December 16, 2008

Featured Plant: Christmas Fern

This plant is hard to beat. It handles just about any soil, takes shade or sun, and is green year-round. It’s also one of the few plants native to our area that you can keep as a houseplant! I kept one in a pot indoors for a year before I decided to plant it in the garden.

Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichroides) is named so because it is green even by the time Christmas rolls around. In the past (only in the U.S.), its fronds were used for holiday décor, probably similar to how we put up garlands of various evergreen plants. This tradition dates back to pre-Christian Europe when winter greenery symbolized the return of the summer and long, sunny days (the winter solstice being the shortest day of the year before the sun starts to “return”). Being native to North America, Christmas fern was obviously used in this fashion only within the past several hundred years.

The Christmas fern in our garden is growing beautifully in alkaline soil, shade, and right under a black walnut (these trees secrete a chemical into the soil called juglone which inhibits the growth of some plants). In the wild, this fern is usually found in moist, acidic woodlands. Christmas fern is perfect for Syracuse gardens in my opinion, as it keeps some green in the landscape year-round.

December 15, 2008

Zonal Issues

Here in Syracuse we gardeners are challenged every winter by temperatures that often fall well below freezing. We tend to be grouped into that category of cold-climate gardeners or northern gardeners who, as a cultivating demographic often face an exaggerated “deprivation” in our inability to grow certain plants that simply cannot survive below a minimum temperature. It is generally accepted that winter hardiness is the limiting factor on whether we can have a plant in our garden, period.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) hardiness zone map is usually used as the default reference for this important factor. The map breaks the U.S. into zones that represent areas of average winter low temperatures. The current map is based on data collected from about 1970 to 1990. Syracuse is located within zone 5 on the USDA map. Zone 5 sees average winter lows between –10 and –20 degrees Fahrenheit. This basically means that plants rated for zone 6 and above simply should not survive here. Here is the USDA hardiness map:

Well, there’s some good news (depending on your perspective). Syracuse is now in zone 6. According to the National Arbor Day Foundation, which has collected its own data from 1990 to 2003, the United States has generally gotten warmer (a few places cooler) and the USDA map is now obsolete. Here is the Arbor Day Foundation’s new map:

Due to rising global temperatures, we here in Syracuse now have a wider palette of tender plants to choose from when planning our gardens, like southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), which is rated to zone 6. In fact, I’m experimenting with this very species in my own garden.

Zone 6 is not all that bad. There are plenty of folks in zones 3 and 4 who would give their left arm to be able to plant some of the things that we can grow here in Syracuse (like Japanese maple). So get out there next spring and try some zone 6 plants; you may be rewarded in upcoming years with blooms that you thought you’d never be able to have in your garden.

December 12, 2008

The Purpose of this Blog

View of the garden in winter.
Welcome to Gardening in Syracuse. The ultimate goal of this blog is to provide some sort of online reference point/discussion space/information source for any and all who garden within the sometimes harsh, but always beautiful landscape of Syracuse/Central New York. There are many fascinating ecological and botanical attributes to this part of the country, and there is so much that a gardener here can work with despite the perceived relentless winter. Winter is just another season...for gardening!

Gardening has many facets, whether it be planning or planting. In my opinion, it is a year-round past time no matter where you live.

So please feel free to comment and offer insight on any topics that you read about here. Remember that I'd like for this blog to help facilitate community among gardeners here in Syracuse. Happy gardening!