Beyond Growing Zones to Determine Crop Success

Had a hankering to grow a couple nut bushes and researched what kinds would be possible in Wyoming. A couple looked pretty promising and should produce in a few years. Before I ordered I went to talk to the head man at the local nursery to ‘pick his brain’ as we say.

Yes, an American Hazelnut for zone 3 will grow here he said but it will only be a shade tree or bush depending on how you prune it. It will likely never bare fruit and if it does it will be a rare year was his expert advice. He said they did a kiwi experiment a few years back but found the same thing to be true. The plants were healthy but no fruit. Our temperatures were conducive to growth but there just wasn’t a long enough growing season.  He knows permaculture is my goal and in that plan you aim for plants and trees that are highly reliable producing fruit or vegetables year after year. Not in need of a shade tree, I guess nuts are out. My choices were limited anyway since we wanted something that would produce before we were both using canes for walking.

The point to the story is that it takes more than just a growing zone to determine whether or not something will flourish in your area.

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The following seven things is what I’ve come up with.

  1. gardening zone

The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree F zones. So you see it has nothing to do with length of growing season. It is a good place to start though.

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2. Length of growing season and temperatures

In the state of Wyoming the average growing season for the agricultural areas is 125 days. For our area we average 100 days. 25 more days would make a big difference. In June the average day temperature is 70 F / 43 F at night. In July 81 F. daytime / 53 F at night and August 79 F. daytime/ 50 F. at night for our neck of the woods. So you can see it is a rather cool growing season which limits what we can grow. With the sun going down early since we sit nestled against the mountains it cools quickly and warms slowly in the mornings. If you care to visit Wyoming bring lots of sweatshirts and a coat for nighttime especially if you are going to stay in the mountains.

3. Elevation and latitude

My sister lives in Utah and though she is almost a thousand feet higher in elevation than us and has comparable winter temperatures, she is further south in latitude. She gets 123 days or more growing season. Her nights and days are far warmer too. In other words her crops don’t stop growing at night like ours do. Right now her trees are leafed out with blossoms. Most of our trees are barely in bud with a couple trees with leaves just starting to open. That’s okay because we have snow in the forecast this week with some nights expected to be in the 20’s F. Burrrrr…..

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3.pH level

Wyoming in general has very alkaline soil. As a reference, vegetables like a slightly acidic soil. See the problem? The higher the soil pH, above neutral, the harder it is for the plant to uptake nutrients including iron and manganese. The nutrients are often there, just not available to the plants. Cool spring temperatures  also impede availability.  For reference, alkaline soils have a pH of 7.0 or higher. This means sulfur is my best friend. It acidifies the soil faster than the wood shavings I use. So I’m using the sulfur to help keep the plants healthy until I can alter the pH level of the soil long term.

4. Moisture levels

I said moisture because it might come in the form of rain or humidity. If you have a very humid area then vegetables like beans are then susceptible to virus’s. Mold and such things are rare in our dry air. We overhead water our beans with no problem because they will quickly dry out but in your area the story could be different and some things because of high humidity you might avoid growing at all. While plants we grow can withstand dry air and lower moisture levels. Our water tables for the most part are deep. Not unusual for a well to be 500 feet. We live in a small area with lots of natural springs and our well is at 130 feet. The neighbors east though have to drill deep. Your water table might be high keeping plants feet wet and limiting what you can grow.

5. High winds, long dry spells, or wet spells

Any of these things can cause a problem. Our corn has a tendency to lie down, sometimes pretty flat which causes it to not mature but instead mold. Super, sweet corns in my experience have  less root systems and are a no no in our area because of the wind. Getting a corn crop anyway is a challenge. I’m going to try using sunflower plants to stabilize my sweet corn next time. A sunflower in the middle of a four square of four corn plants. The idea is worth a try.  The other problem with corn is a high humidity  necessity for good pollination. I have to fake it by spraying my corn during mating season. Maybe you have the opposite problem of too high a humidity which rots the seeds or plant roots. Something I have no experience with.

6. Soil Type

Heavy clay soils are hard to grow carrots, potatoes, and other root crops. I know, we lived where the soil layers were clay, heavier clay, and super heavy clay. Now we are dealing with a sandy soil that lacks humus and nutrients. Our top soil is very shallow also which is common close to a mountain range.

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7. Nutrients

Our soil lacks calcium and I suspect it has magnesium levels out of kilter because calcium and magnesium go hand in hand. I can’t get beets or carrots to grow and they like sandy soils so something nutrient and pH wise is causing the problem. I need to do some further investigation. I hear that in the Midwest the soil is deep and dark brown. You only have to plants seeds and watch them grow. I bet they have bugs though. We barely have any garden pests. It’s just too cold for the little buggers. One huge blessing.

So you can see there is much more than just a growing zone involved in whether a crop flourishes or fails.

What can’t you grow in your area that you wish you could and why?

3 thoughts on “Beyond Growing Zones to Determine Crop Success

  1. As you know, it is sometimes better to try something we want to grow, even if we know it is risky. I intend to grow saskatoons and mountain ash, and if they do not produce fruit, at least I will know that they do not do well here. I have found that cherimoya actually does well here, and if manually pollinated, will produce decent fruit, even if it is not as good as it is in San Diego.

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    1. That is true sometimes but with a nut bush it would take years of watering and fertilizing for a probably not. If we had better soil and more rain it wouldn’t hurt to try because the output would not be so great. In your climate I would agree but not here. We have saskatoons but we call them service berries. I have six. Five are very young starts I put in last year. I love the taste of them.
      In Wyoming we have a cross between a European and Swedish Mountain Ash I guess does quite well. Because of the water situation every tree on our place has to have a specific purpose, either a wind break or a fruit tree. Had to look up a cherimoya. Sounds interesting.

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      1. In the chaparral regions, the exotic really would need more water. Although just a few miles away, the mountain ash, filberts and whatever else I want to plant, get enough water from rain to survive if I plant them while just rooted twigs. Larger plants would dry out over summer. It is hard to believe that such a climate is so close to the chaparral, but here it is.

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