The old ABC Wide World of Sports slogan comes to mind when my wife and I think about gardening each year: "The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat." Time to assess who lived and who died, and why?
Wherever you live in the West, your garden falls into one of the 32 Sunset climate zones. Here on the southwest Washington and northwest Oregon coasts, we're generally in zone 5, an ocean-influenced growing season of mid-April to November, typically with moderate temperatures winter and summer. There's another zonal hardiness rating by the USDA, but the Sunset is regarded as more precise because it factors in not only winter minimum temperatures, but also summer highs, lengths of growing seasons, humidity and rainfall patterns to provide a more accurate picture of what will grow in any zone. However, the USDA zones are still important. When you order plants from catalogs or read general garden books, you need to know your USDA zone in order to be able to interpret references correctly.
That's the macro climate picture.
Before I go on, let's get one thing straight: We don't claim to be expert gardeners, but on more than one occasion we've noticed that something that's supposed to grow well in our zone doesn't. So there must be some other factors influencing our yard. What's up?
Seems that what we've been observing is called a "micro climate." Great - like we need one more gardening challenge!
Apparently, every garden harbors one or even a number of those tricky micro climates that make planting sometimes a puzzler. We'll need to understand this little micro world if we want better success in our yard, so I decided to look into the root of the matter (sorry, I won't do that again) and consult the experts.
First I contacted Jonah Bishop, a landscape designer for Seven Dees. I asked him, "What does a designer do about micro climates?" Here's what he said: "We examine all the factors in the site - the wind patterns, sun exposure, shade, local conditions like coastal influences, soil conditions, water drainage, everything that could affect the site. The influence of wind or salt air, for instance, can greatly change the type and placement of plantings. Then, using our experience with plants and siting, we project out what it will be like year-round. That gives us a good idea of what plants will do best on this site."
Even lacking Bishop's experience and training, anyone could do somewhat the same thing by noting local conditions and watching to see what happens in the yard season to season. It's helpful to ask yourself some simple questions. For instance: How does the sun hit the planting areas? Do you see any water pooling? That probably indicates a clay soil or bad drainage. Where does the wind come from during each season? What plants are taking the hit from the wind? What kind of animals frequent the yard? Questions like that will help you get to know your yard. Plants can be replaced or moved based on your observations.
I also talked with Janice Martin of the Seaside Seven Dees, and she added, "A walk around your neighborhood can be helpful. See what's growing in your neighbor's yard - more than likely you'll have good luck with that too. Around here the soils are mostly sandy and acidic, or clay which tends to hold water, so adding lots of organic material to the soil will improve both. We also have to deal with a very dependable southwest wind which tends to sap the moisture from plants and dry them out. Winds can be very damaging, so one either needs wind protection or sturdy, drought-resistant plants - with lots of organics in the soil they will do fine. Another problem here is elk and deer. Deer-resistant plants are your best bet. From experience, we no longer say 'deer-proof.'"
I can personally vouch for that. My wife and I planted our yard about two years ago with lots of plants referred to as deer-proof, or deer-resistant, but the deer didn't know that. One year, they ignored those plants; the next, they nibbled them; this year, they are permanently on the menu. The saving grace with deer is that they don't show up every day to eat our yard, and they just nibble and move on.
Martin further pointed out, "Elk are different. They'll eat just about everything and if they like it, they'll come back until it's gone. If they don't like it, they'll probably wind up stepping on it. Either way, the plant loses."
Here in our neck of the woods, it might seem on the surface that everything should about be the same, but we have conditions that can cause quite a variance. If you live on or very near to the ocean, wind can play a big role. In the valley, you get more sun and that can warm up the soil; in the mountains you're more protected from wind chill, so where you are in the zone has a major impact.
It seems like a lot to consider, but the time and energy given to understanding the elements that affect your particular yard will pay big dividends in happy plants and happy gardeners. At a minimum, add organics to your soil regularly, look for sturdy, drought-resistant plants in windy areas or plant windbreaks, look at what works for your neighbor, and go for deer-resistant plants. Finally, contact your local nursery and get advice from experts who know the special needs of our area.
Now get out there and do some macro work in your micro climate!