own garden almanac might record the temperature extremes every day for a month, the return of the robins, and the day you see the first dandelion bloom.

Gambling on the weather and learning from the results is part of the fun of gardening, and wagering with plants isn't as risky as it used to be, Cathey says. New introductions are hardier and more adaptable than ever.

A gardener in the Seattle area who loves tropical plants relies on thermometers to help her beat the odds in her distinctly untropical climate. She has several remote sensors -- one in an orchard, one near the tropical plants, one in a new garden of Mediterranean plants -- so she can keep an eye on temperatures all around her garden from her kitchen.

Keeping up with the weather makes you a better gardener. While everyone else complains about it, you can rap your knuckles on a barometer, pull knowingly on your chin when the wind shifts, and take a few notes: You're doing something about it.

Sources

Wind and Weather (800-922-9463 or www.windandweather.com)

Gardener's Supply (800-427-3363 or www.gardeners.com)

The USDA Hardiness Zone map, which divides North America into zones according to the average annual minimum temperature, and the American Horticulture Society's Heat Zone map, which establishes similar zones based on the number of days a region's temperature is above 86 degrees every year. Both maps are available on the AHS web site (www.ahs.org) under "Gardening Q and A."

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