Table of Contents Show
- They Know What They’re Doing
- A Game of Probabilities
Most northern gardeners are more than content with growing the extensive variety of plants in their yards and gardens that we can safely grow here in the North.
They want their plants to survive and thrive, to perform in their landscapes just as they do in the photos, so they aggressively seek out hardy plants. If a plant is known to not be hardy in their region, for the most part, they avoid it. After all, isn’t this what knowledge is all about?
But there’s a special type of gardener who isn’t content with playing by the rules, who isn’t satisfied with conforming to a system concocted and enforced by little-understood and quasi-clandestine government agencies.
These gardeners don’t like being told what they can and can’t do, and they don’t take no for an answer. Some will say they don’t actually exist, that they’re an urban legend or characters from a bedtime story for prospective gardeners still in diapers. But I know better, for I am one of these!
What motivates an otherwise rational human being to become an out-of-zone gardener and pursue a path of certain loss and misery? Many of these gardeners suffer from incurable zone envy (check out the article “Conquering Zone Envy” if you think you might be afflicted), a burning and irrational urge to have what they can’t have.
Some are just thrill seekers who need to garden close to the edge. Perhaps some doubt the veracity of such academic assertions as hardiness zones and wish to prove the establishment wrong.
For many in this special group, it’s nothing short of sheer vanity, the ability to gloat about their against-all-odds achievements to their gardening klatch or lord it over the neighbors.
“Oh, you can grow that here?” astonished guests wonder out loud to the delight of the zealot gardener, while muttering under their breath “Hmmphf, mine died…” And of course, they never tire of hearing “Oh, what might this be?” from goose-necking admirers who probably don’t get out enough.
They Know What They’re Doing
These are the gardeners who actively seek “out-of-zone” experiences by intentionally purchasing plants that “aren’t supposed to be hardy” in their region.
These are not the ignorant and unwashed masses who wander into the big box stores like moths drawn to a flame to mechanically purchase a trailer full of the first showy plants they see on display, without bothering to know their names much less their hardiness ratings. No, these gardeners know what they’re embarking upon from the outset.
Like the storm chasers of the gardening world, these fanatics knowingly go directly into the eye of the storm, daring fate and nature itself in their quest to discover something, anything that bucks the odds.
Besides, it’s not a totally misdirected pursuit; after all, hardiness is only a human-imposed categorization of plants by climate. The plants themselves don’t really know nor do they care what their particular hardiness zone rating is; they’ll either grow there or they won’t, and leave us humans to hyper-analyze the results.
That having been said, whatever your particular motivation, you are well advised to not go blindly into these nether regions of gardening.
This game is not for the faint-hearted or the naïve; it will bring weaker gardeners to their knees and may even be responsible for the breakup of more than one happy home. But knowledge is a powerful tool and one of the keys to improving your odds.
And in the end, it’s more of a mental thing than anything else, because there’s only so much you can do to coax a plant into surviving in a region where it really shouldn’t be expected to. Remember, there’s a reason these plants are “out-of-zone” in the first place.
- Getting Tender Plants Through Winter Exploring The Science Behind Winter Protection
- Tropical-Looking Plants for Northern Landscapes: 5 “Must-Haves” for the Creative Designer
- Hardy Trees for the Northern Plains: Promising New Releases from NDSU
- Conquering Zone Envy A 5-Step Recovery Program for Northerners
A Game of Probabilities
And don’t forget that hardiness is a game of probabilities. There is no certainty as to whether or not a plant will survive in a given location; it depends on the local climate, how happy it is during the growing season, genetic variation within the species, and very much on the nature of a particular winter.
Some of our winters are short and mild, which may give us a whole extra zone that year. Others are mild but with a quick dip to incredibly cold temperatures. Some have prolonged cold snaps, and others are just plain brutal from fall to spring.
Given all these variables, what you’ll find is that the survival of a particular plant isn’t absolute. An out-of-zone plant may die after its very first winter. Or, it may cough and sputter along for a few years, clearly miserable, until it finally succumbs or is yanked out of the ground by the despondent gardener.
Or, it may perform admirably for a few years and then suddenly remove itself from the picture one particularly nasty winter. Even some reputedly “hardy” trees and shrubs will die in one of those “1-in-50” winters that become the legends that grandparents regale to the grandkids while perched upon archetypal knees. You just never know.
But as long as you know what you’re getting into, then don’t fear to go there. If after reading this, you recognize yourself and have come to terms with being that edge-riding gardener who seeks the “out-of-zone” experience, then here are some tips that you can use to improve your odds and make the overall experience as rewarding as possible.
1. Have a Hardy Framework to Fall Back on
You might think that only a fool would convert their entire yard into an “out-of-zone” experiment, but many fools are self-conceived in moments of reckless abandon at the local garden center. Set your boundaries and limit the percentage of plants in your landscape you devote to out-of-zone experiments.
Do not allow the foundations of your landscape, the primary shade trees, accent shrubs, and garden stalwarts, to be at risk. Have the majority of your anchor trees and gardens populated with reliably hardy plants, however “dull and boring” they may seem to you.
And be careful to not site tender plants in important locations from a landscape perspective, because you don’t want the lifeless and naked Tree of Death to be the primary feature enjoyed by the entire neighborhood as they meander by on their Sunday walks.
2. Understand Your Yard Intimately
You’re going to need a better understanding of the nuances and subtleties of your yard than most gardeners have. When hardiness is marginal, little things like frost pockets, exposed versus sheltered locations, sun and shade patterns, and wet versus dry locations can be the grain of sand that tips the scales from life to death.
Study the patterns of sun and wind in your yard, and note where snow collects in winter and where it doesn’t. Understand the differences in climate across the yard, and seek out favorable microclimates.
Most importantly, seek out and identify the most sheltered locations possible, around fences, buildings, shrubberies, and established evergreens, and set them aside as primary trial grounds for your out-of-zone guests. They’re going to need every single inch of advantage you can give them.
3. Know Everything There Is to Know About the Out-of-zone Plant
As a daring gardener, you aren’t totally without the power to influence the survival of your tender babes. As cliche, as this may sound, the best weapon you have in your arsenal is knowledge, specifically knowledge about the plant you are trying to grow.
The reason is simple – a plant that’s happy going into one of our northern winters is the one that’s most likely to survive to see another spring. Or, put another way, let winter be the only stress this plant has to deal with.
So you must be intimately familiar with its cultural preferences, whether it likes sun or shade, wet or dry soils, organic, sandy or rich soils, acidic or alkaline soils, high or low humidity, or any other growing condition you are able to provide or modify.
Is it susceptible to late spring frosts, or does it need early warmth? Does it tend to grow late into the season? Might it acclimatize to your conditions as it matures? The more you know, the more likely you are to be successful.
4. Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket
You need some reward for your efforts, or you’re likely to get disheartened and give up post haste. Although it might intuitively sound like a good idea to start small and have only one or two experimental plants in the yard, you actually expose yourself to a greater risk of heartache that way.
If you plant only one plant with a 25% chance of survival in your area, odds are you’re going to lose it. But if you plant 4 plants each with a 25% chance of survival, the odds are good that at least one will surprise you and perform for you.
Give yourself a range of trial plants ranging from slightly less than hardy to marginally hardy to total long-shots. Experiment with a few plants and a few types of plants.
Remember, out-of-zone trees are the most likely to fail, so have the fewest trial trees, more tender shrubs, and mostly experimental perennials in your gardens. Turn the odds in your favor!
5. Determine Your Threshold of Intervention
There’s no doubt that saves for non-hardy trees, the obsessive gardener is able to influence the survival of an out-of-zone plant by lavishing care and attention and generally fussing with it.
The simplest example is that we are absolutely able to grow Japanese maples in our northern climates, so long as they are planted in pots that are outside for the summer but are brought into cold storage for the winter.
Or, as will be familiar to many gardeners, the act of simply shoveling a mound of snow or heaping straw over top of a tender shrub or perennial can often ensure its winter survival in our climate. The bottom line, you can baby plants to varying degrees or you can pretty much ignore them – the choice is yours.
But you have to ask yourself – are you willing to commit to this kind of effort? Some gardeners are willing to do anything for their plants, and so for them, the rewards are more than worth the extra effort.
But others (myself included!) have a low tolerance for “wussy” plants and are more interested in discovering new species and varieties that may actually be hardy for the region without needing to be coddled. So know your threshold of intervention, because it will dictate how “far out” you should extend your aspirations.
6. Revel in the Successes but Expect Losses
This is really the nub of the discussion because the “out-of-zone” experience is mostly in your head. If you can accept from the outset that you’re going to have losses, then you’re ready to climb on board for the ride.
You’re going to have to learn to both love your experimental plants and yet be able to quickly detach yourself from them, because one day they may just turn up their roots and exit the yard for no apparent reason.
Don’t take it personally; this isn’t some commentary from beyond the garden about you as a person, nor is it a critique of your gardening prowess or lack thereof.
The odds are against your efforts from the start, and there will be losses, but one or two plants will come along and genuinely surprise you. Learn to appreciate these, while using the failures not as a measure of your self-esteem, but rather as motivation to try again.