pushing envelopes

hornig@usadatanet.net hornig@usadatanet.net
Sat, 26 Jun 2004 16:06:33 PDT

>The main problem in these parts is that so few gardeners or 
>nurserymen know what the envelope is. ...  Additionally, the "it 
>won't grow here" mentality is all too often found among members of 
>the horticultural profession.  ... -- the list of 
>edge-of-the-envelope plants that should be grown here but are 
>virtually absent from nurseries and gardens goes on and on.

But no one nurseryman, garden writer or gardener can know what the envelope
is for one plant in all parts of the country, and herein lies the problem. 
Having just returned from a plant sale, I can attest that the vast majority
of gardeners (even pretty good ones) are looking for a summary rating of
"hardiness".  It does no good to tell them "Denver is a zone 5.  Oswego, NY
is a zone 5.  The climates are completely different.  There is no summary
measure of plant hardiness that will assure you that a given plant will
live in your garden."

I can test all sorts of things for my own climate, and find them surpringly
hardy.  Here in Oswego (zone 5b), eucomis (E. autumnalis, E. montana, E.
bicolor), several roscoeas, lots of kniphofias (not only the high-altitude
ones, but K. typhoides and K. multiflora as well), several dieramas, and
Moraea huttonii have overwintered happily for several to many years.  We
have excellent snow cover, and this is no doubt part of the explanation. 
The information I gather by trying these plants is *not* generally
applicable to zone 5 climates everywhere.  Plants that survive for Tony in
zone 7 do not thereby indicate a general "zone 7 hardiness".  The problem
lies in using hardiness zones as proxies, when we really need far more
information about climate, soils, siting, moisture, and patterns of change
during the growing year to explain why some plants - particularly those
from climates very different from our own - manage nonetheless to survive. 
While I think it an excellent idea to say of a plant that "it may be
tougher than you think", I do not think we should take evidence from our
own experience as proof that a plant is (in my case) "hardy to zone 5". 
Yet the market demands just that, and most of us nurserypeople end up
pandering to it.

If there's any solution at all, it lies in persuading gardeners everwhere
that hardiness is actually a very complicated topic, that experimentation
is of the essence, and that adults should give up looking for simple-minded
rules and start taking risks of their own.  But can it be done?


Ellen Hornig
Seneca Hill Perennials
Oswego, NY (USA)
Zone 5b; annual average snowfall c. 10'/3m

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