Depending on your location, the view out your window could look like this….

winter vegetable garden in snow

OR some version of this…

DistantHillGardens

Either way, this time of year can present a few welcome, or much maligned, teaser days for the impatient gardener. Whatever your view from the window, have hope. Spending a few hours planning your summer harvest, will get you through what ‘ol man winter has in store.

USDA.Hardiness.Map

If you’ve ever bought seeds or plants from a garden catalog or store, you’ve probably seen a brightly colored USDA Hardiness Zone Map like the one pictured above. So what does that rainbow of color and temperature designations mean, anyway? If you’re going to grow a successful vegetable garden, read on to find out how to map your gardening zone.

Each color on the map represents a geographic area, and the specific category of plant life that is capable of growing there, according to climate conditions and its ability to withstand the minimum temperatures of that zone. Hardiness zone maps were first developed in the US in the 1920s and 30s. The USDA got in on the action and published its first hardiness zone map in 1960. The map was developed by Henry Skinner, director of the U.S. National Arboretum. The USDA Hardiness Zone Map was completely overhauled in the 1990s. Apparently, plants that survived the 1940s to the 1960s didn’t seem to be making it in the 90s, so they used temperature data from 1974 to 1986 to update the zones.

If you live in the Midwest like I do, zones can vary from 3 to 6 depending where you live. Chicago, where I went to culinary school and had a balcony container garden, is zone 5b. In Metro Detroit, where I live now, it’s between zone 5b or 6a, making it one of the longest growing seasons in the Great Lakes area.

So based on this, when is it safe to start planting outside in these areas? My grandfather (the best gardener I’ve ever known) always said to plant in the ground Memorial Day weekend to be safest. This rule has always served me well. My garden last year was overwhelmingly productive, and I didn’t get nipped by the frost. Follow the planting suggestions on the back of your seed packets, read some good gardening books, and poke around the internet to find out what veggies and fruits grow best in your area. And remember – gardening is a lot of trial and error, so don’t feel bad if some of your plants fail. Others will prosper, and you’ll learn what works for your space, your soil, and your skills!

Plant more gardening ideas with these tips from The Local Dish:

Does Your Dirt Have What It Takes?

Go Organic with Indoor Seed Starts