It’s looking as if things really are warmer than we thought, never mind those hot flashes now and then (Mother Nature’s, not mine). But then you probably already suspected that. It’s the reason why so many of us have been able to push the limits of plants listed as hardy to Zone 6 for example — and get away with it!

But before you think you can count on global warming or climate change to ensure that grove of coconut palms you’ve been contemplating is a done deal, think again. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Turns out that after all those years, those zone designations were based on incomplete information. Even so, they weren’t far off. But it’s all there in the new cold hardiness zone map. About a month ago, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the new hardiness zone map based on a 30-year observation cycle which more accurately represents the long-term cold cycles. (The previous map was based on a 13-year period.) Also more sophisticated methods of mapping, including algorithms that take into account elevation, nearness to bodies of water and things like valleys and ridge tops went into the new map.

At first glance, the new map is a subtle blend of colors. The hues change so gradually that I admit I find it difficult to determine what color is which zone, making it hard to match them up to the key. But don’t let that feature confuse or deter you from using this gardening resource. The new map is actually easy to use if you go with the interactive map on the Internet. Knowing your zone is critical to your gardening success because it enables you to select and grow those varieties suitable for your zone, as well as schedule planting times.

If you haven’t visited the website and tried out the interactive map, what are you waiting for? All you need to do is to go to planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/InteractiveMap.aspx. Once there, you have the option of satellite, terrain or road map background views. Simply enter your zip code to locate your exact area and zone designation. For instance, when I typed in 04843, up came helpful longitude and latitude coordinates (meaning you can “zone” in with GPS headings to locate microclimates within your property) and the updated low temperature limits for that entire locale, indicating that zip code 04843 is smack in Zone 5b. Piece of cake.

I’m hearing of on-average, temperatures of five degrees higher than previous zone lows indicated throughout the country as indicated in the new map, except for mountainous areas where the difference often goes the other way — five degrees colder than previously described. It may not sound like much, but for some plants, that five degrees one way or the other can sufficiently tip the scales enabling them to survive — or not — the average lows.

 

Try something ‘different’ for the vegetable garden

Last growing season we moved the pumpkins and winter squash out of the garden proper (It’s surrounded by an electric fence to keep out deer and woodchucks.) just because the sprawling plants take up so much room. And we had almost resolved to do the same with the zucchini this year. But even though those wacky white tails have done nothing but but whine about that fence since it went up, and have subsequently put in several requests for the zucchini to be put within their reach, along comes a solution to that conflict. ‘Astia’ container zucchini is a French bush variety developed for small-space gardens.

Non-rambling and compact, this zucchini is not only ornamental, but is also early bearing and productive. It will stay within the circle of protection of the electric fence, but would make a bountiful addition to any front-yard garden that includes edibles and is one that doesn’t include a small herd of resident deer.

Another ornamental vegetable choice, heirloom ‘Tronchuda Beira’ Portuguese kale has big and handsome paddle-shaped blue-green leaves that are tender and sweet and much more heat tolerant than other kales. We’re going to try this one just for its looks.

And speaking of appearances, ‘Stardom Mix’ landscape lettuce will spiff up any garden with softly, ruffled emerald-green and burgundy-red lettuces with crispy-sweet leaves that grow large rosettes of color and flavor. Just imagine contrasting rows or big swirls of color. Smashing! Also new is a blend of succulent greens, a mix of green and red-leaf beets mixed with silver and gold-leaf chards to use in salads or for cooking. Called ‘Renee’s Braising Mix,’ these gourmet greens are tasty and tender prepared either way and are a good choice for early garden results. Compact Napa (also called Chinese) cabbage, ‘Little Jade’ is extremely vigorous with excellent disease resistance and is just right for smaller gardens or bigger ones too to maximize the use of space.

Two orange tomatoes — ‘Mandarin Cross,’ a Japanese slicing tomato and ‘Isis Candy,’ an heirloom cherry tomato are spot on the Pantone Color of the Year “Tangerine Tango” theme for the garden. The first has creamy fruits with mouthwatering sweet, even flavor growing on strong indeterminate vines. ‘Isis Candy’ is marbled with yellow-gold and has a fruity rich flavor, growing on strong and productive vines. These seven new varieties are available as seeds from Renee’s Garden Seeds.

From Territorial Seed are two new choices available as plants — an eggplant and a tomato — an especially good idea for these two which lap up the heat and sunshine, and can benefit from the advantage of seedlings over seeds. Grafted ‘Eggplant-Prosperosa’ produces in 75 days. This Italian heirloom forms a gorgeous, deep purple fruit with a pleated top that shows just a touch of cream color peeking out from the stem end. The four to five-inch fruits are meaty and mild flavored. Eclipsing most other varieties in Territorial eggplant trials, the tall, vigorous plants are outstanding adorned with shapely, eye-catching fruit.

‘Tomaccio’ was developed particularly for drying, but is also a tasty fresh-eating tomato. The productive, indeterminate plants set long trusses of cherry-sized fruit (70 days). Slicing them in half before drying in a dehydrator, or oven on a low temperature setting, works best to produce gourmet treats. Simply stored in a zip-lock bag in the freezer these will provide wonderful additions to pasta, pizza, or salads.

Another first for the growing season is available from in vegetables that boast higher nutrition from Burpee Seed’s “Boost Antioxidant Collection.”

“The ‘Boost’ collection is not GMO,” explained Kristin Grilli of Burpee Seeds. “The vegetable hybrids in the ‘Boost’ collection were bred the same way Gregor Mendell hybridized his pea plants years ago when he discovered genetics… through natural hybridizing.”

Each of the six vegetables in the collection was hand-selected for its nutrient content. Available as seeds or plants, Burpee’s “Boost” Collection includes the ‘Cherry Punch’ hybrid tomato, ‘Power Pops’ hybrid tomato, ‘Solar Power’ hybrid tomato, ‘Sweet Heat’ hybrid pepper, ‘Gold Standard’ hybrid cucumber and ‘Healing Hands’ lettuce salad mix. (‘Gold Standard’ and ‘Healing Hands’ are available as seeds only.)

As promised, we’ve found even more new vegetable varieties in the orange of the color of the year, “Tangerine Tango,” in selections from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. ‘Caracas’ baby Chantenay and ‘Laguna’ Nantes carrots fit that hue to the hilt. The first is a chunky little number with good Cercospora resistance, and ‘Laguna’ delivers the best flavor, even in warmer conditions. Looking for all the world like those creamy orangesicles, ‘Orange Crisp’ watermelon is seedless with firm and crisp — orange flesh. Yummy. ‘Big Doris’ pumpkin has all the qualities we want in a pumpkin, big size, smooth deep orange skin and she even comes with strong “handles.” No featherweight, ‘Doris’ tips the scales at an average of 30 to 40 pounds. Oh, Doris!

And last, for a selection that is not only new, but also a bit out of the ordinary — and is definitely one for those craving a touch of the tropics, no matter what your growing zone. ‘Super Dwarf’ banana is everything a banana plant should be, just smaller. The smaller size enables you to enjoy a banana plant inside the home, on the porch or on the patio without overwhelming limited living space. Symmetrical and compact with a mature height of four feet, it has an attractive mahogany colored trunk and given proper care and time will produce small edible fruit even in a container. Hardy in Zone 8 and higher, for Zone 7 and lower the plant can be used indoors year round or as a patio plant during the spring and summer months.

‘Super Dwarf’ (Musa Acuminata) banana can be successfully grown in containers, and is adaptable growing well in shade to high light conditions. Hah-cha-cha!

And if you aren’t already gearing up for a summer of fresh, garden-grown vegetables, a new book should get you inspired. First Lady Michelle Obama has a book out that chronicles a year in the White House garden, “American Grown: How the White House Kitchen Garden Inspires Families, Schools, and Communities.” Look for it in the spring.

With seed starting time around the corner, there’s just enough time to order these selections and get them going. All of the above seed choices are best started early in flats of good-quality seed-starting mix. When the first true leaves develop, separate seedlings and re-plant one per section in six packs to develop healthy root systems. As the weather warms, harden off seedlings outside before planting in the garden.

Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award and the Florida Magazine Association’s Silver Award of Writing Excellence. She is a member of the Garden Writers Association, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: gardeningonthego.wordpress.com or “friend her” on Facebook.