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Combat Zone Envy - Make a Micro Climate

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                   GardenGuides Newsletter 
                       April 25, 2006

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Tools for Rose Care 

1. Stock your garden shed with a long-handled spade, a 
garden fork, and a cultivator. Keep plant markers, a 
dethorner, and a sprayer handy, too. Have buckets for carry-
ing fertilizer as well as cut flowers. Wear boots, gloves, 
and a hat to protect yourself as you work in the garden.

2. Protect your skin by wearing a pair of heavy-duty gloves. 
Gauntlet-style gloves extend past the wrist and cover part 
of your arm. Those made from leather or another impenetrable 
material allow you to dethorn the roses you cut for arrange-
ments by sliding your gloved fingers down the stems.

3. Use twine to tie rose canes as you train them to grow on 
fences, arbors, and obelisks. In late fall, wrap twine 
around long canes to keep them from blowing and breaking in 
winter winds. Also use it to secure burlap wraps on tree 
roses. Twine deteriorates eventually and needs to be 
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Combat Zone Envy - Make a Micro Climate
By Carol Wallace

No matter where a gardener lives they always seem to think 
that people in other climate zones are better off that they 
are. Those people in cold climates envy the lush tropical 
plants that warm climate gardeners can grow so easily, while 
those in warm climates wash nostalgic about the lilacs and 
tulips they used to grow back up north. We somehow manage to 
live through these disappointments with fair good humor. The 
zone envy that really turns us green is that of the people 
one climate zone different that we are - so near, yet so far 

That one zone difference can be a killer. We go to the 
nursery and see the most gorgeous plants - love at first 
sight. We know exactly where it would look wonderful in our 
yard. And then we check the care tag. 

Instant gloom. It's hardy in the next country - but not in 
my yard. At least that's what most of us believe. I'm not so 
easily convinced. For one thing, I have gambled several times 
on plants that were supposedly a bit tender for my area and 
had them survive with flying colors. Often the plant really 
IS hardy in my climate zone - but not enough people have 
tried it and reported success with it to convince the 

That's what happened with my first hellebore. I had seen 
them in Europe, blooming on Christmas day. I HAD to have one. 
Back then they were not easy to find, but finally I saw one 
in the Winterthur catalog. Sadly, it was listed as being 
hardy only to zone 7. But I just HAD to have it. 

My local nursery owner told me that I might possibly succeed 
with it if I planted it near the house, which would give it 
some shelter and also provide it with a little extra warmth 
from the house. I followed his advice - and now, ten years 
later that hellebore is a fine, strong plant that is bloom-
ing as I type this. 

I guess a lot of other colder-climate people were as fool-
hardy as I was. The next thing I know that Helleborus niger 
was being rated as hardy to zone 4. All those cold climate 
gardeners who were growing it without problem can't be 

So if you see a plant that you really want, you can always 
gamble that the experts haven't really tested the limits of 
its cold hardiness. That's one way to help cure some cases 
of zone envy. 

Others are not so easily overcome. Some plants that are 
rated as hardy to zone 7 really aren't hardy in zone 6. But 
that doesn't mean that you can't grow them. It simply means 
you need to seek out a microclimate on your property and 
situate the plant there. 

What is a microclimate?

Basically it's an area that because of its situation in the 
landscape may be warmer or colder than the rest of the 
property. When the nursery man told me to situate my 
hellebore near the house he was recommended a site near the 
house's foundation because it is a microclimate - an area 
likely to be warmer and more sheltered from freezing wind 
than more open areas of the property. 

If you understand the theory behind creating a microclimate 
then you can often cheat and grow plants that are normally 
tender in your zone. You may even be able to grow those 
plants that need a tad more chilling than your climate 
naturally provides. 

Four conditions that can help you to create a microclimate 
in your yard: 

patterns of light 
humidity distribution and 
air circulation



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I'll explain a bit about each of these and give some suggest-
ions as to how you can take advantage of them to extend the 
range of plants you can grow. Let the neighbors have zone 
envy - let them be envious of you! 


We know this about the outdoor temperatures, but all too 
rarely think about what it means in terms of the plants we 
can grow. The key fact is that when the thermometer says 
it's 90 degrees outside it is 90 degrees at the thermometer. 
But that doesn't mean that it is 90 degrees everywhere in 
the yard. Take that thermometer over to a shady spot and see 
what it says. Shady spots almost invariably have lower 

We also know that hot air rises - but usually only think 
about that in terms of indoor heat and balloons. But it is 
also true outdoors. If your land slopes, like mine does, 
then if you carried that thermometer around the yard you 
would discover that the higher the rise the warmer the 
temperature. In the dips and valleys temperatures are 
slightly cooler. 

The lesson here is clear - the more tender the plant the 
higher it needs to be and the more sun or reflected heat it 
needs. Put it in a dip in the land - probably a frost pocket 
- and you are sending it to its doom. 

Patterns of light

The temperature, and thus the microclimate, is also affected 
by the amount of sunlight an area receives. Areas that get 
little or no sun tend to be cooler than those that receive 
a great deal of sun. Many factors can affect the amount of 
sun an area receives, including the following. 

other plants 
even where you park your car

Shady areas are not only consistently cooler than their 
well-lit counterparts - they tend to hold moisture for longer 
periods of time. 

Some of these elements create different amounts of shade 
seasonally. Trees lose their leaves and suddenly an area 
gets more light than it did in summer. This is why we can 
plant spring bulbs in a tree-shaded spot - they bloom before 
the trees leaf out. 

In winter the shadows are longer and the days are shorter 
because the angle of the sun is lower (about 30 degrees) 
than in summer when it is at the higher angle of about 75 

What all of this means is that we are able to draw some 
conclusions when we take these factors into account, such 
as that slopes that face south or southwest are warmer than 
those facing north or northeast. This is because they will 
receive the sun most directly - but they stay warm because, 
as we saw above, heat rises while the cooler air literally 
slides down the slope and settles at the lowest point. 

Walls that run to the east or west reflect heat and light 
toward their south sides, which means that they create shade 
on their north sides. The side with the most light is the 
warmer side. In my own garden I have an old stone wall with 
remnants of whitewash that reflects the sunlight and heat 
in summer. It actually got too hot for the simplicity roses 
I had planted there. Across the way the facing bed has no 
stone wall - and the same plants look happier. 


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A south-facing stone wall that absorbs the heat and light of 
the sun during the day and then slowly release it at night. 
If this same area is protected from winds it can actually be 
a microclimate as much as 8 to 10 degrees higher than in 
other spots in your yard! 

Conversely plants that languish in the too hot summer can 
survive happily in a shadier place with more humidity and 
slightly damper soil. 

You can manipulate the amount of light and heat a wall may 
create somewhat with the colors that you use on them. 
Remember that white reflects heat back at the plants while 
black absorbs the heat. If you don't believe me, try wearing 
one black and one white sock outside in summer and tell me 
which one gets hottest. 

One way to create a cool microclimate for summer is to put 
shade trees on the southern side of your property. This will 
lower the amount of heat we get from the sun. If you want 
more heat then make sure there are no trees, buildings, etc. 
between your heat-loving plants and the sun. 

Also, the more paved area you have - especially with light-
colored paving - the more heat it will reflect. Reducing the 
paving and adding more grass or more plants will help reduce 
the temperature. 

Humidity distribution

Water also affects the amount of heat or cold in an area. I 
remember being flabbergasted when I discovered that Anchorage, 
Alaska had weather as warm or warmer than my Pennsylvania 
garden. Or that Boston, which is north of me also was a zone 
warmer. The difference is partially due to the presence of 
huge bodies of water nearby - oceans, in these cases. But 
even a small pond can affect the temperature of a portion of 
the garden to some degree, The pond or lake sends moisture 
out into the air. That water vapor acts a bit like a mini-
ature greenhouse effect as it traps the infrared radiation 
reflected from the earth. 

As long as there is vapor in the air then, we are getting 
those reflected infrared rays. SO air that takes on moisture 
from your pond is literally trapping heat.. So plants near 
your pond will enjoy some extra humidity during the day - 
and if you get out that thermometer again you may find that 
during the day the temperatures there are warmer. This 
explains why I am able to grow calla lilies (allegedly not 
hardy in my area) next to my big pond without digging them 
up in the fall. They stay in the ground year round and 
flower faithfully each summer with no protection except 
their pondside home. 

Plants themselves also release humidity in the air. In your 
garden you can take advantage of that by putting drought 
tolerant plants at the edge of a grouping and those that 
need a higher humidity in the center of the bed. That way 
the plants that need more moisture will benefit from that 
released by the more drought tolerant plants that surround 

Air Circulation Remember what I said earlier about hot air 
rising. The reverse is also true - cold air sinks. Look 
around your yard early one autumn or spring morning and see 
which areas have frost on the lawn. They are probably all 
the depressions in the land. Our yard isn't level anywhere, 
so it's easy to see that wherever the ground slopes down we 
have frost - whereas the high points are quite clear. So 
the lesson is clear - plants that need heat belong on higher 
ground than those that prefer cold. 

Wind is another factor that affects the microclimate. Plants 
that are sheltered from winter winds survive better than 
those that are right out there getting the brunt of them. 
So slightly tender plants need as much wind protection as 

Put trees or shrubs in areas that get high winds if you need 
to create an area that is safe for tender plants. I am grow-
ing bamboo that is allegedly only marginally hardy in zone 
7 and it is quite happy in my zone 6 garden. . I am growing 
it between a stone wall and a hedge of tall evergreen trees 
- and it is planted at what is the highest elevation on my 
property. It flourishes for me because of the protection 
from wind as well as the heat and light reflected from the 
stone wall. 

Pay attention to these factors and you can probably find 
little safe spots in your yard that will let you grow those 
plants that you used to envy in your neighbor's yard. 

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