Micro-climates, what they are and how to plant for them

Hello fellow gardeners! Although I have written previously on climate zones and briefly touched on micro-climates in that article, I’m not going to assume everyone read it. I’d like to get a little more in depth with this topic here this week.

So, what is a micro-climate? To understand this, one must first know that each area in a state is divided into various climate zones. Temecula is considered Zone 18 – going by the Sunset chart. There is also a USDA chart that puts us at 9a. This is the lowest temperatures for the area. I don’t like to go by the average temps myself, but always pick the lowest – that way I’m prepared.

So anyway, a micro-climate is an area on a gardener’s property that sort of defines that climate zone. In other words, the gardener is setting the scene and placing plants in areas that they normally would not be able to survive in the climate zone.

Good example – let’s say a gardener just bought a Meyer lemon tree – not just any old lemon but the improved Meyer lemon tree. This tree might not survive in several climate zones. It could get major frost damage out east towards Anza and could certainly sustain some damage here in the valley if there is a cold winter, and there have plenty of those.

What to do? Well, you can always run outside in your pajamas and throw a blanket over the entire tree – they’re not that big. Or you can utilize the micro-climates you have available by possibly planting it in front of a south facing wall which will give off heat through the night, possibly just enough to save your tree. You can still do the blanket thing if you want to be extra safe.

Most properties have several micro climates when one stops to think about it. Don’t have areas with shade? Those areas stay much cooler and allow those shade-loving plants to thrive that normally would keel over out in direct sun. That’s a micro-climate.

If there is a slope in the back yard, as many locals in tract homes do, the very bottom of that slope is going to be the coldest part on the entire property, so plant accordingly. An apple or peach tree would do fine there, but not citrus or most succulents either. So knowing how micro-climates work helps not only those plants that are tender but can also help those that need more chilling hours if you get them planted in the right spot.

I grow many of my succulents, close to 50 now, in pots. The reason is, during the warm summer, they do great out in my backyard, but come winter, not only is that area shady, but its also very cold, so some of them come into the house – yes, that’s also a micro-climate – and the rest out in front to soak up the sun near stucco walls that absorb the suns heat all day, haven’t lost one yet.

Most tropical plants are tender, and many of them also don’t care for full sun. Solution, protected areas under large palms or trees with dappled shade and large rocks near them – small boulders, even gravel. Gravel absorbs heat during the day and gives it off at night, even if not in full sun.

This also works great for many succulents, the majority of which are not hardy unfortunately. Tropical vines can grow well against a wall, rather than a wood fence, as they will get more heat in the winter months there, and look gorgeous. If they’re not evergreen it won’t matter, but something like Bougainvillea certainly could use the warmth.

You won’t see many people growing lilacs successfully in Temecula, Fallbrook, Murrieta, etc. as they don’t like the heat and they do need chilling in the winter. I got around this issue by careful placement on my property. It gets afternoon shade and sits on a slope so it gets good chilling in winter and it bloomed incredibly for me. The variety is a Descanso hybrid called “Lavender Lady.”

The main thing for a gardener is to know the climate zone, know the plants climate zone, and then see if it can be pushed a bit. Plant junkies, like myself, who just have to have that plant, even though it is not for the zone, will learn like I did, how to get it to survive and thrive.

As always I’m available for consultations and design work, and don’t forget we’re in a drought and the water district is rebating $2 per square foot for lawn replacement with drought tolerant plants! Bye until next week!

Linda McDonald-Cash is a landscape designer with Unique Landscapes. For more information call (951) 764-4762 or visit www.uniquelandscapes.net.

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