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Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

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Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

Post  middlemamma on 4/25/2011, 12:53 am

Well, that's a bit of a trick question because the answer is BOTH! But, in different ways.

It seems people are asking a lot of questions around the forum lately as spring revs up and the colder weather retreats northward with each passing week. I hear a lot of "when is my frost date?" And, I also hear, "Well, I'm also in zone 5b, so our frost dates are probably the same."
Well, not exactly. It seems you can google at will and still not find the relationship between the two. So, let's look at them separately and then extrapolate the differences.

Hardiness zones are set up to tell local gardeners how tolerant a particular plant will be over the worst part of a winter. These boundaries are set by average minimum temps at their coldest points of the year. These boundaries are best used for perennial plants, as annuals or vegetables are not overwintered in most areas. Hardiness zones are a landscaper's best friend when designing a low-maintenance flower or shrub bed for a client.

Frost dates are typically the average last day of frost for the spring and the average first frost in autumn. 50% of the time frosts will occur after or before these dates, respectively. These dates are MUCH more important to gardeners planting vegetables, and people planting annual flowers around their homes. Some plants may handle a little frost, but many won't tolerate ANY frost at all. Most people don't like gambling with hundreds of dollars worth of flowers so they watch their frost dates very carefully.

So, you may be thinking that frost dates are more important to you than the hardiness zone in which you live. And, I would tend to agree with you when speaking of vegetable gardening. But, there is a loose relationship between frost dates and hardiness. They generally follow a pattern. As you move north, your hardiness zones get lower in number to reflect the colder winter temperatures. Simultaneously, your frost dates get earlier in the autumn and later in the spring to account for the harsher winters. So, the assumption to draw is the farther north you live (in the northern hemisphere), the longer and harder your winter will be.....and the shorter your growing season is, too.

I know this isn't mind-blowing stuff. But, I feel it important to clarify the two concepts because they are not really interchangeable. And, neither takes into effect YOUR micro climate! You may live near a lake or river. And, that topographical feature alone may affect your frost date compared to someone living in your same zip code just a mile away. I would encourage you to learn more about your locality and adjust your frost date or hardiness zone accordingly.

Information submitted by member BackYardBirdGardner


Last edited by middlemamma on 4/25/2011, 11:06 am; edited 1 time in total
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Re: Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

Post  boffer on 4/25/2011, 11:04 am

I had been veggie gardening for several years before I even thought to look up what my hardiness zone was. I was gardening in the summer; why would I care about winter low temps? When the old forum started, there were folks who were fixated on zones, so I started paying attention. I was confused when I saw that Wardinwake in VA, Travis in NM, and I (WA) were all in the same zone. Yet our summertime gardening weather was so distinctly different that we had nothing in common.

That's when I had an AHA moment. As a veggie gardener, USDA zones don't help me in the summer. Since then, I have started keeping veggies in the ground through winter, and it still doesn't help me, because, the plants might live but if they don't, I'm only out a dollar or two. And we can micro-manage our winter plant environment with mulch, cloches, hoop houses, etc., so we really don't know how low we can go until we try.

Zones give me an idea of other members weather, that's about it. I also realized that forum members east of the Rockies are much more enamored with the zone concept. Here's why: as you can see on the map, east of the Rockies, the zones are nearly horizontal bands. Moving north and south, one can see the vegetation changing every few hundred miles, and actually have an idea where one might be. West of the Rockies, the elevation changes and climates influenced by the marine air, make zones a real crap shoot. The western U.S. is a hodge podge of micro-climates with no discernible patterns.

That's why frost dates are more important: because hardiness zones aren't important. IMO IMHO YMMV Very Happy I hope the thread title wasn't a rhetorical question. Embarassed

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Re: Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

Post  camprn on 4/25/2011, 11:07 am

@boffer wrote:

That's why frost dates are more important: because hardiness zones aren't important. IMO IMHO YMMV Very Happy
Thanks Boffer!!

Oh dear, I thought for sure there would be a plug for GDDs, I still have trouble wrapping my brain around that... I don't know why.
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Re: Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

Post  FarmerValerie on 4/25/2011, 11:17 am

I ran across a zone map the other day that was a bit more micro-climate in design. It was for growing tomatoes.
http://tomatofest.com/tomato-growing-zone-map.html

I was thinking it could be used for spring/summer/fall planting as well....
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Re: Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

Post  middlemamma on 4/25/2011, 11:17 am

I fall in that area where frost dates are more important than zone...totally. I too was so confused by zones when I first started and still get that way from time to time.

Hopefully this thread will help future newbies who are in the same boat! Smile
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Re: Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

Post  boffer on 4/25/2011, 11:19 am

@camprn wrote:Oh dear, I thought for sure there would be a plug for GDDs, I still have trouble wrapping my brain around that... I don't know why.

ROFL It's coming! clap
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Re: Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

Post  camprn on 4/25/2011, 11:44 am

@boffer wrote:
@camprn wrote:Oh dear, I thought for sure there would be a plug for GDDs, I still have trouble wrapping my brain around that... I don't know why.

ROFL It's coming!

YEAH!!!
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Re: Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

Post  dizzygardener on 4/25/2011, 11:46 am

GDD = Growing Degree Days for anyone else who was completely lost on that reference. Shocked
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Re: Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

Post  Blackrose on 4/25/2011, 11:52 am

@camprn wrote:
@boffer wrote:
@camprn wrote:Oh dear, I thought for sure there would be a plug for GDDs, I still have trouble wrapping my brain around that... I don't know why.

ROFL It's coming!

YEAH!!!

+1.. I'm totally confused about GDDs too! cheers
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Re: Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

Post  Furbalsmom on 4/25/2011, 12:34 pm

I agree that when growing in the spring, summer, and fall, zones are not as important as frost dates.

Zones basically let you know what the average minimum temperatures are during the winter.

Zones are important if you have perrenials, such as strawberries, asparagus, artichokes, herbs, rhubarb, that will be in the ground over the winter. Some will not survive the winter in certain lower zones because it gets too cold.

Average first and last frosts determine when you can plant different crops.
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Re: Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

Post  jayjaym on 4/25/2011, 12:57 pm

For vegetable gardening frost dates are what I worry about. It's that last late frost that will kill my garden if I don't keep an eye on the weather. I found this little tool pretty handy for reminding me when to start my seeds, and to give a rough idea of when to expect to plant things. Sliding Garden Planner

Hardiness zones are important for my ornamental plants (trees, shrubs, etc...). If plant can't take the coldest day of the year (sub zero around my neck of the woods), then it wont come back in the spring.

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Re: Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

Post  Old Hippie on 4/25/2011, 1:13 pm

@Blackrose wrote:

+1.. I'm totally confused about GDDs too! cheers


So glad I am not the only one. I thought GDD's were "God Dammit Days"....... as in It's raining AGAIN! or It's SNOWING AGAIN.

Gwynn
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Re: Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

Post  boffer on 4/25/2011, 1:19 pm

Obviously, someone besides me is going to have to try explaining it! Rolling Eyes
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Re: Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

Post  BackyardBirdGardner on 4/26/2011, 1:26 am

I felt GDDs were Gall-Darned-Dogs. I could write a book on the troubles my GDD has caused this spring alone.
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Re: Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

Post  FarmerValerie on 4/27/2011, 12:01 pm

I recently heard they are changing the zones, so don't get to attached to which zone you are.
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Re: Which is most important: Frost date or Hardiness zone?

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