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One of the more fundamental aspects of gardening for food is understanding the zone concept, or zone defense, as I like to refer to it. In my (barely) experienced and (non) profession opinion, the fundamental aspects of fruit and vegetable gardening according to moi are as follows:

  1. Learn to enjoy weeding, primarily by saving “i. love. weeding.” over and over while doing it. Much as you do for dish washing and toilet cleaning. Eventually you believe your own lies.
  2. You only need one zucchini plant no matter how much you LOVE zucchini. You won’t believe me and will plant three. For future reference, I told you so.
  3. Chipmunks are soulless. There is no love behind those chubby cheeks.
  4. Like many a relationship, you prefer evenings, but your garden wants you in the morning. You need to compromise if it’s going to work.
  5. Work with your zone, because it’s not working with you.

The USDA Hardiness Zones are climate regions in the US that are classified on a 1-15 scale, 1 being the Arctic Zone, and 15 being the Extreme Tropical Zone. If you can identify your zone, you can tailor your plantings to those that will thrive within your gardening bubble during your growing season. Just like with a basketball team, the zone defense maximizes effect while minimizing effort. This will also help you decide what can be directly sown into your garden, or what would do better as a transplant. Milwaukee, being tucked close to Lake Michigan, is a zone 5B. No matter what I do, I just cannot get my pineapple plant to fruit…or not freeze to death. I’m sure that’s why the US annexed Hawaii as a state. And also so USDA could finally identify that elusive zone 11.

USDA Hardiness Zone Map

USDA Hardiness Zone Map

But, don’t take my word for it. Let’s turn to modern-day poet, Britney Jean Spears, on the importance of zones in her masterpiece featuring Madonna, Me Against the Music. I recommend playing it along while reading.

Me Against the Music

The Queen. Get in the Zone.

The Queen. Get in the Zone.

musicNo one caresmusic

Truth, Brit Brit. That’s how I feel some days.

musicIts whipping my hair, its pullin my waistmusic

This is sooo April in zone 5B. It’s windy and miserable at 6:00 AM but you just got to get out there. Gotta work b*tch!

musicTo hell with staresmusic

If you start out looking like a hot mess, it won’t be so surprising when you end the day that way. Because you will end looking like a hot mess. And people just might stare when you forget and go to Menard’s to buy more compost.

musicThe sweat is dripping all over my facemusic

Not just the face, everywhere there are pores you will perspire. I could wear a parka and sweat through it in the garden once the sun comes up.

musicNo one’s theremusic

Well, except the weirdos who are staring at you (see above).

musicI’m the only one dancing up in this placemusic

Ok so you don’t have to dance while gardening, but trust me it makes it a whole lot more fun. And people tend to just stay away. Gardening is labor intensive; maximize your work out with a few sexy moves while you sweat through your clothes.

musicTonight I’m heremusic

I’m here and ready to locate my zone so tomorrow I can grow stuff! The National Garden Association has a handy zone map that you can specifically locate your exact zone by zip code, check it out here: Zone Map.

musicFeel the beat of the drum, gotta keep up that bassmusic

That’s right, get ready for the battle. Pep yourself up! How do you use the zone information, you ask? You probably won’t see zone information on a seed packet or plant, though occasionally you do.

IMG_1246 IMG_1245

What you will see, is sowing directions that will saying something like “sow seeds when soil can be worked” or “sow seeds after danger of last frost has passed” or “sow seeds 2 weeks before last frost.” How do you know when that is, apart from waiting around until it happens? Zone Defense! When you know your zone, you can calculate the expected last frost in the spring, and first frost in the fall. I know I know I know what about CLIMATE CHANGE and OTHER WEATHER CONCERNS!? There is always some variation in the seasons, like everything else. But for example, my zone 5B last frost date is late-April. Even if it’s a little earlier or a little later, I can safely sow spring seeds around May 1 without too much trouble. If there is a late surprise frost, I can always sow more. If you start seeds early indoors, just make sure to start more than you will need in the garden to have a little contingency plan. There is no such thing as over-planning. Now, THAT is 100% professional advice.

musicI’m up against the speaker, trying to take on the musicmusic

Apart from a few exceptions, like pineapple in the desolate north, or tender crisp lettuce in the New Mexico high summer heat, you really have a wide variety of plant options if you’re not set on growing only perennials. Perennials are those plants that self-seed each year and keep coming back no matter how hard you try to kill them. If I only grew perennials where I garden, I would be limited to every variety of mint in existence, an abundance of fruit (other than pineapple), rhubarb, oregano, and sage. I guess there are a few recipes in there and some exotic flavor combinations. In some places, the vegetables I grow would be perennials in a different zone. Rosemary, for example, grows into small bushes in southern California. It likes sandy, dry soils. But in my rich clay soil, it grows enough every year to give me a supply through the winter, and then dies once the bitter cold sucks the life out of everything.

musicIt’s like a competition, me against the beatmusic

Oh Britney Jean you are a poetic mastermind! Working with zones IS EXACTLY like a competition. A competition with nature, that unrelenting she-beast. When you really zone in (pun intended) to the origin of the foods we eat, there is not much in North America that belongs to North America. Take the potato for example, which is grown widely throughout the northern half of the US. The potato originated in South America, was brought to Ireland, and then to the rest of the world. Years and years of cross-breeding have brought us todays modern six potatoes: Yukon gold, red, russet and each of those in a smaller size. The vegetables we can grow have been slowly, steadily adapted to best suit the climates we need them to be grown in. This is the marvel of genetic engineering as we once knew it. Before you get angry and start shouting “NO GMOs!!” at me, I am talking about the pea plant trials of genetic engineering, not sticking fish genes into a tomato. Plant diversity has been obtained since the dawn of time by cross-pollination both by hand and by animal helpers. Smart gardeners of yesteryear picked their top performers, and mated them with their other top performers to get the best of the litter. This is much like the dog breeders at Westminster, but without the cooking and eating of the offspring.

musicI wanna get in the zone, I wanna get in the zonemusic

Yes Britney Yes! Let’s get in the zone and make some green happen. I am not saying you have to be Gregor Mendel to be a successful gardener. That work has been done. I am saying now you can use the results and select plants that are known to succeed in your area. If you look at the back of the seed packet, you will want to pay attention to the number of days to produce. Sometimes you will see a germination rate, this is the number of days before you will see little seed leaves shoot up from the soil. The larger number shown is how many days it will take from that point to get something you can hold in your hand and throw in a frying pan (if it makes it that far). You know your zone, so you know how many days between last spring frost and first fall frost, so theoretically you should be able to deduce if a seed will give you food in your growing season. There are many ways to work around this, for example, starting seeds early indoors for sensitive plants, purchasing transplants, or taking advantage of some plant’s hardiness to extend the growing season. Brussels Sprouts, for example, take forever to grow. Not forever, but forrreeeevvvveerr. Fortunately, they improve in the freezer, so you can keep them out there once the cold hits and they will just get tastier.

musicIf you really wanna battle, saddle up and get our rhythm, Trying to hit it, in a minute I’m a take a you onmusic

So there you have it, from Britney’s mouth to your ears. Practicing a zone defense will greatly improve your growing ability. This is just a primer, but there is so much power you can wield by working with your local climate. If you want to battle the zone, she will win every time, so best play nice and be friends.


Jessica practicing zone defense on blackberries.