January 12, 2012

Coastal Virginia's 3 Growing Seasons

Yesterday, I was talking about gardening with a good friend, with whom I'm staying while living away from home this month in order to work.  She was asking about how to set up a garden, and I explained square foot gardening (my favorite kind), and what I would do if I were living there longer in order to set up a garden for spring.  She lives in Virginia, which spans four planting zones, and includes coastal southern Virginia, which has a great growing season--or 3 growing seasons as I like to think.

The Hampton Roads area is in zone 7b according to the USDA plant zone hardiness map.  The last frost is in late March in a cold year, but it's often safe to plant seedlings outside in early march with a little night protection.  It doesn't get its first frost until middle to late November, long after northern states have had their first snowfall.  The result is an outdoor growing season of about 9 months--a luxury unimaginable in most states.

This part of Virginia has a wonderful cool spring growing season that's warm enough to grow all the plants that are happy with cool nights and warm days.  Virginian gardeners can plant outside long before the northern states can, and don't have to worry about heat or frost during that spring season.

This is followed by a hot, humid summer--those two words don't adequately express the physical nature of Virginia summer heat.  It pushes you down like a neighborhood bully and smothers you with 100 degree air.  All of this makes it wonderful for plants that love heat, sun and rain.  They thrive like mad, growing quickly and producing well, while the spring plants suffer.  However, careful planting can make use of this trait.

One of my favorite ways to plan for the overlap of cool and hot weather is planting in ways to extend the life of spring plants while giving room to the hot weather loving plants.  See the Tutorial page for details.

There are several hardy vining flowers and vegetables that grow well in the heat.  Planting these at the front of a row in front of a fence and training them to grow at an angle over the cooler temperature loving plants so that they provide dappled shade can help give the vines the sun they need and protect the vegetables that grew so nicely when temperatures were cooler.

Fall is like a repeat of spring--cool but not cold until you've gotten several harvests in.  Tomatoes love the fall season with its warm days and cold nights.  They adore the extra rain but manage not to get waterlogged or miserable.  If your spring plants have survived the hot summer ok, they burst in growth and production in the fall.

Three growing seasons make Virginia a great place to garden, but they can be tricky for the beginning gardener, or the northern gardener (like I was).  Plants we think of as summer or early fall wilt in the hot sun or wait to produce into what would be nearly winter in northern areas.  But, once you learn about your plants enough to plant for the three growing seasons, it's like a gift of 6 extra months of growth.  I love this.

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