Judy and Sinfonian, from ft2garden.com, on how they are both in the same zone, but with really different conditions.
Part One: Sinfonian Barleytone
Like my garden buddy Judy clear across the country, I too am in USDA zone 8b! Like Judy, I also am working hard to extend my season. Like Judy, I am using Square Foot Gardening to do it.
Unfortunately, that's where the similarities end. You see, USDA Zones are not the only measure of your climate or what your garden will grow. In fact, USDA zones only determine how low temperatures will go in any given year, on average. For Judy living on the Gulf Coast of Alabama and I on the shores of Puget Sound in Washington, it hardly ever gets below 20 degrees for either of us (though I counted twice we got below 20 here last year, but since they were fifty year lows, I guess it doesn't count). What your USDA zone is particularly good at, is to tell you what perennials will over-winter in your area. It is not particularly useful for annuals like most vegetables.
Perhaps better indications of climate are two alternative zone distinctions. One is the American Horticultural Society Heat Zone Map, which is good for determining how well summer vegetables will do for you. Specifically, it tells how many days of 86 degree weather you'll have. Tomatoes, melons and squash all love heat. Unfortunately, my zone distinction is 2, which means I get less than seven days above 86 degrees. Essentially, it is the reverse of the USDA zone and it's low temperature measurement. It is still not the whole story though.
Better still is the Sunset Climate Zone as it is an overall measure of your climate. It takes into consideration the length of the growing season, annual rainfall, humidity, as well as high and low temperatures. It also tells you what other area your climate is most like. For me in zone 5, we are in an "English garden climate" which means we have mild temperatures and a ton of rain. It also tells me that I can order from catalogs in England and they will do fine here.
Lastly, there is a lot of information out there about annual heat units as a measure of a climate. Each fruit or vegetable needs a certain number of heat units to germinate and mature. Although much of all that scientific data is lost on me as a lay gardener, knowing that the Seattle area ranks second to last in the heat unit listings is very telling.
So, simply saying I am in zone 8b, tells less than half the story. And while Judy is valiantly trying to save her salad greens that I can grow pretty much year round, I am gambling to get an early start with my heat loving plants like cucumbers, melons and tomatoes.
Last year we skipped August here in Seattle. It was as if we went from the heat of July to the coolness of September. If it wasn't for starting my tomatoes early, I would have had no production at all. As it was, I got about 8 pounds from two plants.
Specifically, to beat the weather, I am germinating warm weather crops indoors and starting them out under fluorescent lights. Once the seedlings are big enough and hardened off, I plant them under hoop covers or cold frames until the threat of frost is over. That way, I have a huge jump start over direct sowing in May!
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