New Zone, time for an overhaul

I recently moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, land of a thousand micro-climates.

That means it’s time to start over. The Mediterranean climate in the Bay is entirely different from southeast Wisconsin, and even my indoor plants are showing the effects of it. While there are, of course, some things that carry over in terms of practice, for all practical purposes, I need to learn how to garden almost from scratch again. But it’ll be so nice to be able to garden all year round!

I also have something here I haven’t had since moving out of my parents’ house: A yard. My housemates and I have decided to use part of the yard to grow fruits and vegetables for our own use and perhaps for donation to a local shelter if we come up with a harvest that’s too big for us to go through ourselves.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are a few things that need to be done before starting our own little urban farm. That includes:

  • Cleaning out and preparing the space. It sat all winter (which is a growing season here) without being maintained, so I’ve got my work cut out for me.
  • Identifying the plants that are already there, what to keep, what to try to move, what to remove. It’s mostly flowers, with a fruit tree of some kind and a couple as-yet indeterminate vines and shrubs. The rosemary invading from the neighbor’s yard will definitely be staying though.
  • Planning the beds and what to put in them. Part of this planning involves figuring out what will grow in our little corner of the Bay, and what plant rotation will make the best use of the space while requiring the least extra amending of the soil in the bed.

First order of planning? Figure out my new zone and the specs on our local micro-climate.

What’s my zone?

I had expected this to be a very easy question to answer. When I was in the Midwest, all the regional maps had these very broad bands that were easy to read and consistent, except maybe right at their edges. However, looking for zone maps out west, I found a lot of variety in terms of level of detail and some discrepancies between different versions, discrepancies that left me in one of three different zones and no good way to tell which.

An even bigger problem though is finding a version that’s detailed enough to figure out where I am on the map. Better Homes and Gardens claims to have highly detailed pdf versions, but they want my full name and address in order to have access to them. Uh, thanks, but no thanks.

(Word to the wise among my fellow web development folk: stop throwing up barriers to access. You’re losing sales and viewers for every piece of information you ask for that is not 100% vital to delivering the basic service they’re trying to get to.)

Adding to the discrepancy and the difficulty in finding correct information is the fact that the hardiness zones are in the process of being changed. You can thank global warming for that. The zones have migrated northward and continue to do so.

Given the difficulty with different drawings of the map being different (which hasn’t changed since 1990 so I’m not sure what gives there…), I settled on the USDA’s Zone Hardiness Map. I find it hard to read but at least the zones themselves are defined in a text table under the close-up state map.

The USDA says I live in Zone 9b. That means that in the winter it gets down to 25°-30°, which I got a chilly taste of this weekend when we actually had snow forecast!

But around here, figuring out the overall zone is not the only thing you have to take into account. With the bay and the hills and the mountains, you can walk two or three blocks and go from 40° grey with fog cover to 70° sunny cloudless skies. These pockets of differing weather are known as “micro-climates”.

What’s my micro-climate?

I found a really interesting “current conditions and forecast” map of the Bay Area. It projects the expected temperature, windspeed, soil temperature, etc. I expect I’ll make good use of that, but it doesn’t really help me to understand the micro-climate I’ve moved into.

I’ve spent a few hours at this point trying to find a microclimate map, and so far the closest I’ve come is the map in the previous paragraph. Very helpful in planning if I need to cover the flowers against frost, but not so useful in year-long planning.

I’ll continue researching. More information on this when I find it. And if I can’t find it directly, I may just have to compile that information for this area here. Every gardener deserves access to information on it.

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