Month: January 2012

Connecticut’s new planting zones

The USDA just released a new plant hardiness zone map. Plant hardiness zones are listed on plant tags to communicate the regions in which plant should survive without extra winter protection.

Many will find their zone has changed by a half – mine went from zone 6a to zone 6b, slightly warmer.


Will this alter how I garden or what I plant? No. The map does not take elevation and cover-, slope-, or hardscape-related issues into consideration. Only eyes and experience can do this. I know my property. Plants, shrubs and trees listed as borderline in zone 6 may not survive tough winters without coddling (this means extra winter protection and extra work). If I must have a plant that is borderline in zone 6, I do so with the full knowledge that coddling/extra work will be part of my regular gardening routine.

This is exactly what the USDA recommends on their Maps & Gardening page.

The new map considers 30 years of climate data – a longer period than the 15 or so years previously used and used in other plant hardiness zone maps. More about how the new zone map was created is on the USDA’s What’s New page.

The new map is more interactive than previously. After choosing to view by State, Region, or Nationally, and choosing a size (try Standard then move on to larger versions), you can preview, open or save your map choice.  If you start here, and type in your zip code your zone will pop up under your zip.  Or, for a closer-up view, click on the Interactive Map tab and type your zip code. In the interactive map you can activate a satellite image that shows up under the zone colors. If you increase the transparency of the zone color layer it’s easier to locate your property on the satellite image.

This is particularly useful when trying to determine planting zones in areas near zone borders. For instance, my property, listed as zone 6a in the older USDA map and in the Arbor Day Hardiness Zone Map, is now located very close to the edge of zone 6a in south-central Connecticut but is newly listed in zone 6b.

Follow the various links above and play with the features, but don’t forget that we still must garden thoughtfully. Hardiness zones are guides. Gardeners with the time, experience and where-with-all to push a hardiness zone – say by planting a zone 7 perennial in a zone 6 garden – can be quite successful. Gardeners looking for less maintenance and fuss should stick to their zone or acknowledge that a perennial listed hardy in a warmer zone should be planted as an annual or overwintered with protection.

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Seed Catalogues: Read, Weed then Order

January is the time for Connecticut gardeners to dream up plans for the spring and summer garden. For gardeners who start indoor seedlings, it’s time to order seeds. This can be a daunting task if you read every catalogue that comes in the mail. Most people don’t have this amount of time … I know I don’t … so my first weeding project of each growing season involves weeding seed catalogues.

If you’ve ordered seeds before, you’ll have no shortage of catalogues delivered by mail. I go through my stack to find the page or pages  with general  company and seed information. I avoid seed that is treated or genetically modified and prefer seed organically grown.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Next, companies from Connecticut, or at least the Northeast U.S., go to the top of the stack. Those providing the most information on specific plant types and varieties get my first look. I order from other companies only if I cannot find a sought-after seed variety locally.

I find it much easier to order from a thinned-down group of catalogues. If new at seed ordering, you might want to limit yourself to ordering from just two for comparison purposes. Familiarize yourself with the key, the U.S. hardiness zone map, ordering instructions and general product information for each company, then allow yourself to become entranced with the promises of ‘the sweetest, the biggest, or the earliest ever.’

Indulge yourself. Mark all seeds and varieties that spark interest. Then put the stack down and let your senses rejoin reality.

Return to your stack of wishes with a clear head and the understanding that catalogue descriptions, and photos, are there to sell seeds. By all means enjoy these descriptions – someone worked hard to make each irresistible – but when it comes time to develop your actual order do so with a clear head and a realistic understanding of what you have time and space to grow.

Keep repeating the phrase right plant, right place.

If you want to fit multiple edibles into a small growing space avoid rambling squash vines and try seed varieties bred for compact growth.

Understand that most vegetables need a minimum of six hours of full sunlight. They will grow leggy and may not fruit well in less light.

Look at your seed wants versus your space and time needs and concentrate on varieties not available or too pricey at local markets. If, like me, you crave certain heirloom tomatoes and have ample space and light, by all means grow them. Just don’t try to squeeze competing edibles into the space your craved plant needs.

If you don’t have an indoor space to set up a grow light or lights or a sunny, heated greenhouse, purchase seeds you can sow directly into the soil once it warms. In Connecticut’s zones 5 and 6, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers need to be planted outdoors as transplants. Trying to start seeds inside without supplemental light results in leggy seedlings that don’t transplant well.  You’re better off purchasing these and other long-season heat-loving annuals as transplants from a reputable local garden center.

Gardeners with a grow light set-up often start more seeds than they have time to care for or space to grow. I do this every year – intentionally. I like the safety net of having too many, as opposed to too few, transplants. The strongest go into my gardens and to family and friends. The weaker ones become compost.

In spite of all this pre-growing season weeding, you are still likely to order more than you can possibly grow in one season. Don’t despair. Most seeds remain viable more than one year. Just store remaining seeds in a dry location – mine stay in their packets in a box on a shelf in my office. I’ve had great success germinating seed packaged for a prior growing season. Generally, properly stored seed more than two years old will not germinate as well. I don’t count on seed more than two years old, but will try germinating them to use as back-ups in case other seeds run into some fatal issue. Experiment to find what works best for you.

Connecticut- and Northeast-based seed companies I have, or would order from:

  • Kitchen Garden Seeds – great growing information, no photos, but lovely plant drawings, online cookbook and seed gardening guidebook, sign up for their email newsletters for seasonal suggestions, tips and deals. Based in Bantam, CT.
  • Select Seeds – open-pollinated, heirloom flowers and some edibles. Based in Union, CT.
  • Comstock, Ferre & Company – the regenerated version of the old Comstock, Ferre in Wethersfield, CT, specializing in hardy northern seeds.
  • Pinetree Garden Seeds – great prices, most selections sold with smaller numbers of seeds for home gardeners. Based in New Gloucester, ME.
  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds –  employee-owned company offering an extensive list of seeds. Based in Winslow, ME.
  • Fedco Seeds – cold-hardy seeds, trees, fruit, and bulbs. Also a good source for garden supplies. Based in Waterville, ME.

Other seed companies I have, or would use:

Try some of these vendors and let me know how you like their products and customer service. If you are a veteran or new seed starter, share your tips and experiences. And, as always, garden thoughtfully.

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Joene Hendry