Reactions to Newly Unveiled USDA Zone Map

The buzz of the horticultural world lately has been the release of the new USDA Plant-Hardiness Zone Map. So, since I am an avid amateur dabbler in all things weather and climate, I thought I might as well chime in. This actually happened a few weeks ago so I am a little late getting into the game, but hey, better late than never!

The USDA zone map was first developed a long, long time ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Based on a long-term average of the coldest temperature to occur each winter at a given location, it was intended to serve as a general guide to discern in which parts of the country certain plants could succeed based on their cold-hardiness. It has since taken on many different forms and grown into an industry-dominating monster with its own will far beyond that of its creators. Think I’m exaggerating? Read on.

Now the new map, it must be said, is far more accurate than any of the preceding maps (which include a couple of “botched” versions I will not discuss, to keep this from getting any longer). A major complaint about the 1990 map (the previous major USDA map produced) (warning: really big download) was that it was based on an anomalously cold period in history; thus, it made everyone look colder than they really are. It was also based on a very short time span of just 13 years. Why? Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? No serious, professional climatologist or meteorologist uses a period that short to determine averages or “normals” for any meteorological purpose. When you look at the “average” high or low for a given date on the TV newscast or online, it is based on a much longer period: 30 years is the standard for the National Weather Service. It’s hard to dispute that this use of a 13 year sample was a deliberate and foolish decision, although I’m not quite sure whose or why. In any case, once people realized winters weren’t going to continue to be as cold as they were from 1974 – 1986 (the period used), the need for a new map was urgent. So, faster than the speed of government, we have our new 2011 map, which happens to be based on data from 1975 – 2005 since we have to allow them a few years to figure out what to do with all those data (for more specific details on the history of the maps, see “Further Reading” below).

But – lest I sound too cynical here – the new map is accurate. How do I know? Well, it’s because I’m one of those nerdy people who has independently researched the matter in great detail over the years. When the new map came out, I was impressed: it broadly agrees with my calculations for USDA zones at dozens of locations in the Pacific Northwest. Many of these I provide for you below. I should mention that I am not the only one who thinks it is quite accurate: many established industry professionals and avid hobbyists alike – at least, those who are closely tracking the weather – would agree with me. While new map is generally accurate, it is not perfect. But it is as good as it’s going to get considering the amount of data that are available.

What do I mean by “accurate” but “not perfect?” Here’s one example of why not having enough data compromises accuracy. In the Puget Sound area of western Washington, nearly all of the weather stations with decent periods of record are in average to cold microclimates and mostly not that close to the moderating influence of salt water, despite that the majority of people with gardens tend to live in relatively close proximity to the water. Anecdotal evidence clearly tells us that a lot of sheltered microclimates close to the water are well within zone 9, which on the map just barely shows in just a couple tiny places (mostly over water). This assertion is also supported by a comparison of temperature data from personal weather stations, which have proliferated exponentially in just the last few years, with data from the official stations with longer periods of record. Rarely, we see this work the other way: in Port Townsend, the weather station is close to downtown and the water, and very mild; while Kelly and Sue at Far Reaches Farm, which is a couple miles inland, consider themselves to be about a full zone colder, supported (very importantly) with their observational data from the last few winters. With the weather station being in the mild spot, the colder microclimates just outside of Port Townsend don’t show up so well.

But all this is small beans: the map is still pretty darn accurate, and as accurate as we can ever expect it to get. Enough said, right? Oh, just wait…

Now I’m seeing a variety of responses to the new map, but I will just offer my thoughts on a couple of the most common ones I see. Some, upon seeing the new map, put it forth as evidence that our climate is getting warmer, since many of us have moved up a half zone or so from the 1990 map. Frequently, these people are not aware that the 1990 map was based on an anomalously cold period in history, as I have described above. In fact if you go back even farther and look at the really old 1960 zone map, it’s pretty darn close overall to the 2011 map (except for being colder in parts of the Intermountain West):

(Incidentally, I know that out there somewhere is a detailed, colored, 1960 zone map; with a and b zones. There used to be a poster of it on the wall in the WSU halls of the horticulture department. I wish I had taken a photo of it because I have never found it online. Has anyone seen this? Let me know!)

Now I’m not a “global warming denier,” but I get a little irritated when the people with the most passion about this subject tend to lack the science to back it up. Sure, our climate’s getting warmer, but it has little to do with this map. I also find the number of news releases citing the new map as direct evidence of global warming to be pretty ridiculous.

Then – and I’ll spend much more time on this one – we have people who are convinced beyond any doubt that the map is not accurate, as if this were some kind of vast conspiracy. I have carefully avoided getting into big arguments about this on several occasions since I think these sorts of debates are not usually helpful without the chance to present my case in its entirety (and hear theirs out in detail if they have one). For example, one of these was (or, should I say, might have been) with a lady from Boise – a very experienced gardener and plantsperson – who seemed to be not taking the map seriously when it put Boise in zone 7a. The thing is, statistics don’t lie: if you take the average of every winter’s coldest temperature, and it comes out between 0 – 5°F, you’re in zone 7a and that’s that. Did I go wrong somewhere?

Well then once that point has been made, the response tends to be (and here I’m speaking generally, not of the aforementioned person – which I’d better say just in case she reads this!), “Then the USDA zones need to be adjusted/are not really that useful/whatever.” OK, so why not just say that in the first place? Don’t go saying “There’s no way we’re in such and such zone” without statistics to back it up – pretty please. It’s not like we can deny how the weather is. When was the last time you heard someone say “It’s 45 degrees out! It has to be!” when the thermometer shows it’s 55 degrees? With USDA zones, the only difference is it’s not happening in the here and now, so you have to actually go back and look at the historical data.

I can only conclude that the reason a lot of people don’t trust the map is that it does not fit their perception of reality, or of some notion (of vague origins, but very strong nonetheless) of “What My Zone Should Be” (and sometimes other people’s zones too!). Now I know that much of this discrepancy is based on actual plant performance, which is important to discuss since, supposedly, the main function of the map is as some sort of predictor of plant performance. So how did this discrepancy arise? Let’s consider an example: Some (not me!) might suggest that, say, Arbutus unedo will grow in Boise because it’s rated hardy to USDA zone 7. What I want to know is, why, when a discrepancy arises, do so many gardeners immediately distrust the map? Could it be that perhaps Arbutus unedo should not be rated to zone 7?

And I actually think this is the major problem with our understanding of USDA zones: PLANTS ARE NOT ACCURATELY RATED FOR THE RIGHT USDA ZONE. And now that we have a good, trustworthy map, it is the only problem (considering the limitations of the system in general, as I will discuss below). Prior to the 1990 map, it seemed that plants were often rated a bit too optimistically, but things still jived well enough that no one made a big deal over it. Now that we have the new map, the discrepancy is even greater!

So who’s behind all this? Gardeners get plant-hardiness ratings from many sources: books, plant and seed catalogs, growers’ tags, and the internet, to name a few. Ultimately the problem is that, somewhere in the pipeline, someone draws assumptions about plants and climate zones without sensible supporting data. Based on my observations, I would say growers’ tags are especially problematic: many companies/tags/etc. will rate a plant’s hardiness according to its ability to tolerate an average winter in the zone number it is assigned, seeming to forget that weather deviates significantly from average from one year to the next. For example, I often see Cordyline australis rated as “zone 8.” What is up with that? It is certainly no hardier than 15°F. Even at the top end of zone 8, you’re likely to drop below 15°F at least once or twice in 10 years – enough to freeze your plant to the ground — and at the bottom end, forget about it; you’ll be lucky if you ever get it through two winters in a row.

And this isn’t just a problem with a few certain plants. If you start looking carefully at books, and plant tags, and comparing these ratings with actual results with the plants (in their respective zones as they truly are); you will notice that most of the time plants are rated with the same degree (pun intended!) of inaccuracy; and, I think it’s fair to say, based on the same faulty assumptions.

Now we begin to understand the “problem” with Boise. (And anywhere else, too, but I’m using Boise, not because I like to pick on them, but because it is a nice extreme example of how deviation from average messes with zone ratings and the assumptions surrounding them.) So it’s zone 7a: but during the time period used in the data sample, the coldest temperature recorded was -25°F! Now how many plants rated to zone 7a can live through that? A couple other winters were close to that as well: the climate of Boise exhibits extreme deviation from their average coldest temperature every winter. Boise has also had a lot of mild winters (especially recently) with no temperatures anywhere near 0°F; and — wouldn’t you know it — these have to be averaged in as well to compute their USDA zone!

So it’s easy to see what motivates a perception that the map must be lying to us – or even a desire to “keep” Boise in zone 6 (or even 5?) if such a thing were possible. Nurseries want gardeners to succeed with their plants. When customers ask nursery staff in Boise why they can’t recommend plants that are rated to zone 7, they need to have a succinct answer that doesn’t call their grower’s tags (and hence, the integrity of their product) and reference books (potentially associated with the integrity of their expertise) into question. Maybe it’s just me but I would call this a mighty big problem.

And if we look just a little further at “who’s behind all this,” one more interesting factoid comes to light. When the USDA published the 1990 zone map, they also published statements about each zone with a list of plants that can be “expected” to be found within that zone. For example, within zone 9, one usually “expects” to find Phoenix canariensis and Grevillea robusta, among others.

I believe this to have been huge tactical error: not that it’s terribly wrong in general, but because it sets forth a backwards way of thinking about zones. Many gardeners, including the very experienced and professional, have become so firmly convinced that certain plants are “zone X plants” that they think (usually subconsciously, and without admitting it) that plants can tell us better than historical weather data what zone we are in. Sure, plants can tell us a lot: it’s where I get some of my anecdotal evidence for zones locally in a region I am very familiar with. But to draw conclusions about zones based on plant performance observations always requires support from hard weather data first and foremost. Frequently, our firmly entrenched “zone X plant” categories often tend to be based on incorrect information, as described above. What we need is for zone ratings for plants to be based on actual evidence based upon the zones, not the plants. For anyone to draw conclusions about their zone based on whether a “zone X plant” will thrive in their area, is to look at this all backwards.

What we also need is to get back to the original intent of the map, which is as a general guide. I hear a lot of gardeners who claim this mentality, yet still look with extreme suspicion upon that Grevillea which is in fact hardy to zone 8b, when considering it for use in zone 8b; or who refuse to let go of their “zone identity” because of their plant-zone-based perceptions, regardless of what maps and statistics tell them. In both cases we see how firmly conclusions about the USDA zones in which we garden are rooted in the assumed accuracy of zone ratings assigned to plants, which are assigned by people who usually remain (for most purposes) completely anonymous to the end user, and are called into question all too infrequently.

So, what to do? I almost think a rigorous national campaign to re-assign zone ratings to garden plants is in order, but if the USDA takes charge of this, our climate may have completely changed again in the time it takes them to produce any results. But in any case, the line of thinking would go like this: Will Arbutus unedo grow in Boise? No. Therefore, it’s not a zone 7 plant. Will Cordyline australis grow in zone 8 in western Washington? No – therefore, it’s not a zone 8 plant. Will Grevillea robusta grow in zone 9 in downtown Port Townsend? No, so it’s not a zone 9 plant. It’s just a plant. It’s not a set of historical climate data used to determine a USDA zone. Now (perhaps slightly tangentially) this way of looking at plants will also result in some additional discrepancies highlighting the need to think of the map as no more than a general guide. For example, Carpobrotus edulis grows happily in zone 8a in New Mexico, but can’t handle zone 8b in Washington. This is because of other climate factors such as summer heat, and light and precipitation patterns throughout the year. Climate is ultimately regional, and plant performance is ultimately based on empirical evidence: hence the limitations of the USDA map are significant. To their credit, the USDA is pretty clear about this stuff on their new web site.

And in case reading this hasn’t made you completely confused yet, I’ll just add this: In my conversations with customers, I notice that gardeners in western Washington often experience hardiness let-downs based on cultural conditions. For example, if you plant that Grevillea in rich, heavily amended soil and water it all the time, so that it keeps growing into the fall and fails to harden off; it should hardly be surprising that it takes a hit when that “Arctic blast” comes along. When we pamper our plants more than they get pampered in nature, hardiness often suffers. Of course there is a time and a place for soil amendment and watering – for example, I would pretty much always recommend amending severely degraded or compacted soils – but balance is needed. Back to the point, though; this is just one more factor among many that often skews our perceptions of plant hardiness.

So where does all this leave us at the Desert Northwest? Well, I haven’t been rating hardiness for the plants we sell according to the USDA zone system – not yet anyway. Basically it’s because I don’t want to mislead anyone, since it’s hard to predict how readers of our plant descriptions will understand a zone rating. I prefer to assign actual temperatures at which a certain plant will be damaged, killed, etc. with some wiggle room for other factors as described above (duration of the freeze, etc.). These are generally based on actual experience growing them here in western Washington, or our best educated guess. Also, not infrequently, we make the comment in our plant descriptions that such-and-such is likely to be hardier in a climate with hot summers. We figure a lot of plants (though not all) that just make it in the Pacific Northwest can probably handle temperatures a full zone colder in the Southeast, or nearly; and we make note of it. Finally, we wish to emphasize that plants don’t look at maps or weather data, and sometimes the only way to determine whether something is hardy enough for your garden is to try it and find out, and sometimes more than once. We do plenty of that around here!

Do I sound mad? I’m not really. At least, not in a bad way. But I’m definitely crazy. And to prove it, just for fun, here are some USDA zones for a number of randomly selected Northwest locations, which I calculated based on official historical climate data. The middle column is the average of the coldest temperature every winter between 1969 – 99. The source for nearly all this data was accessed via this page on the ESRL web site. Through this page you can do your own independent research if you like, and I think you will be surprised with the accuracy of the map! (Note: for the most part, my results agree with the map pretty well, or are a little lower than what the map suggests. This discrepancy is because the data below are based on 1969 – 99, not 1975 – 2005 as in the map. The period of 2000 – 2005 had mostly very mild winters in the Pacific Northwest. Thus, Boise, for example, shows as 6b here rather than 7a, since the milder winters in the early 2000’s are excluded.)

Aberdeen | 19.97 | zone 8b
Anacortes | 17.3 | zone 8b
Battle Ground | 12.93 | zone 8a
Blaine 1NNE | 11.37 | zone 8a
Buckley 1NE | 13.8 | zone 8a
Centralia | 13.03 | zone 8a
Chelan | 4.47 | zone 7a
Clearwater | 16.2 | zone 8b
Coupeville 1S | 15.2 | zone 8b
Dallesport Airport | 7.93 | zone 7b
Darrington | 7.53 | zone 7b
Ellensburg | -6.83 | zone 6a
Elma | 13.6 | zone 8a
Elwha Ranger Stn | 17.3 | zone 8b
Everett | 15.37 | zone 8a
Forks 1E | 17.03 | zone 8b
Goldendale | 1.23 | zone 7a
Kennewick | 3.97 | zone 7a
Longview | 16.33 | zone 8b
Olympia Airport | 8.57 | zone 7b
Omak 4N | -6.2 | zone 6a
Othello | -2.23 | zone 6b
Port Angeles | 18.97 | zone 8b
Port Townsend | 20.9 | zone 9a
Pullman 2NW | -5.6 | zone 6a
Quincy 3S | -5.17 | zone 6a
Richland | 4.03 | zone 7a
Sea-Tac Airport | 18.57 | zone 8b
Spokane Airport | -7 | zone 6a
Stampede Pass | 1.53 | zone 7a
Stehekin 4NW | 3.9 | zone 7a
Wenatchee | 4.37 | zone 7a
Yakima Airport | -3.27 | zone 6b

Ashland 1NW | 14.0 | zone 8a
Bandon 2NNE | 22.7 | zone 9a
Bonneville Dam | 17.17 | zone 8b
Brookings 2SE | 29.4 | zone 9b
Elkton 3SW | 19.3 | zone 8b
Eugene | 15.33 | zone 8b
Gold Beach | 27.3 | zone 9b
Grants Pass | 16.2 | zone 8b
Hood River Exp Stn | 6.43 | zone 7b
Klamath Falls 2SSW | 0.23 | zone 7a
McMinnville | 15.63 | zone 8b
Medford Airport | 14.8 | zone 8a
Newport | 21.2 | zone 9a
North Bend | 24.87 | zone 9a
Oakridge | 14.77 | zone 8a
Ontario | -4.93 | zone 6b
Portland Airport | 17.93 | zone 8b
Salem Airport | 13.43 | zone 8a
The Dalles | 9.73 | zone 7b
Tillamook | 17.37 | zone 8b

Boise | -2.7 | zone 6b
Lewiston Airport | 3.07 | zone 7a
Moscow | -8.13 | zone 6a
Riggins | 6.6 | zone 7b

Further reading about USDA Plant Hardiness Zones and the Map:
Plant Hardiness Zone Maps: The Rest of the Story by Tony Avent
Plant Delights’ January Newsletter, discussing the new map and what went into it by Tony Avent
Climate Zones Gone Wild! A basic introduction, by me, 2008.

Social Media Shenanigans

Twice now I’ve joined a local nursery’s facebook page, posted something perfectly on-topic and reasonable, only to have my contribution deleted without a word. I thought I’d provide an update on the first incident, and describe the latest one with some additional thoughts. As usual I’ll keep these folks anonymous as I wish them no ill will. As I have said in the past I want success for all small businesses who are doing something special and worthwhile, particularly in the field of horticulture.

So to follow up on the nursery that was the subject of this post. The owner posted on another facebook forum about a certain rare plant she was just dying to get hold of, and I was able to provide it for her. I delivered it to her (as I was passing by anyways) and she appeared quite happy to get it: she traded me for something else not quite as rare but still useful to me. Hopefully this means a positive business relationship has begun and will continue into the future. So that is nice. (Here’s a possibly funny side note: she assured me this plant is hardy for us, citing a single, well-established specimen in Port Angeles; but, sadly, this plant now appears to be dead: it took all winter and part of spring for the damage to show. That’s too bad. But wasn’t my post that she deleted about the very same subject—delayed freeze damage? Talk about irony!)

Then just a few days ago I went to another local nursery’s facebook site, which I had been following for a while, and posted to their wall an invitation to join the Independent Garden Centers and Nurseries facebook group and affiliated LOGON public portal, with a link to The Blogging Nurseryman’s post describing it. (No, I didn’t put all those links on their page, just the last one.) It seemed to take them a few days to figure out that I had posted something, but when they did, they simply deleted it without a word. The group has been great, so if they are not interested in it, that is really their loss. More about that in just a moment.

Folks, this is not how to use social media to your advantage. A facebook page is more than just a place to share what is going on at your business: certainly, that’s a big part of it. But just as importantly, it is a place to INTERACT with your clientele. Interact means interact, converse, and respond. I cannot emphasize this enough! It does not mean to simply delete stuff that you didn’t put on there.

It may sound like I’m personally offended by what happened, or something—that’s not the case at all (though I do wonder what goes through people’s minds when they delete posts: why would they not want to take every advantage to communicate with their clientele, and especially other industry professionals? Really—enlighten me). All I’m saying is that, generally speaking, deleting stuff other people post on your facebook page is not a good habit to get into. Occasionally undesired solicitations may be a problem, but most often I believe people do this to try to contribute something of value or initiate a conversation that is likely to lead to more business. What if a year from now this business has 500 facebook fans on their page? They’ll probably receive a couple of questions, comments, or links every week on their wall. I hope they’re not going to just delete them all with no further communication. That sounds like a great way to start losing customers. (We might also note at this point the irony that the link they deleted was entitiled “How to use facebook for your business” written by a nursery owner more than qualified to discuss the topic and relate it to horticulture.)

I’ll conclude with a brief plug for the IGC&N group. If you own or are employed at a retail nursery or garden center, this should be of great interest to you. Rather than describe it here, I’ll refer to this blog post from the Blogging Nurseryman (again, the same link I posted on that nursery’s wall) to tell you all about it and provide the appropriate links. The group is of immense value to any nursery owner or management who thinks the horticulture industry in general has potential for improvement. If you already know everything about running your business, are absolutely content with no possible room for improvement in your business, and have no interest in sharing anything you have ever learned, well I guess then this group is not for you. (That is actually a serious comment and not intended to sound snotty.) Anyway, the group is there for you, if you want it. Heck, it’s even there if you don’t!

Lastly, if you want to read something really fantastic about garden bloggers, check this out, also from the Blogging Nurseryman. Give yourself a few minutes. I’ll continue to refrain from offering my own commentary about this, since I lack much of the background information about the history of garden bloggers. Long story short: if you’re blog is any good, don’t sell out to advertisers.

By the way, in case you haven’t noticed by now, I am a nursery social media expert. So if you learned anything of value from this post, that will be $300 in consulting fees, please.

Drought vs. Frost

If you could do one thing to preserve the life of a plant you really liked, would you prefer to spend all summer watering it, or to mulch it in fall and cover it with something on the coldest winter nights?

Apparently, most gardeners would choose to spend all summer watering it. Most people have accepted the idea that because plants need water, it only follows that a good gardener should spend a lot of time (and money, in some cases) watering them. In my experience, it’s much less common to encounter gardeners who adapt practical protections for winter cold as part of their gardening regime.

Nature has provided Northwest gardeners with certain limitations on what we can grow. Summer drought is a limitation. Freezing weather is a limitation. We compensate for summer drought by using tons of water to keep our plants healthy. We compensate for freezing weather, by, um, doing nothing, most of the time. The question is, why this discrepancy? Why do we have this subconscious expectation that our garden plants ought to be able to handle all the cold weather our climate has to dish out with no help from us, but it’s OK if they can’t handle the dry weather (a much longer period of time) because then we’ll take care of them? In short, why do we accommodate garden plants for drought, but not for frost?

Consider this example. You have a sunny, well drained area in your front yard where you want to put a shrub, and you have narrowed it down to two possibilities: Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Nikko Blue’ or Grevillea ‘Poorinda Elegance’.

Suppose you choose the Hydrangea, because you don’t want to worry about winter hardiness. What does it need to stay looking sharp? Well, you don’t really have to fertilize it, but it helps if you amend the soil or at least top dress with some rich compost. You’ll also want to mulch it so that the soil will retain moisture. Then you have to water. And water. And water. How often? Once a week would be about right for most gardens: that’s at least 20 times in a typical Northwest dry season (late June through early October). Suppose you have fairly moisture retentive soil: you still probably have to water at least every other week. (Unless you live on the edge of a swamp.) So that’s 10 times every summer to remember to water. And each time you’re probably out there for at least two or three minutes to really give it a good, thorough soak. So there goes, at best, a half hour of your summer, watering. And the next summer. And the next summer, etc.

Suppose you choose the Grevillea: what does it need? It needs to be watered a few times the first summer, but certainly not as much as the Hydrangea—and none at all after the first year. You can probably skip the soil amendments. In fall you mulch with something that will insulate the roots and protect them from freezing—but you’d want to mulch the Hydrangea anyhow. Then when the big arctic freeze is about to come, you cover it with a cardboard box or blanket to prevent it from getting frost damaged. And then when the weather warms up, you take it off. That’s it. It only takes a moment, twice a year. Well, you might get a winter with two or even three big freezes, and have to provide a repeat performance. But on the other hand there are also mild winters when you shouldn’t have to do this at all. On average you’re only expending a few minutes of effort on this every year. And you don’t have to spend any water, or precious summer hours, which we know are all too few in the Northwest anyhow.

Now multiply this by all the plants in your garden, and it’s your choice: spend a whole day watering your plants, once a week, all summer and early fall. Or spend a couple hours – perhaps longer, depending on how many plants you have – covering some of your most special plants with boxes and blankets, just once a year. (And taking them off is even easier, if anything.)

Of course, I know there are automated irrigation systems, and mulching can help the soil retain moisture, etc. But in a climate with reliably dry summers, a situation in which you still save effort by choosing a water hogging plant over a marginally hardy plant is rare. Think about how much money goes into your irrigation system. And mulching the soil, prescribed in both cases, is no more or less difficult either way.

Next time you’re considering what to plant, ask yourself: Is it time to reconsider what the real limitation is on what I can grow in my garden? Perhaps we should get over our somewhat reactionary fear of marginally hardy plants. Perhaps the water hogging plants are the ones to stay away from.

Grevillea ‘Poorinda Elegance’, hardy to about 15°F, needs no water once established in the Pacific Northwest, and is well worth protecting from the occasional cold blast.

Befuddled by Nursery Customer Relations??

After following some other horticulture blogs more closely in recent months, I’ve decided it doesn’t hurt to occasionally rant now and then. I believe this will be the first time I’ve used this blog to rant against someone other than myself. I’ve decided to leave the subject of this rant anonymous so as to avoid being unnecessarily antagonistic. But I’m sure they will know who they are if they read this. If this post were to start a conversation and some sort of positive relationship with them, well that would be just grand.

So here’s the story. In late November, as we are all trying to forget, we had a big freeze in which the temperature dropped to 12 degrees. Just a couple days after it warmed back above freezing, a particular nursery posted on their Facebook page (and I’m paraphrasing), “Wow! Look at these certain plants we have that survived 12 degrees in their pots with no damage! That’s right folks, if it’s not totally hardy here, we won’t sell it to you.”

Now I won’t, and don’t, claim that everything we grow and sell is “hardy” for everyone around here—I freely admit that certain plants we offer (the most exciting ones, of course!) may be considered a risk, especially for colder gardens, and just plain not hardy in some cases (I mean, we can’t really grow Leucadendrons here, whatever die-hard zonal denialists might think). Additionally, if I may be so candid as to say this, I also don’t claim our business has always maintained a flawless customer service record. Like anyone that wants to stay in business, we pledge to always do whatever we can to give our customers a positive experience and to make things right if something bad happens, but rarely certain things have slipped through the cracks leaving it to the customer to initiate this process.

I also have more than enough experience to know that just because a potted plant—particularly a broadleaf evergreen, which the subject plants were—looks good two days after a freeze, doesn’t mean it’s going to be fine. It’s very common for the root system of the plant, having frozen solid, to be killed in a freeze like this—the top may look good for a while but eventually with no roots the whole thing collapses. And it’s VERY RARE for damage to show up right away in these instances—it usually takes weeks or months, not just a couple days.

So I posted a reply to this nursery’s Facebook post, something to the effect of: “Be careful! Plants’ roots are often much less hardy than top growth, and damage may not always be evident right away.” (And, by the way, I was posting as a regular user, with no hint of connection to my nursery business.)

So how do you think this nursery might have responded to my reply? A few options come to mind. They could assure me (and everyone else reading) that if someone purchases these plants and they fail, they will replace them (I would have no problem making such a guarantee under the same circumstances!). They could use this as an opportunity to discuss the topic of root hardiness in general, thereby fostering the education of themselves, everyone else reading, and possibly me. At the very least, they could even just tell me I’m wrong, and the plants will be fine because they have been through this before and lived.

Instead, they deleted my comment, and that was it. No personal message of any sort, nothing.

I’m not impressed. Do I feel like patronizing this nursery now? Did I have a positive experience with them? Am I going to recommend them to my friends? Am I going to want to continue “liking” their Facebook page?

For the time being I’ve decided to give this business one more chance, at least until I meet the owner in person. Because sometimes we all make mistakes and deserve another chance. And I won’t be bringing up this topic unless he/she reads this post and wants to talk about it. I mean, with the kind of response to customers that I experienced, any more customers who are put off by them could mean more business for us!

Seriously though, I want all small and local nurseries to do well especially given the current economic climate. We just have to admit we all have more to learn in our own particular areas—us too.

UPDATE 1/3/2011

OK – this person seriously needs to get a clue. Her latest Facebook post is basically an advertisement for the chemical herbicide RoundUp. Her main point is to advocate spraying weeds now while we have a chance during this period of uncommonly dry winter weather – which would be fine advice if it weren’t for the toxicity problems with RoundUp. She even says “Round-Up… degenerates in soil to become glycine ( a natural amino acid ) and phosphates ( a nutrient ). No harmful residues are left.”

The problem is, not everyone is convinced RoundUp is safe. I know that many people use RoundUp without giving it a second thought. However, many gardeners, especially those in the younger generation which should be her target customers, are suspicious of RoundUp at best, or are in agreement with studies that have concluded it is highly toxic to humans and the environment. Also, RoundUp is manufactured by Monsanto, the name of which immediately makes some people run far away from any business even remotely associated with its products.

Mind you, I’m really not trying to be too political or anything here. I’m just pointing out that this nursery owner may be inadvertently alienating a large proportion of her potential customer base. Next time I hope she’ll think twice about that. I’m sure I’ve made a few statements on my Facebook page that have put off some people: since I’ve started it, 113 people have joined and 16 have left. It is impossible to please everyone, but I still try to emphasize that gardening is something that should bring people together as much as possible, rather than alienating certain people who don’t agree with the business over a particular political or environmental cause.

BTW, at the Desert Northwest, we neither use or promote RoundUp, as we feel the evidence is not in its favor, and we really just don’t need to anyways. But people who do use it are still welcome here. In fact, at least one of our favorite ‘plant people’ who owns another nursery we really like has been known to use it at need.

I won’t post direct links here, but a quick Google search for ‘RoundUp toxicity’ turns up plenty of information that I encourage readers to judge for themselves. Whatever your stance, it doesn’t hurt to be educated.

Greenhouse #2, winter’s wrath, and other news

So it’s time I provided an update, in case you’re wondering why I haven’t posted anything in months, or if we’re still in business, or what. Basically it’s a challenge when one has such a wide range of responsibilities running a small business to stay on top of every end of things all the time, but that’s ok – I’ve kind of accepted that’s just the way it works. Related to that, some of you may be wondering if I’m ever going to send out an e-mail newsletter. You may have signed up months or even years ago and never received anything. Well it’s coming someday… really…!

The last couple months we have been super busy building greenhouse #2. Although we got a nice early start on this one (unlike greenhouse #1) I did not work quite as consistently on it (i.e. I allowed myself to be distracted by other work and responsibilities at times), resulting in a minor disaster at the end of November when winter decided to arrive before Thanksgiving. Actually, we just finished up the greenhouse on November 29, which is still ahead of when we finished greenhouse #1 last year.

Some historical perspective on our November freeze might be helpful to appreciate why we weren’t more concerned, or had trouble believing it could really happen. (In fact, I can still hardly believe it happened!) Really serious November freezes are quite rare in the Pacific Northwest; however, they are especially damaging to plants, because they may not have ‘shut down’ growth/metabolizing for the season to achieve sufficient dormancy for full hardiness. We had a November freeze in 2006, but it was nearly the end of the month so practically December anyways, and a few degrees less cold than this one (though with plenty of snow!). In 1985 we had a November freeze of about the same severity and timing as this one (2010), but the cold weather persisted longer into December. (In fact one of my childhood memories is sledding down NE 135th St. on Thanksgiving when we lived in Seattle.) In 1955 we had one that was both earlier (Nov 12-17) and colder – I really can’t imagine what that must have been like as far as plant damage! But that’s really about it. And with these things being 25 and 30 years apart, does anyone really feel they need to worry that’s it’s going to happen again this year? I consider these things to be freak occurrences.

So while we could have been more prepared, we still did reasonably well considering the circumstances. The greenhouse was well underway by the time rumors of Arctic air started creeping into the long range forecasts. However working mostly solo it still took me until the evening of November 20 – and by then we were a bit below freezing – to get the plastic on the greenhouse (which I consider to be a major milestone of constructing a greenhouse, since it doesn’t really work without it!). But I didn’t get it fully secured. And then the following day came something that caught me totally off guard – a remarkable dump of snow that was completely missed by forecasters. I had hoped to use Nov 21st to finish securing the plastic and move plants in, but instead much of the day was spent just trying to knock snow off the greenhouses as fast as it was accumulating, to prevent them from collapsing. On top of that the wind came up threatening to blow the plastic off. Then it dropped to 17 degrees that night and 12 the following night making it our worst November blast in 25 years.

So with not managing to get all the plants moved in as quickly as I would have liked, I have a number of injured and dead plants. But it’s not a major disaster and could have been much worse…. and anyways, most of the really special plants were safely in the first greenhouse which never froze.

Then last Sunday and Monday Nov 28-29 the snow was melted enough that I could shovel the rest out of the way, and with some help from family I re-tightened and properly secured the plastic.

The greenhouses are heated with 70K BTU portable forced air heaters that run on (preferably) kerosene or (less expensive) diesel fuel with an electric igniter. I have had pretty good luck with them so far although one of my old ones has been unreliable and I had to replace it for this event.

One question you might be wondering is – if we’re growing stuff suitable for the Northwest’s climate, why does it all have to go in a greenhouse to avoid freezing in the winter? Well let’s remember for one, this was a freak event. But the main reason is that plants are much more vulnerable to freeze damage sitting in little pots that can freeze solid on top of the ground, than they are once in the ground and established. Numerous studies have shown that the roots of many plants (especially woody plants) are much less frost hardy than the top growth. In short a lot of this stuff would be fine through our winters in the ground or would still be worth planting even if some damage were to occur in that rare freak event. Also we’re obviously not in one of the region’s mildest microclimates; many of our customers can succeed with a lot more marginally hardy items than we can.

Stay tuned for more exciting news which will hopefully include something about a new and updated plant catalog with some previously unannounced items!

Greenhouse progress well underway, October 11.

A day after the big snow Nov 23. I was pretty much too busy to take pictures on the 22nd.

Moving plants into the new greenhouse! Actually, I still had some extra space even when I was finished, remarkably.

As you can see the plastic is still not firmly attached; in fact, the snow was the main thing holding it down at the corners for a while.

View of greenhouses with only a few plants left outside at this point.

Evening shot of greenhouses. At this point the temperature is dropping off to the mid teens.

Nursery cart tracks from the shade house. I brought in all the plants from the shade house.

Newsletter 3/19/07 – The Spring Shipping Season Begins!

Is it March 15 yet? OK, so I was a few days behind in updating the web page. But with my new job, and my car in the shop for some major work, it has been kind of hectic lately and I deserve a little break! Or at least, that is what I shall tell myself, LOL.

So now, the exciting news is, I am all ready to sell and ship plants for the spring 2007 mail order season! The list is up to date and I have added 10 new plants so far. I am excited to offer two species of Puya! This genus of fabulous xeric terrestrial bromeliads (some of them gigantic) has been on my radar screen for a long time, and deserves much wider testing in gardens. I also have two nice Eryngiums, which I consider to be very rewarding because they look like they should need good drainage, but they do not: they are tough as nails and will grow about anywhere. I am also pleased to offer one Eucryphia (another is on the way), a beautiful, showy ornamental broadleaf evergreen. And you will find a couple of new New Zealand plants and a few other things.

Admittedly, a few plants had to disappear from the list, as I either sold out of them, they outgrew their pots (mostly eucalypts), or they froze (note to self: don’t leave Fuchsias out in tiny pots through 13 degrees. They are only hardy once established). But on the plus side, I should be able to add many more plants throughout the spring shipping season, more than making up for any losses.

Speaking of frozen plants, winter seems to finally be over and it’s time to assess my losses. It is a darn good thing I finished that second greenhouse just before winter, and was able to heat it throughout the winter, or the Desert Northwest might be no more! After a dip to 13 degrees F in November and 19 degrees F in January, with some high temperatures below freezing both times, and multiple snowfalls, it is no surprise that the Banksia serrata and Acacia retinodes I planted outside at the nursery last fall are quite dead. More disappointing is the death of Yucca whipplei, Fremontodendron x ‘California Glory’, Ozothamnus rosmarinifolius, Eucalyptus bicostata, E. delegatensis var. tasmaniensis, and E. approximans. Oh well, all plants have their limits somewhere, and the nursery is far from being in a sheltered microclimate. In some cases, the importance of starting with larger plants and cold hardy provenances has been noted. On the plus side, Grevillea lavandulacea ‘Penola’, Pittosporum ralphii, and Callistemon ‘Woodlanders Hardy’ all survived, which is impressive.

But fortunately spring is on the way, and the number of new plants propagated will soon far outweigh any losses. A quick trip to California was fun, and resulted in me returning with several Passiflora, Metrosideros umbellata, Acacia pravissima ‘Golden Carpet’ and others, that I shall use for stock plants (and the aforementioned car problems, LOL). I’ll have to keep looking for replacements for some of the Grevilleas I have killed in the past – I’d like to have another go at G. x gaudichaudii, G. victoriae ‘East Gippsland’ and G. acanthifolia. I passed by UC Berkeley this time, but enjoyed my usual visit to the garden formerly known as Strybing, UCSC, and a few nurseries. I also visited the botanic gardens at Tilden Regional Preserve for the first time: a fabulous collection of California native plants with more manzanitas and dudleyas than you would believe. I highly recommend it!

A couple photos of Acacia pravissima ‘Golden Carpet’ at UCSC to make you get mad at me for not having it for sale. Now tell me, what kind of person wouldn’t want a plant like that in their yard?