Zone Gardening: The Definitive Guide

Posted by

Zone gardening can be a little mysterious, until you look "under the hood". Frost dates, hardiness zones, winter gardening and succession planting; is your thumb green enough? 

Set yourself up with a plan for the most successful gardening year yet with a little bit of direction.

By now you likely realize gardening is more than planting and watering. While sun exposure, fertilizers and disease control are likely familiar challenges to you, have you gotten into the nitty-gritty with YOUR zone?

Make no mistake: you can succeed (for a bit) when flying by the seat of your pants. But wouldn't you rather maximize your potential to get every last harvest and bloom possible?

Gardeners that put a little time into planning and establishing exactly what they'd like to get from their gardening efforts will enjoy some measurable results. 

We Sifted Through The Fluff, So You Can Get to Work

A round-up of the only sources you'll need to get started gardening in your zone, this guide has it all. 

(Click a Chapter to Jump Ahead)

Identify Your Garden Zone
The Right Plant Veggies & Fruits That Thrive
Seed Starting Tips Direct Sow Guide The Art of the Second Planting
Gardening Through the Winter Creating a Gardening Plan Zone Gardening Pain Point Solutions

In it's most basic element, plant hardiness zone maps are divided into regions based upon the average annual minimum temperature for that area. Why is this important? Because all plants thrive in different environments, it's essential that you only introduce those plants that have acclimated to your region. This will ensure gardening success and a happy (living) plant. Use the resources below to identify your garden zone.

The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone National Map

Step-by-Step Zone Identification by City/State

Rachel Arsenault from Grow a Good Life

Although the Plant Hardiness Zone Maps are a great starting point to figure out the minimum temperature a plant can survive, this is only part of what affects your growing season. Each yard also has unique environmental influences that also affect the growing season.

The best way to learn about your growing area is to ask others who garden nearby. Talk with your neighbors or even someone you meet at your local garden center. Ask them the varieties of plants they like to grow and what they suggest to make the most of the growing season. Be prepared for a long conversation because once you begin swapping stories it can be both entertaining and enlightening.

Every plant has a hardiness zone rating ranging from 1-11 in the United States. The lowest numbers are those that are most tolerant to the lowest temperatures. Now that you know your zone (from Chapter 1), you'll want to compile a list of compatible plants for your geographic location. Use the below resources to identify the ideal plant based on your location and tastes.

Bulb & Plant Guide by Zone:

Plant Lookup By Zone:

Best Perennials for Northern and Midwest Gardeners:

Perennial Encyclopedia - The right perennial for your taste and zone

Jan Johnsen from Serenity in the Garden

Finding the right plant for the right place depends on three considerations: the location, the soil and the plant’s growth habit.

Besides considering the hardiness zone, also check the plant’s sun and shade needs. If you have a shady corner, look for those plants that thrive in low light conditions. Additionally, be sure to check that your soil is top notch. In truth, the soil is as important as the plant!

The best way to find the right plant is look around and see what is growing in your neighborhood. It is an easy way to learn what plants will be suited for your garden. Another idea is to go to local garden centers and ask questions of the staff. They can be a great resource. And finally, look online at plant suppliers websites and read the plant descriptions carefully. This is important because those photos of beautiful plants can make us forget to check their full height or their hardiness or light preferences. Knowing the sun, light and soil conditions a plant requires is key to finding the right plant.

Every zone in the USDA hardiness map has a seed sowing schedule unique to that area. Depending on the first and last frost, you'll need to plan both your indoor seed starting and direct sowing accordingly. Keep in mind that there is both a right and a wrong time to plant certain varieties of veggies, impacting things like yield and overall health. Use the resources below to identify the optimum vegetables for your zone.

Know When to Plant What Veggie in your Zone

US Hardiness Zones for Fruit Trees

Rhonda Baird from Sheltering Hills

Always start with the veggies that you love to eat and those that you have grown before, but remember to try new things. Peas, beans, corn, and transplant tomatoes are great if you are starting your first garden. Add in some basil and nasturtium for beauty and flavor all summer long.

Most veggies and fruits need 6-8 hours of good light each day to produce optimally. If you are tight on space you can train some vines to grow vertically: cucumbers and squash do well on a fence. This can make more space for other plants to get their light quota.

Be sure to check that your veggies will have enough time to grow before frosts come—or be prepared for winter gardening. Alternately, if you live in a hot, arid environment, remember that the summer can be a slow time for garden growth. If you are tight on time, you can also choose to grow items that let you begin to harvest sooner: lettuces and other greens, peas, and beets will allow you to harvest some fresh greens without taking the whole plant. That’s great for those of us who are either impatient or run out of time.

While seed starting can seem like a daunting task reserved for the most advanced gardeners, the reality is that with a little planning and some diligent record-keeping, you can become a pro in short order. Knowing which seeds you'll start indoors vs. which you'll direct sow, how soon you can move outside into a greenhouse...all essential elements to consider. Use the resources below to help get you started. 

Seed starting chart by zip Code (with email reminders)

Seed starting Plan

Seed starting for beginners

Handy Planting Calendar Based on Last Frost's%20planting%20calendar....

Ramon Gonzalez from Mr Brown Thumb

If you're starting out with seed starting, look into ways that you can reduce your costs. For example, upcycle deli containers into seed starting greenhouses. Use small yogurt cups and roll your own newspaper pots to plant seeds in. If you don't feel crafty, check out the discount retailers and dollar stores. You will find many of the same supplies and seeds carried by garden centers, but at a fraction of the cost.

There's nothing more charming than a windowsill of seedlings in late winter, but edit the amount of seeds you start indoors. There are plenty of seeds that do fine being sown directly outdoors in early spring and summer. Give your valuable window real estate to tender starts and those that may need a longer growing season.

Lastly, grow more than one seedling. If your seedling dies or gets eaten by slugs when planted out, make sure you have a spare to replace it with. All those weeks you spent nurturing your seedling only to be left with nothing may discourage you from gardening.

Direct sowing is without a doubt the most economical and "back to basics" form of gardening. Even with all of the fancy grow lights, pots and germination kits it's sometimes nice to just get right to it in the garden. While direct sowing is most definitely not without it's challenges (plants that require a long growing season don't do great when direct-sown in cold weather regions), if you choose the right vegetable, herb, annual or perennial for the area, you can enjoy some great success. 

Direct Seeding

10 Easy Vegetables to Direct Sow

Seed Sowing Outdoors

Jodi Torpey, Blue Ribbon Vegetable Gardening

There are three key words to keep in mind when planting seeds in your garden. Timing is everything.

Good timing comes into play when deciding which plants can be directly sown into the garden from seed, and which plants need to be started indoors before transplanting in the garden.

Selecting the right time to plant seeds outside is important, too. In the vegetable garden, cool-season crops (like potatoes, onions and peas) need to be planted while the air and soil temperatures are still cool. But warm-season crops (like squash, beans and corn) need much warmer soil temperatures before planting.

A soil thermometer or even a digital kitchen thermometer is a good tool to help measure soil temperature. Dig a hole several inches deep and measure the soil temperature there. Then check the preferred soil temperature for the crops you want to grow.

Flower seeds also have soil temperature preferences for germinating. Read the information on each variety's seed packet and follow the recommendations for timing, depth and spacing.

So there are a couple of options here when we talk about a "second planting". This is because the topic goes somewhat hand-in-hand with succession gardening, the act of staggering plantings so you can harvest at different times throughout the summer in a controlled manner to truly maximize every square foot of your garden. While gardeners in zones 4-6 should be planting again in midsummer for a fall harvest, those in other zones could be pulling and planting numerous times. For more on what to do in your area, see below;

Succession Planning Chart & Suggestions

Succession Planting & Year Round Gardening

Ann Marie Hendry,

Planning is key to successful repeat plantings. Think about what you’re going to plant once you’ve harvested your first crops so you’ll have sturdy, well-grown seedlings ready to pop in at a moment’s notice. Salad leaves such as lettuce are ideal for plugging gaps when crops are harvested (especially later in the summer or if you have a short growing season) because they grow quickly and are usually fairly tolerant of light frosts.

Make sure you mulch the soil with about two inches of well-rotted compost before you add your second crop. This will help to keep your soil healthy and feed your second crop at the same time.

Sad to see summer go? It certainly doesn't have to mean the end of gardening. No matter what region you are in, you can grow cold-hardy winter crops that have a reputation for surviving the frigid temps. While you may need a few extra "supplies", you'll likely agree cold-weather harvesting is a most rewarding bounty.

What to plant and harvest in the winter

Winter Gardening Tips By Zone

Store veggies through the the ground

Barbara Damrosch for Mother Earth News

Winter gardening is surprisingly easy. The pace is slow, weeds are few, and low light levels cut down on evaporation and can even eliminate the need for watering from mid-November to mid-February in most areas of the country. 

Try lots of crops to see which work best for you. With each, start with the least protection you might need (some crops may surprise you), and then decide how accommodating you’re willing to be. Experiment with timing to find a rhythm that works, putting in new crops wherever you see an empty space. 

Make lots of compost to give your crops an extra boost. Also, keep in mind that you should fear heat more than cold. Remember to vent cold frames, quick hoops and greenhouses on sunny days, lest you trap hot air inside and then prematurely “cook” your greens.

It's been said that "victory is the child of preparation and determination". In gardening, there is no question that a little bit of planning can save you some sweat and headaches. The preparation stage is where you take all that you've learned up to now, set your goals for the coming seasons, and bring it all together. Easily transition from seed starting to transplanting to fall planting without missing a beat.

Record Keeping Charts (Soil Conditions, Seed Starting, Planting, Pest Management, etc.)

Vegetable Planting Schedule by Zone/State

Garden Planner (Seed starting, fertilization and watering tips)

Marie Viljoen, 66 Square Feet (Plus)

Fava beans (also called broad beans) are one of the earliest spring crops to get in the ground, weeks before the last frost (make sure to soak them overnight before planting). 

They are also one of the most versatile: while the late spring beans are delicious to eat fresh or dried, fewer gardeners and cooks appreciate their tender leaves and shoots, which are a very good raw ingredient in salads, or wilted as a side dish. 

Personally, I use them most often as a leafy green, pinching out their shoots once a week for months of fresh and free cool-weather salads.Grown in full sun or as few as three hours of direct sun, fava beans also work to fix nitrogen in the soil, making them an ideal cover crop for permaculturists and organic gardeners. 

Plant them again several weeks before the last frost in fall, and they will act as both cover crop and green manure over winter. 

Gardening comes with more than its fair share of challenges and disruptions. Pests, disease, lack of rain or too seems you can't win sometimes. While some of these things can be controlled, fixed or even prevented, a good gardener knows when not to beat themselves up too badly. Utilize these resources and know where to draw the line between your garden and certain enemies.

The Ultimate Weed guide for gardens, lawns and landscapes.

Guide to common Garden Pests

Beneficial Pests

Organic Pest Control

DaNelle Woldford,

Mulch, mulch, mulch. Grass, straw, leaves, & wood chips are all great forms of mulch. Place them not just on top of your plants in your garden, but all around the edges. If you have raised garden boxes, placing mulch in your walkways will also stop weeds from infiltrating. 

When the fall season hits and you have leaves all over the ground, mow over them to chop them into smaller pieces & pick them up, then spread them around your garden walkways and around the edges. This will help your garden have very little weeds and when it comes time to plant and you need some mulch to place around your plants, it's right there waiting for you!

Your Turn!

So there you have it! We hope this collection of tips and resources helps you get the most out of your garden this coming Spring. 

Do you have any suggestions we missed? Leave a comment below and let us know what every new gardener should keep in mind when tackling their next planting project.

Happy Growing!

  • Gardening
  • plants
  • vegetables
  • Zone
comments powered by Disqus