How to Know Which Plants Will Be Best for Your Growing Area
By Megan Wild
Gardening is the number one hobby in the United States (1), and each year more people are joining the ranks of the green thumbs as they seek to grow their own food and make the planet a little greener. It’s also a great way to enjoy some fresh air and sunshine, and even the littlest kids can be included in digging in the dirt.
If you’re new to gardening, however, getting started can be overwhelming. There are so many types of plants to choose from, and the conditions for gardeners in Minnesota are completely different from those in Arizona. For help understanding how to choose the best plants for your region, follow these tips:
Know Your Zone
Have you heard gardeners talking about zones? It can sound like jargon to the uninitiated, but understanding your growing zone is super important when you’re choosing plants for your garden. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a detailed map of the country’s growing zones (2), which provides a basic idea of how cold your region is. The map itself is based on decades of measurements of daily temperature, the dates of frost and historical weather averages. This handy map takes the guesswork out of choosing plants.
Find your zone, memorize it and search for plants that grow well there. Almost all plants for sale are labeled with zone information to help you decide.
Choosing a plant within your growing zone is especially important for perennial plantings like shrubs, trees and other decorative plants that may go dormant in the winter but will come back again each spring. For gardeners in cold zones 3 through 5, choosing a hardy variety designed for your zone will help ensure your garden isn’t destroyed by freezing temperatures.
For gardeners at the opposite end of the spectrum in hot zones 8 through 10, it’s important to remember that some plants actually need a cold period for dormancy to rejuvenate or set fruit. Always check the zone before settling on a plant if you would like it to have a long, happy life!
Know Your Frost Dates
Not all plants are destined to survive the winter. Many flowers and vegetables are annual plants, which means they grow from seed and die in the winter — hopefully not before you enjoy them for several months, though!
Zone information isn’t particularly helpful in choosing annual plants because almost anything can be grown temporarily where you live — if you’re willing to create great conditions with some hard work. For example, tomatoes will only survive the winter in zones 10 or 11, but that doesn’t stop gardeners in Vermont from growing them anyway.
Of greater importance in choosing the right annuals for your garden is the length of your growing season. This means knowing the rough date of your last frost in the spring and your first frost in the winter (3). Knowing the specific dates will let you know when to get those plants and seeds in the ground for best results.
You can also approximate the length of your growing season by looking at the zone. Zones 3 through 5 have a short growing season, while zones 6 through 8 have a long one. To pick out the right veggies for your garden, Northern gardeners should choose varieties that have been bred for a short season to maximize the chance you’ll get fruit and flowers before frost. Gardeners in very hot areas should look for varieties that are heat-resistant and should avoid gardening during the summer.
Choose Native Varieties
One of the best methods for choosing plants that will do well in your climate is to opt for native varieties. You’ll never get a shade-loving, thirsty hydrangea to thrive in the desert, but there’s a whole slew of native cacti and succulents that are just as lovely and are adapted for your conditions.
Likewise, a tropical vine will struggle in the long, cool springs of zone 4. Check with a local nursery for advice on native plants, and you’ll enjoy a nearly labor-free garden — you won’t need to add much extra water or winter protection to shepherd plants along.
In addition to native plants, our gardens are also filled with lots of non-native species that are beloved for their fruits and flowers. One of the best ways to choose plants that will do well in your garden is to look at what’s growing around your neighborhood. If everyone has a glorious patch of daylilies, these will probably work well for you, too.
It’s also of equal importance to make sure that the soil you’re using is healthy. Without healthy soil, you’re going to have a tough time growing grass, let alone flowers.
You can also try asking that green thumb down the street about what’s growing in their veggie patch this spring — most gardeners are more than happy to share what they’ve learned over the years, and you may even score a plant to try.
Choosing the right plants for your growing area can be the difference between a beautiful garden and one that only brings you heartache. No single garden can grow every plant in the world, but there are many that are perfect for you if you do your research about your zone and frost dates. When you make good decisions about your plant selection, you’ll have less work and far more enjoyment of your new hobby.
Megan Wild gets garden-inspiration from her mother, who is truly the “green thumb” in the family. She passes also ideas and tips on her blog, Your Wild Home.