In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
January, 2005
Regional Report

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Snapdragons don't mind cold weather, but you'd think they'd have more sense than to bloom in the snow!

Mastering Your Garden's Microclimates

How many of us move perennials around until we find a spot where they're happy? Sometimes all it takes is a few extra minutes of sun or shade, or a couple of extra days of warmth or chill. Happiness might just mean being in the right microclimate.

Microclimates are patches of ground that are a few degrees warmer or cooler than their general surroundings. They also can be wetter or drier. Microclimates can be found in even the smallest of yards. In fact, it's hard to find a garden without at least one. A hedge, a stone wall, or even a building can alter its immediate setting enough to create a microclimate. On a sunny day, a dark-colored house may radiate enough heat to make a nearby tropical plant feel right at home, even here in the Pacific Northwest. If only a degree of temperature can change ice into cold water, think what a couple of degrees can do for your plants.

Identifying Microclimates
Make this the year you discover your garden's secrets by pinpointing its microclimates. You can identify microclimates in your landscape by watching where frost first appears or where snow lingers the longest. These are the coolest pockets. In my garden, where the snow melts first, the bulbs bloom first. Elsewhere in the garden, similar varieties of bulbs bloom several weeks later.

I've noticed the same behavior from my two lilacs. The one planted out back flowers a week or two later than its twin in the front yard. The shrub out front is near our driveway, which retains and radiates enough heat to create a warm spot. This particular lilac responds to its microclimate by breaking dormancy sooner and blooming earlier in the season.

Even if your garden doesn't regularly get snow, you can identify microclimates by watching for those places where bulbs bloom first or last, or where new shoots or spring growth appear earliest or latest. Taking advantage of warm spots can mean enjoying spring a few weeks earlier or making your favorite blooms last longer.

Making Use of Microclimates
Anything from a hillside to a paving stone can warm (or cool) a patch of soil enough to create a real advantage for plants, especially at the far ends of the growing season.

I extend the blooming season by planting bulbs in both cool and warm spots. I've also found that a wind-protected southern exposure provides just enough extra warmth to shelter a perennial in a zone colder than its rating. But because plants in warm spots sprout earlier, they are more vulnerable to late-spring freezes. To increase their chances for survival, I add a thick layer of mulch in late fall and remove it in early spring. If frost threatens, I replace the mulch material, or cover the plants with pine boughs to get them through the chill.

Getting to know your garden is an exercise in observation (and involves copious note-taking). Once you begin to understand its subtle hints, you're well on your way to reaping the benefits of its microclimates.


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