This is a category to help organize the fundamental skills and knowledge for healthy, sustainable gardening.
It's an age old question...Is it better to start seeds indoors and transplant later or to sow seeds outdoors directly into the garden? And what about just skipping seed starting all together and purchasing transplants from a local farmer or garden center? Which is better? Where should I start?
Indeed! The uncertainties of life's big questions are enough to keep a would-be gardener from ever getting started! The good news is, just like in life, there are no hard and fast rules in gardening. The short answer to these often challenging questions is...
Choosing whether to start your garden from seeds or transplants depends on a number of factors - time, experience, and budget to name a few. The type of vegetable or herb being grown also makes a big difference. Some plants prefer being directly sown into the garden, while others prefer to be nursed along indoors before being transplanted.
Outlined below are some benefits and drawbacks of starting seed indoors or in the garden. The benefits and drawbacks of starting with transplants are also considered. Knowing these factors will help you determine the best way to get started and on your way to growing a happy, healthy garden.
Starting From Seed
- All ages enjoy sprouting and caring for life!
- If you're planning a large garden, starting from seed is more affordable.
- You control the source of the seeds and the varieties grown.
- Start early indoors, transplant, then seed in succession throughout the season.
- Root crops - carrots, turnips, parsnips and beets - prefer to be directly sown.
- Beans, corn, garlic, and peas also prefer to be directly sown and grown in one place.
- Time – Waiting for soil temperature to rise and night air temperatures to be above 50°; Waiting for seedlings to mature for transplanting; Monitoring young sprouts 2-3 times per day
- Weather – If you sow direct outdoors, drought, heavy winds, flooding and insects can destroy young seedlings.
- Equipment – The cost of protective covering, seed trays, germination heating pads, and indoor grow lights can add up.
Starting with Transplants
- Get a head start on the growing season!
- Start broccoli, chard, and kale indoors and move them outside soon after your plant hardiness zone’s frost-free date.
- Planning a small garden? It may be more affordable to purchase transplants.
- Transplants are stronger and more resistant to weather conditions and pests.
- Celery, eggplants, leeks, onions, peppers, and tomatoes do well as transplants.
- Transplants can go through shock when moved from their original container.
- If you start seeds indoors, you will need to harden off your seedlings before transplanting them into a permanent location. Hardening off your seedlings means moving baby plants outdoors (a few hours each day) then back indoors, over a period of a week, while they adjust to sun and wind.
- Transplants purchased from other farms or greenhouses may introduce pests, diseases, or weeds into your garden.
- Plant varieties at nurseries and big box stores are limited. If you prefer non-GMO, organic, or heirloom varieties, it may be best to start your own transplants from certified seed sources.
When beginning your garden from seed, sowing directly into the garden or starting in trays, be sure to pay attention to the temperature of the soil. The number of days for seed germination is related to the warmth of the soil. Seedling flat heating mats are great for moving sprout times along more quickly and predictably.
Here’s a handy chart to help you with timing:
If starting from seed isn’t for you, search your local farmers’ market in the Spring and Fall to purchase transplants. These are usually reliable, often heirloom varieties accustomed to growing in your local climate. You can also learn a few secrets of gardening success when buying from local growers.
Odds are, if you're up for the learning curves and fun of growing your own food, you will end up combining all these ways of starting your garden - buying transplants, starting your own indoors, and starting seeds directly in the garden. For more detailed information about when to start specific varieties, check out this 2017-Planting-Chart.pdf from High Mowing Seeds.
Stay tuned for the next post in this series, How To Plan A Garden #3: Preparing for Pests.
Lengthening daylight hours and hints of springtime signal the time to plan your garden. This Tower Power blog post is the first in a series of three to guide you in planning a successful year of gardening. We've crafted an infographic of the basics to get started!
(Click on infographic to enlarge) (Click here to download a pdf of this infographic)
🔗 USEFUL LINKS FROM THE INFOGRAPHIC ABOVE:
1) Plant Hardiness Zone Lookup:
2) Companion Planting Infographic and Database:
A Garden Journal or Sketchbook - This doesn't have to be fancy. It can be as simple as putting blank pages into a binder or use card stock or repurposed cardboard as the cover. This is a great activity to do with kids!
In your Garden Journal, you will record temperature and weather patterns, your garden designs, when and what you plant, as well as, your discoveries, successes and failures. This post has specifics on what to include in your journal. If you prefer going paperless, online options are available for a fee, like this one launching this Spring 2017 from GrowVeg.com.
No matter how you decide to collect garden information, the most important thing about a Garden Journal is that you keep one. Once you have your journal ready, you are ready to begin planning your garden!
Location, Climate, and Weather
Begin by observing and taking note of the largest patterns present in your location such as the climate, seasons, and movement of the sun during different times of year. On this grand scale, Plant Hardiness Zone maps can help you determine the length of your growing season and which types of plants will thrive in your geographic area.
These zones are based on weather patterns and the average lowest temperature. If you live in the United States, enter your zip code here to find your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone. If you live outside the U.S., BackyardGardener.com provides helpful resources. The Old Farmers’ Almanac will help you find the range and number of frost-free days with the Frost Date Calculator.
Record in your Garden Journal:
- Plant Hardiness Zone
- Average lowest temperature in winter
- Dates when frost-free season begins and ends
- Number of frost-free dates
Space and Tools
On a smaller, site-specific scale, the amount of available space and microclimates on your property will help determine the best place for your garden or gardens. Microclimates are small areas or habitats determined by variables such as surface type, walls, wind, water, trees, or other physical features. Answering the following questions will provide a clearer idea of where and how to create your garden.
Record in your Garden Journal:
- Do you have full sun, partial sun, shade, or a combination of these?
- Where are your available spaces? Patio, balcony, on concrete, in the yard?
- How many hours of daylight do these areas receive?
- Which areas are easiest to access?
- What kind of tools do you need? Containers, shovels, tiller, hose, watering can?
Gardens serve many purposes. Food, medicine, beauty, therapy, habitat and wildlife restoration are a few general themes. What is the primary focus of your garden?
For inspiration, check out this list:
(Click on graphic to enlarge)
The North Carolina Cooperative Extension also has great Garden Themes for Kids.
Explore different types of garden plants, herbs and flowers. Select varieties that will work with your available space and chosen theme. If you will have a small space or vertical garden, look for bush or container varieties. These are smaller in height and grow better in containers.
These sites provide great images and information for plant selection:
Plant companions are helpful friends that benefit others. For instance, marigolds are friends with many plants in the garden due to their ability to repel pests. Surrounding tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, and brassicas (kale, broccoli, cabbage) plants with marigolds to defend them from nematodes and leafhoppers. These charts will help you discover which vegetables, herbs, and flowers grow well together and which ones should be separated.
Cliché as it sounds, timing is everything in gardening! The successful growth of your plants depends on the season, length of time for seed germination, and days to maturity. Pay close attention to these factors as you decide when to start your garden.
The amount of time you have available to spend gardening is also something to consider. Are you working full-time, a full-time parent, or both? Are you retired? Do you travel a lot? Think about how much time you will be able to commit daily to tending your garden.
Garden Tower Designs
If you are planning to grow in a Garden Tower 2, check out these tools:
If you live somewhere between Hardiness Zones 1-7, you may be lolling and snoring along to winter’s hibernation song right about now. The colors outside are drab, the daylight hours are short, and the “nothing-like-it” taste of crisp sugar snap peas and sweet cherry tomatoes picked fresh from the garden linger someplace off in the distance.
Winter doldrums have you down?
Here's a quick and easy way to snap out of the winter blah blues. Put the kettle on for a cup of mint, lemon verbena, or ginger-turmeric tea. Sweeten it with local honey, and grab a stack of next year’s seed catalogs!
My friend Kristi, an extraordinary cook who prepares nearly all her meals from local, pasture-raised meats and homegrown produce, is also an absolute connoisseur of seed catalogs! She can’t wait for her selected catalogs to arrive in the mail. This time of year, her collection is scattered across her coffee table, dog-eared and littered with sticky notes marking her wish list for the garden. Kristi told me, “It’s the vibrant pictures, unique colors, shapes and patterns of the seeds, flowers and vegetables that inspire me on these gray winter days. I also love discovering the newest heirloom and container varieties. I want to try them all!”
Request Free Seed Catalogs
Kristi also hinted that seeing pictures of fully mature plants in the catalog is important. This helps her visually plan how she will arrange her community of plants. After marking the pages of the seeds she’d like to purchase, she draws a map of her garden and plays matchmaker with companion plants. Planning tools found in Johnny’s Selected Seeds Grower’s Library and Garden Tower’s Planting Design Guide are helpful when designing your garden.
Planting season is closer than you think. Before you know, you'll be starting seeds and watching the world wake from its slumber. Until then, enjoy getting lost in Spring and Summer daydreams and planning. What will your garden grow?
The enthusiasm induced by looking through seed catalogs can lead to ambitious plans and a bountiful garden with more produce than you can manage to eat. This, of course, is a wonderful problem to have! Apply to sell at your local farmers’ market, start a food stand, or share with co-workers and neighbors. Your local food bank will also be happy to receive your extra harvest. Check out ampleharvest.org for a place nearby to donate.
September and October can be a great time to find some good deals on gardening supplies. Or maybe you’re already preparing holiday gifts for those favorite gardeners in your life. What should top your list?
Here are a few essential tools, we can’t imagine gardening without.
- Hori Hori—don’t let this name fool you. This tool, originating in Japan, is the number one tool for everything. It doubles almost daily as a trowel (marking the soil depth). It cuts branches and roots (for those tough weeds that just won’t budge). It easily cuts twine. The sharp edge can handle tough jobs, and the serrated edge takes out grass handily. Part digging stick, part root pruner, part trowel…these are completely worth the investment.
- Standard Trowel…this tool might have replaced the digging stick, it seems so old. I prefer a nice sharp pointed one for working in the soil. I save the rounded edge ones for measuring out potting soil and other soft material.
- Broad fork…for building permanent raised beds with good drainage and aeration, nothing works like a broad fork. These are relatively expensive for using in the spring and fall, so it can be a good idea to share the tool within a community.
- Weed forks and wrenches…help with those deep-rooted weeds like yellow dock that tend to come back if the root isn’t removed. These tools can save pulled muscles and strains.
- Shovels and spades…are some of the most versatile tools in the home. Specialized spades for planting small shrubs and trees can be just the trick.
- Gloves…These aren’t necessary. Some people prefer to have their hands in contact with the plants and soil. Others choose to use gloves. They can help protect your skin from briars, insects and more.
- Knee rests…usually these are foam pads that gardeners can kneel on. They save wear and tear on pants and make it a bit more comfortable to be on the ground. A small, portable bench for sitting or kneeling feels like a deluxe treat.
- Small wheelbarrow…a small, light wheelbarrow for putting weeds in or toting around mulch materials and tools can save your back and save you time.
- Rain gauge…it’s super helpful to monitor how much precipitation is falling on your garden and keep a record of what happens from year to year.
- Clogs…these might be listed last, but they keep the outdoors out and take a lot of wear and tear while supporting you in your garden rain or shine.
These are a few of our favorite things.
Care and cleaning
Tools can last decades with good maintenance. Buy the best quality tools you can afford and spend the time to take care of them. With bladed or metal tools, it is important to wash off any dirt and debris after each use, dry them well, and then store them dry out of the weather (a broad roof overhang will often do). Some people take a 5 gallon bucket, fill it with sand and cheap cooking oil. They use this to store their shovels, spades, trowels, etc….the sand helps to clean and the oil helps keep the metal in good condition.
Remember to pull your rain gauges in freezing weather so they don’t crack and break.
With these few tips, you can enjoy putting your garden to rest for the winter and know your tools and garden will be waiting for you in the spring (unless, you are gardening through the fall and winter!)
Welcome August and the bounty of the summer garden! This is a wonderful time of year to share some of your prize veggies with your friends and brag a bit about your growing skills in the garden (pun intended). We know how to enjoy our harvest, but we often miss a secondary harvest that will reap many rewards for you—saving seeds! Even if you didn’t garden this year, you can save seeds from the foods you eat.
The world of seed saving can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be to get started. Starting out is simple and only requires a few household items, time and experimentation. Here are some of the benefits:
- Saving the cost of seed for the next growing cycle
- Knowing the source of your seed and its production conditions
- Self-reliance and increased confidence
- Fascination with the history of seeds! (Warning, it can become an obsession.)
- Breeding your own, localized varieties—and naming them
- Refining varieties that are adapted to your local environment
So how do you get started?
1. Gather seeds from foods you’ve grown and foods you like to eat (especially organic foods). ★
Here are some suggestions for getting started: peppers, squash, tomatoes (note these need to be fermented), beans, peas
2. Treat the seeds: Tomatoes need to be submerged in water for about three days until the gelatinous coating ferments off and the seeds are able to be dried on a paper towel. This is one of the more “science lab” types of seeds to be saved. Most seeds just need to be left to dry out for a few days. Remove any seeds that seem damaged or affected by mold or bacteria.
3. Label and store. Once the seeds are dry, you can store them away for use in the future. Seeds should be labeled (type, specific variety, date saved, source). They should be stored in cool, dry storage. Some seed savers stick their silica packets from consumer goods in the oven to reactivate them and then put them in the envelopes or tins or jars with the seeds. I re-use envelopes from mailings and store my seeds in tins organized by the next season I’ll start sowing them.
Your seeds are now waiting for their chance to shine in your garden!
Resource for further reading and research:
Ashworth, Suzanne. Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners. Seed Savers Exchange, 2002.
★ Organic foods may have a better possibility of being more true between the vegetable or fruit you eat and the next generation. But not always. Buying from local farmers that use open-pollinated (and even heirloom) vegetable seed is the best option. However, even if you have a hybrid in your seed collection, by continuing to select for the best qualities, you can arrive at something unique and valuable.
It’s the high heat of summer. Believe it or not, it’s time to get your fall garden under way. July is the month to plan your fall and winter gardens, start seeds or obtain young starts. It's a good idea to use transplants if you live in the colder zones or high heat. If you’re in the heat of zones 9-11, you’ve probably had a slow month in the garden, and now is the time to introduce new things.
First, evaluate your garden. Take out underperforming plants or those that have finished fruiting and harvesting. Next, look at those plants that will finish in the next month and those that will finish in two months (September/October). Also identify those plants that might overwinter or that you will let go until they produce seed. Now you will know which areas are opening up for the next round of growth and production. Remember, start seeds or locate where you will obtain transplants now. This is especially true for those in more northern latitudes, as production drops when natural light fades. Alternately, consider giving your indoor garden more light. Full spectrum fluorescent bulbs are the most cost effective.
Recordkeeping. Make a record of how varieties performed this season and anything that you believe negatively affected your plants. You can start to identify the pattern to garden woes such as: moths, heat, rain, bacterial infection and other problems. Also note varieties that performed exceptionally well.
Seed Stock. Leftover seeds from the spring can get you started. As a general rule small seeds have a harder time surviving from season to season. You may have lower germination rates with tiny seeds. Review your seed stocks and order now. You might also find seeds at a discount at a local greenhouse. You can even buy a little extra to get you started in the late winter/spring. It’s a good idea to have dates on your seeds and keep a supply of them on hand.
Challenges: keeping them cool and moist! Start your seeds in the shade and keep them moist. Shade cloth can help you regulate temperatures and moisture. In the heat seedlings can dry out if not carefully attended to. Other challenges can come from pests that enjoy the tender new plants. Again, shade cloth or netting can help deter unwanted attention.
Once your seedlings are ready—or your transplants purchased—popping them into the right spots is pretty easy. Baby these transplants a little while they adjust in the warm season to their new homes. Give them adequate water and protection from intense light or heat for the first week. Once they adjust, they will provide your garden with fresh life, new beauty, and the next round of interesting things to watch—and eat!
The summer solstice marked the official start of summer and your spring peas are done and looking a little brown. The lettuce is getting lanky and bitter. You’ve nibbled the kale down to nubs. Now what?
Year-round harvest means rotating plants in and out of your garden space. Late spring and early summer are a good time to make some changes that will take you through a summer of harvests eating your fresh veggies and fruit. Here are eight steps to keep you going through the summer.
- Evaluate your garden. Remove spring plants that are done yielding and annual flowers that are finished for the season. Put them in your compost—remember to chop or break them up into smaller pieces if necessary.
- Find the gaps—Now you can see where the spaces and opportunities for plants are in your garden. Think about how much time you have until your first frost. Light is not a limiting factor now, but might slow a harvest later—about the time of frosts. For these reasons, expect to put transplants into those spaces instead of seeds. Also, remember that that cute little zucchini plant will spread very quickly now. That will be fine as you remove other spring annuals or broccoli, cauliflower, etc… at the end of their harvest.
- Consulting a planting calendar. Calendars like this one will help you know week to week what will work in your area. By mid-June major summer crops should be in. In the Midwest there is a gap of 2-4 weeks and then fall crops are seeded in flats. If you are still looking to plant something in the last part of June, summer squashes and bush beans might be your ticket
- Treat your transplants well. When transplanting seedlings now, expect to baby them more than at other times. Regular watering will be needed. Watering in the summer should be done in the early morning or near sunset and close to the soil so that you don't stress the leaves of the plants. You may need to prune plants back if they show signs of stress (yellowing leaves, wilting).
- Choose plants for heat and drought. Some of the best plants for heat and drought are our annual fruits and veggies. Tomatoes, Mediterranean-based cooking herbs, squash, eggplant, peppers, and beans are all tolerant of intense summers. Summer squash are shorter lived than winter squash. Malabar spinach (vs. other types) loves the heat. Ground cherries—a relative of tomatillo—are splendid in a summer garden—and a delightful treat.
- Choose small fruits over larger ones. Cherry tomatoes over beef steak tomatoes, for example. The smaller fruit ripen more quickly and over a longer period of time than larger fruits.
- Plan for fall. As you evaluate your garden you will get to know how soon your harvest of a plant will take place and what will die back. These plants create a space for your fall crops to fill. It’s easier to start your fall crops in trays and protect the trays from excessive heat, light, and drought than to protect seedlings directly sown into the garden. This is also the time to buy seeds you want to plant in the fall. Again, calendars provide excellent guides for what works in your area.
- Keep a record. There are lots of garden journals around. A simple calendar can be the simplest tool. Filling in an observation each day helps you become educated about your own garden and gardening style. It will help you anticipate when a pest will show up in the garden—or when to expect the harvest.
Following these eight steps will help to keep you in fresh food well into the fall!
Microclimates are those areas around your home and garden with distinct temperature and moisture variations; exposure or protection from winds; and access to light. They create unique opportunities for variety in your garden plantings and the use of your home. In part I, we looked at the factors affecting microclimates (latitude, elevation, temperature, moisture, vegetation, and soil composition).
In this section, we’ll look at identifying microclimates. Then we’ll look at options to adapt to less than desirable microclimates or how to enhance positive areas.
1. Observe and interact. The first principle of permaculture according to David Holmgren comes into play here. Observe and interact with the microclimates in your space.
2. Once you’ve identified your microclimates, match those spaces to their best use for your home economy. Here is a simple worksheet to help you do that.
In the home:
Growing or producing items can improve your home economy (turning old t-shirts into quilts? Or some other craft). Do you have space for a workshop or sewing corner? Gardens? Mushroom logs?
Right behind production in the home economy comes the question of storage. How much storage do you have in your home? With the growth of the consumer society in the 1950’s space for storage in the home decreased. In recent years, home designers increased the amount of storage. This is not because we are more productive in the home economy, but because we consume more. Some savvy people are using that space for storing away their harvests, materials and other resources.
I often have my permaculture design students sketch a map of their homes. Then I ask them to put the pencil down in their bedrooms—pretending to move around as they would in a typical day. They discover the areas they use the most often. Many identify a cold or hot room or a room they almost never use—and why. Use cold rooms as cool storage for items that need to be dry (root veggies through the winter?). Mitigate overly hot rooms (next to a stove or furnace?) to be useable by increasing ventilation and shading (from the inside or outside). They also might be helpful spaces for drying herbs or veggies in the summer. Insulated curtains or a spread of indoor plants to absorb the sunlight and humidify a room can make a huge difference.
Dry, warm rooms with good air circulation are excellent for storing tea, herbs, and other smoked or dried foods—like the mint or basil from your Garden Tower! Or dried tomatoes. [For a treat, dry slices of tomato with basil and a diced garlic on a cookie sheet in the oven or in an electric dryer. Stack them in a glass jar and use in winter sauces and stews—or just as a yummy snack!]
Cold and cool dry rooms are good places for winter squash, potatoes, and apples. Old-timers (and some savvy younger generations) use cool bedrooms (which are better for sleeping) for keeping produce in crates under the bed!
When you observe these areas and begin to match need to use, your home economy improves dramatically.
In the garden
Microclimates are everywhere! They are a secret to the theoretical unlimited yield mentioned by permaculture co-originator Bill Mollison.
Microclimates affect the placement and success of gardens. Situate your garden where plants can get 6-8 hours of direct light. This is the amount of light needed for most annuals and perennials to bear fruit. If your garden area gets less than the minimum amount of light, don’t despair! Play with plants that bear in partial shade or even deep shade. Use Plants for a Future to help you find good options for your space. Try greens, potatoes, and anything in the brassica (broccoli) family. These are more likely to yield a harvest in a shady spot. You might want to consider thinning the tree canopy if that’s your limiting factor.
The second generation Garden Tower is fantastic because the rotating design allows you to turn the tower and even out the amount of light each section gets. If the tower is on casters, then you can move the tower into just the right place for what is growing.
If you live where there is too much light saturation—where intense light negatively affects plants--you need to change your growing area. They are usually areas with higher temperatures. Sometimes we find them at higher elevations (where the thinner atmosphere hits plants with more intense UV light). In these areas, light shade can improve your yields. An awning or a light over-story tree with dappled shade can be the easiest way to create a shade house. Shade cloth or placing your garden on an eastern wall can also help to get the right amount of light to your garden. Shading your garden has other benefits, too. It lowers temperatures. It limits light. And it eases the soil evaporation and transpiration sucking water away from these tender plants.
As ozone levels continue to change in our atmosphere and UV light intensifies, these strategies (common in the southwest US) will become more common throughout the continent. More of us need to experiment with growing under light shade. Your plants will tell you as they drop their leaves or slow productivity in the hottest parts of the summer.
Vegetation and buildings (and landscape features) also determine how wind moves throughout the landscape. Excessive exposure to wind tends to dry out the soil and place stress on the plants. Plants like being in a sheltered, sunny spot. Windbreaks make a big difference. At the same time, a light breeze can confuse or discourage pests. To create a windbreak, try to install something (a perennial planting or wall) that gently lifts the wind over the area you are using and sets it back down. To direct wind, use perennial plantings in a V shape with the V pointing towards the window or garden area you want to cool and the wider part of the V pointing toward the direction from which wind tends to come.
I’ve mentioned keeping plants cooler with shade, but keeping them warm enough to be productive is the other side of temperature and microclimates. It is THE key strategy for season extension in spring, fall and winter. The keys to passive heating are: (1) to create a barrier that traps warm air (like a hoop house or greenhouse); and (2) to use thermal mass to warm an area through the night. If this is not enough, you are looking at using a heater, which requires expense, maintenance and fuel of some kind. It is much simpler to insulate the greenhouse well and use thermal mass to absorb the sun’s energy from the day—re-radiating it out at night. You’ve all enjoyed a warm stone or brick ledge on a cool day. That is the one way of benefitting from thermal mass.
In greenhouses, people use stone, brick, gravel, and tanks of water to store away solar energy. Usually the tubs of water are black to be the most effective. With the Garden Tower, a wonderful thing happens as the core mass of compost and soil (which is also moist) absorbs a good deal of solar energy and stores it away—just where the plants want it. This is a win, win, win when the tower is in an enclosed area in the cooler months.
As you practice observing microclimates; become more familiar with the techniques to modify them; and learn about different productive plants you can include in your garden, your system will become more resilient and unique to your interests. Enjoy discovering your microclimates! Don't forget to put a hammock or other relaxation spot in your favorite microclimate! Please share what you learn with other gardeners on the Garden Tower Facebook page!
Cats and dogs are microclimate masters. They can identify that warm, cozy spot or that spot in the shade better than anyone. This post explores what goes into understanding microclimates. In the next one, we’ll look at how to apply this to your garden—and especially to your Garden Tower.
Microclimates are identifiable climates at a smaller scale. That scale can range from a few miles to a square foot in your garden where a particular plant can be happiest. We deal with microclimates all the time. Think about the coldest part of your house in the winter or the hottest in the summer. The sunny window is another microclimate in your home. Take a tour of your home and think about those spots! How could you use them to your advantage? (Indoor plants, root vegetable or seed storage, summer sleeping areas?)
Just like your home, the garden has many microclimates. Mid-latitude gardeners of the northern hemisphere often identify a shady, northern wall that is challenging. West facing patios where air temperatures warm throughout the day and then have overheat under afternoon sun are uncomfortable, too.
As a gardener and designer, the good news is that we can organize and create solutions modifying microclimates for our benefit. Some plants (cooking herbs from the Mediterranean or succulents from the southwest) love those sunny, hot, western areas.
There are several factors affecting microclimates: moisture, temperature, winds, vegetation, soil, latitude, elevation and season. Use your observations of your own microclimates to make your home more comfortable and your garden more productive.
Where you are in relation to the equator [latitude] affects your general microclimate. Closer to the equator, you may be in the tropical or subtropical zones. The soil in these areas does not hold fertility in the same way mid-latitude, areas. Temperate soils act as a battery for deciduous perennials—storing fertility (organic matter, sugars in roots, etc…) in the soil for use in the next season. The advantage of subtropical and tropical areas is that the sun’s light is more constant—allowing plants to hold their own fertility throughout year. The Polar regions have yet another set of microclimate factors to design for. We unconsciously adapt to the ecological limits of our latitude—internalizing the flow of the seasons, for example. We can’t change these factors—only adapt to them. We can become roficient at placing our productive plants in those mimates that suit them—and making duke they have enough protection through the winter or spring and season to be productive. We can make sure there is enough protection from intense light, rain, and heat to produce in the hotter, more humid zones.
Elevation also affects microclimates. At the home scale, plants growing at the top of a hill vs. the bottom can make a difference—they are different microclimates. In the evening, plants at the top of the hill, the mountain, the forest lose the warm air faster than plants on the lower slopes or in the valleys (where heavy cool air can also pool). Apartments in a taller building are more exposed to light and wind, for example. Again, we may not be able to change our elevation (unless we have a large farm, or the ability to change apartments). Usually, we have to get savvy about choosing the right plants to grow—adapted to our elevation—or using greenhouses and shade houses to protect our gardens.
Moisture affects microclimates a great deal. The moisture regime you are in—from arid areas to humid areas with dozens of inches of rain each year impact microclimates. Most of our productive plants need more water than less. Moisture in the soil and atmospheric moisture are both important to the life of the plant. For this reason, many plants’ leaves reflect their ability to modify the microclimate immediately around them.
A plant’s form reflects a balance between absorbing or deflecting light. The form tells us about how a leaf transpires or absorbs water and materials from the atmosphere. It tells us how the plant holds humidity around itself. A community of plants can, to some extent, regulate their own humidity and light levels. Ever see squash “wilt” in the intense summer heat—even though it just rained? They were lowering their leaves to self-limit light levels. This is how vegetation can affect microclimates.
Winds affect microclimates. It is a good idea to know your prevailing winds in both the summer and winter: they can change. You want to soften or block cold, northern winds or strong winds coming from large bodies of water. Likewise, tall buildings in urban areas speed winds up as they pass between buildings.
If you can enhance gentle breezes by creating a “path of trees and shrubs” for them, you can create a pleasant area, too. Letting prevailing, hot summer winds cross a pond or fountain before arriving at your patio, can be a good way to get a cooling, pleasant microclimate benefit.
Temperatures fluctuate a great deal in microclimate due to a whole host of other factors—many mentioned already. Latitude affects seasonal temperatures. Higher elevations see cooler temperatures or a wider range of temperatures throughout the day. Areas with more lush vegetation can be shady and cool in the understory and hot and humid at the edges. Temperatures near large bodies of water are more stabile—remaining warmer into the fall. Thermal mass affects microclimates in the garden a great deal. Any dense material that can absorb the sun’s light during the day and radiate heat out to the surrounding area creates thermal mass. Our homes create thermal mass. Brick walkways, and walls, tanks of water, and ponds all create thermal mass. They regulate the temperature and keeping plants warm in the shoulder seasons. Green houses--allow air to warm through the day and trap it inside—cool slower than the surrounding air. Shade houses prevent the sun’s light from entering an area—creating cooler zones in a hot climate.
In an upcoming post, we’ll take these factors together help you place your garden elements in just the right places to help them thrive.