In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
February, 2002
Regional Report

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A shady microclimate doesn't mean you have to use only green foliage!

Challenges of Midwest Gardening

I used to live on the western shore of Lake Michigan. I had adjusted to the fact that the lake's effect brings spring in June rather than April and usually holds off the first frost until late October. Most of my planting spots were sunny but cool, letting me grow lettuce and peas virtually all summer. Geraniums never thrived, but pansies filled their niche, blooming on stocky plants until well after frost.

A Move Inland

When I moved into my current home, several miles from the lake, I had to re-learn when tomatoes can go out into the garden, how to protect plants from frosts that come early, and how not to become frustrated at the lack of cooling lake breezes during the heat of July.

I had to take stock of the microclimates in my new yard, which are entirely different than in my lakefront yard. I am now faced with hot sun in a few areas and deep shade from hickories and oaks in others. I?ve had to adapt my gardening by planting plenty of rudbeckia, salvia, sedum and ornamental grasses that can tolerate the hot, dry areas far from the house (and water spigots). Best of all, I've learned to love shade.

I've had to give up some of my favorite full-sun plants in order to avoid the frustration of languishing plants stretching pathetically for light. But I've learned about gardening with hostas, astilbes, ferns and other beauties that thrive in shade.

Challenges of Midwest Gardening

Gardening in the Midwest presents some challenges, but the rewards are well worth the effort. I have some plants that aren't supposed to survive north of zone 6 that are thriving in protected spots, and I've had plants that are fully hardy to zone 3 survive for a couple of years and then give up after a particularly brutal early winter.

The microclimate of being near a large body of water such as Lake Michigan regularly influences the weather by warming it in winter and cooling it in summer. Our lake snows are legendary, as are our cooling summer lake breezes.

Lake borders are much more humid than further inland, which slows water loss in drought conditions, but also increases problems with fungal disease. The winter storms that roll in across the Midwestern plains are also legendary. There's not much to stop the chilling winds and heavy snows. Rich prairie soils will support just about anything, but compacted urban soils limit plant choices.

Gardening in our region can be frustrating if you follow gardening patterns and plant choices recommended in general plant books. However, learning to read the microclimates of your particular garden can help turn that frustration into reward. From the variable soils produced by glaciation to the pollution of a large metropolitan area, innumerable factors control our gardens, and understanding these factors can help in making reasonable plant choices.


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