East Coast Gardening

The biggest challenge when gardening on the East Coast is making sure your plant friends can withstand everything from humid summers, to hard freezes, to late frosts. This is not a climate where tropical plants, cacti, or succulents grow with abandon.

Forget Pinterest pages that feature gardens that are “hands-off” or plants that “survive anything.” Gardening on the East Coast requires a gardener who is willing to patiently observe their own microclimate, select plants that will flourish in that environment, and be willing to make changes as necessary.

Climate Zones

The good news? None of this is tough to do! There is a simple parameter that will allow you to decode your garden spot: Its climate zone.

There are five main climate types: tropical, dry, temperate, continental, and polar. On the East Coast, most areas will have a continental climate. A continental climate is one with summers that are not excessively hot — warm temperatures are the norm — and cold winters may cause the ground to freeze for months at a time.

Now that you understand your climate, you are ready to consult the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Climate Zone Map. The 2012 map is its most current version and is the standard by which gardeners and growers determine which plants are most likely to thrive in a given location. The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divided into 10-degree Fahrenheit zones.

You can check your exact climate type using the handy zip code look-up tool on the USDA’s website. For example, New York State ranges from Zone 7b in Manhattan to 6a around the Finger Lakes. Its northern interior even dips as low as 3b, where the average minimum winter temperature is between -35℉ to 30℉.

That means that folks in the state’s coldest regions are advised to plant cold-tolerant perennials like hollyhocks and lupins. In contrast, gardeners in the rest of the state can choose from among a wide variety of gardening standards like echinacea, rudbeckia, phlox, daylilies, and even sedum (flowering plants that look like succulents).

Most mail-order plant catalogs indicate the appropriate USDA zones for their plants. Local garden centers are quite helpful, too: A well-curated center will typically carry the best types of plants for their specific zone.

Your Garden is Unique

Now, this advice does come with some caveats.

Individual gardening spaces may differ from the general zone due to soil type, available drainage, heat, humidity, wind, the degree of tilt from the sun, among other factors. For city dwellers, reflected light from asphalt and mirrored buildings could increase the climate zone number. An excessively shady spot, or one located on a hillside, can cause the climate zone number to decrease.

Most of the USA has become a half zone (5 °F) hotter in winter compared to the map’s 1990 release. Current Research suggests that USDA plant hardiness zones will shift even further northward under climate change.

All this means is that you will want to become familiar with the composition of your gardening space. Observe areas that receive more moisture, sunlight, or wind, and jot them down in a notebook. Then, select plants that are likely to do well in those conditions.

Keeping a gardening journal is helpful to record your observations and make adjustments as needed. You’ll soon get to know your garden’s unique aspects and what it takes to make you and your plants happy year after year!

Go Native!

Once you mastered your garden’s Hardiness Zone, it’s time to step it up a notch. Make sure you are not planting an invasive plant species. Better yet, we strongly recommend going native. There are plenty of native flowers that will work beautifully in your garden. Designing a native garden is an amazing way to save our native ecology.

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