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Zone Defense “A Rough Patch”

Written By Teresa Howell |

Family dynamics never change. For instance, when I was a senior in high school and my baby sister Jessie was in kindergarten, I was better at reading and math than she was–or at least that’s the way I remember it. Reports from some of our siblings conflict.

Now she’s in her early forties, and I’m in my fi-cough-ies, I naturally expect that I’m a better gardener. So when she put in a garden at her new home in Sidney, Montana, I predicted crop failure.

I had two things going for me in the world of competitive gardening. First, twelve years more experience. Second, and I was counting on this, Sidney is only about a hundred miles from the Canadian border. Gardening maps put Sidney in zone three, where I always thought only reindeer moss and the hardiest of willows grew. My Winnemucca garden is in zone six, which all the experts agree is gardening nirvana.

Imagine my surprise when Jessie started complaining of tomato-canning burnout last August, while I was still waiting for enough tomatoes to build a decent salad. Then I started investigating.

Turns out that those colorful zone maps only measure one thing–the coldest temperature an area is likely to receive. It’s useful information if you’re trying to decide whether a tree or perennial is will winter-kill in your area.

But most vegetables don’t go in the garden until at least May. Even in Sidney, the forty below temperatures are a painful but receding memory. That’s when other climate factors come in to play.

Factors like the number of frost-free days. In Sidney, they have 111 of them, on average.  Here in Winnemucca, we get from 85 to 110 days between the last frost of spring and the first of fall. Our altitude encourages late spring frosts. It also encourages cool nights and hot days, temperature extremes that many vegetables don’t appreciate.

On the plus side, I’ve found that some cool-season crops, like lettuces, peas and fava beans, tolerate our heat better than I expected, probably because they get to cool off during the night. Unfortunately, those crops don’t carry the bragging rights of tomatoes and melons.

My sister’s zone three garden has a couple other unexpected pluses. Around the summer solstice, Jessie gets a few minutes shy of an hour more daylight every day than I do. The difference in day length is less marked earlier or later in the season, but still, that’s a lot of extra photosynthesis.

Sidney is west of the Missouri River, which means gardeners should expect drought. But Jessie gets a whopping 14.2 inches of precipitation to Winnemucca’s 8.4 inches. In keeping with the “it’s not how much, but when” theme, Sidney a good share of its moisture in June and July, when the only natural precipitation my garden usually sees is the sweat that drips off my brow. More precipitation usually means better soil, because salt and alkalinity wash out, and comparatively luxuriant vegetation means more naturally-occurring organic matter in the soil.

Fortunately, we can compensate for some of these conditions. We can irrigate and add organic material. We can’t do much about that extra summer daylight (I’ll spot you that one, Jessie), but we can offer shade in the extreme heat and frost protection in the early spring and later fall.

There are a variety of hoop houses, floating row covers and greenhouses for frost protection, although they come at some expense. There are also options for individual plants.  Wax paper hot caps are inexpensive, although they won’t protect against a hard freeze. The French use elegant cloches, often made of glass.

This year I plan to try the proverbial wall-o-water, a ring of connected plastic tubes that you fill with water. These tubes surround your tomato; the water absorbs heat during the day and releases it during the night.

So watch out this year, Jessie! Me and my wall-o-waters are going to kick your little tomato-canning tootie!





When Teresa Howell isn’t taunting her siblings, she teaches English at Great Basin College in Winnemucca, NV.