By Edward Lyon
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Extra resources for Growing the Midwest Garden
The Plains range combines some of the most severe fluctuations in temperature with some of the poorest soils. Gardeners here have to be as determined as the native plants, like these in the South Dakota Badlands. Think about differences in soils alone on each site. The wood lot probably has fairly undisturbed soils, created by falling leaves and debris and active microbes. The soil texture of the farm fields have been highly modified from years of tillage and contamination by fertilizers and pesticides.
But many factors other than just zone influence plant survival in your garden: soil structure (porosity, density, pH, and texture), organic matter content, soil biology, winter protection, microclimates, fertility, and other cultural influences. For an example of why zone is not the definitive factor for determining plant hardiness, let’s take a look at Oswego, New York, and Denver, Colorado—both are the same zone 5 as my garden in Madison, Wisconsin. Plants in Oswego, which sits near Lake Ontario with deep, friable, rich, and porous soils, are covered in lake-effect snows all winter, protecting them from temperature extremes and wind with spring water excess draining away from plant crowns and friable soils preventing soil heaving.
That is a logical place to start, but different cultural conditions in another area could either improve or decrease its hardiness in the new environs. In such cases, it can sometimes take years for anecdotal evidence to change its zone designation in the new location. Regardless of the many reasons we find outliers to the rules, the most common reason a plant will defy its zone is that we provide it with ideal or better conditions than where it was indigenous. I am successfully growing zone 6 plants in my zone 5 garden because I have provided cultural conditions that make up for the zone deficiency.