As spring approaches, gardening season is upon us once again. Depending on where you live, you may have a while to wait for your last expected freeze, while other parts of the country can already get going.
Wherever you are, it's important not to start planting too early (or too late) for your climate. Understanding your planting schedules and zones can help you make the most of the limited planting season.
What Are Planting and Growing Zones?
The planting zones in the United States are broken down into numbers (with letters for sub-zones). Each zone stretches from east to west, and the zone numbers increase from north to south. The zones show gardeners how hardy their plants need to be, as freezes and frosts can linger in the colder parts of the country. In the cold zones in the north, a fragile plant might not withstand a night or two of near-freezing temperatures.
Knowing your planting zone and schedule will help you save money on seeds and plants, so you can successfully grow your garden and enjoy fresh food and beautiful plants through the summer and fall.
Why Pay Attention to Planting Zones
The United States has several unique planting zones based on the seasons, average temperatures, daylight and frost-freeze cycles. The frost-freeze dates are based on 30-year averages, but many areas have unique environments. Many areas have micro-climates based on sun exposure, soil conditions, valleys and slopes that can affect the growing season.
If you plant at the wrong time, your seeds might not germinate properly. The cold soil can force seeds to have slow or uneven germination. With limited sunlight, seeds and seedlings planted too early will struggle to grow.
It's also a problem to plant too late for your zone. In the southern states, planting too late can cause damage from excessive heat. If you wait too long to plant in northern zones, you might not give plants enough time to produce vegetables before fall frosts arrive.
What to Plant in the Northern Zones
The coldest zones in the United States stretch across northern Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana in zones 2 and 3. Below that in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, northern New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming is zone 4.
These chilly zones have limited daylight hours and cold temperatures during winter, spring and fall, so most plants don't have time to bloom and flower. Leafy greens and herbs do well in this climate, but gardeners who want tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and eggplants should grow them inside, in a greenhouse, or in containers. Many other garden vegetables aren't hardy enough for zones 3 and 4. Consider giving any veggies a head-start indoors before transplanting them to your outdoor garden.
The Vegetable Belt of the Midwest
Zones 5 and 6 stretch across the United States and include agricultural areas in the Northeast, Midwest, Plains, and Mountain West. In these zones, most vegetables do well as long as they are planted in late April or early May. While some areas — especially in the northern areas of zone 5 — frosts and freezes can still occur in April, May is generally a safe time to plant. Exact timing depends on the plant, with veggies like asparagus and lettuce thriving early and peppers and tomatoes needing warmer soil and more sunlight.
While you won't find many citrus trees flourishing in zones 5 and 6, you will find other fruits like cherries and blueberries in Michigan, wine grapes and strawberries in New York and raspberries in Oregon and Washington. Anyone who has driven through Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas and western Colorado has seen fields of corn extend far into the horizon.
The Fruit Basket in the Southern and Coastal Zones
The southern zones include zones 7 through 10 and reach the coastal areas of Washington, Oregon and California, along with most of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas and the southeastern states. Farming meccas like the valleys in California, southern Texas and all of Florida are in zone 9, with zone 10 encompassing the southern area of Florida and a few other spots in the Southwest.
Gardeners in these zones can grow vegetables all year. For example, onions and peas thrive when planted in February in zone 8 and January in zones 9 and 10. Corn grows best when planted in April, and radishes do well when planted in September in zone 10 and January in zone 8.
How Do I Find My Planting Zone?
You can find your planting zone in a variety of places. Your local gardening center will have information about the best times to plant flowers, bulbs, seeds and seedlings. Many seed packages have graphics with planting zones.
You can also find your planting zones and the frost-freeze dates in the annual Farmer's Almanac. When you visit the Farmer's Almanac, enter your ZIP code to find out when it's time to start your garden. Depending on where you live, you might enjoy your indoor spring cleaning and organizing before you start tidying up your garden and planting colorful flowers outside.
Know Your Planting Schedule
When gardeners know their planting zones, they can get the most out of their gardens. Understanding your planting zones lets you grow flowers, fruits and vegetables throughout the spring, summer and fall. Some plants thrive in the cool early spring, while others need the heat of the summer. You'll save money and time by planting at the right time in your neck of the woods.