Understanding garden climate zones is important


You know you cannot grow bananas in Central New York.

You can figure that out by looking outside right now. However, for other perennial plants, shrubs, or tree choices in our landscape, it may not be so easy to know if you can or cannot grow it here.

Creating an attractive garden involves more than coordinating colors and selecting plants that you like. How your garden looks will not mean very much if the climate they are placed in is too extreme. The first consideration is what climate zone are we in.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Hardiness Zone Map divides the United States into zones based on average minimum winter temperatures.

The zone map was updated in 2012; you can see the entire United States map on the USDA’s website. View the New York State map by visiting Cornell’s Garden Based Learning Site at gardening.cals.cornell.edu. Most of central New York is considered in Hardiness Zone 4 or 5. The lower the number, the colder the environment. If we are in Zone 4, for example, avoid plants that are zoned to a higher number since they may not be able to survive the winter.

The climate zone map is only a guide. There are also dozens of “microclimates” around your yard, up to a mile radius of your home. Microclimates are pockets of weather specific to a section of a property. Variations in exposure and topography are examples; both can affect your plants. In some cases, you can create or have a microclimate where it could be warm enough to grow a higher zoned plant.


A southern and western exposure are the sunniest and warmest spots in your yard. You may be able to grow a higher zoned plant in this location. You may need to provide a little extra protection such as mulch cover. Southern exposures have another unique microclimate. Southern exposures are the warmest spots during the winter. Plants grown on this side may experience winter damage when mild daytime temperatures stimulate new growth. This new growth is not sufficiently hardened-off and can cause damage to the plant. Plants placed in a southern exposure should be those that will bud or bloom later in the spring to avoid premature bud death.


Gusting winds can dry out soil quickly and endanger plants. If you are adding plants to a spot that is often windy, you want to be sure to select lower zoned plants.


Garden spots that are close to structures such as buildings, fences, walls, or even shrubs and trees are warmer than gardens placed in the middle of the property without any protection.

The structures create a warmer microclimate, and you may be able to grow higher zoned plants in these spots. With structures, you should also pay attention to any shade patterns created, the wind flow around the structures, and snowdrifts caused by the structures. These different situations will affect the microclimate; they are ideal for some plants but harmful to others.

Elevation is another microclimate. Cold air sweeps down hills and forms frost pockets in low lying areas; gardens at the top of a hill are therefore warmer than those at the bottom of a hill. A microclimate beneath a tree may be warmer than the surrounding air and this small increase in temperature could be better for a higher zoned plant.

Your garden climate is not only about what zone you are in. It is possible to zone out and use microclimates to grow plants a zone or two higher than the USDA zone map.

Unfortunately, you still will not be able to grow that banana plant. However, maybe you can create a spot for another personal favorite.

Are you interested in learning more about gardening, while enjoying shared tips, tricks, and camaraderie with other gardeners?

Consider training to be an Oneida County Master Gardener Volunteer.

For more information call us or visit our website cceoneida.com phone 315-736-3394, Ext 100. Be sure to like us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/cceoneida) and check out our YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/user/cceoneida) for great gardening talks.


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