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What is a microclimate?

By Melanie Mathieson
Gardening Guru

In my last column, I discussed hardiness zones and how they affect the plants we choose to grow.
Zones cover large areas of landscape while microclimates relate to smaller areas. The size of a microclimate can vary greatly in size, referring to, for example, the Rainy River District or a small corner in your backyard next to the shed.
Regardless of size, microclimates are areas that have special growing conditions that are different than the general surrounding area. For this column, I am going to refer to microclimates as places within your yard or garden.
Whether you know it or not, you have a microclimate within your own yard. You may not have something growing in that exact location, but you could plant something uniquely suited to the right conditions and have the plant perform fantastically.
You can manipulate certain areas within your yard to make growing conditions to suit special plants or perennials from higher hardiness zones, for instance.
Here are a few examples of creating microclimates so you have a better understanding of them and how you can create them in your own yard or garden:
•The shady area under those large spruce trees in your yard is a microclimate with low light and higher humidity than the sunnier parts of your yard.
You could grow a woodland garden in a microclimate like this.
•Last year, I relocated my shade-loving garden to the eastern/southern exposure part of my yard, and I placed all of my shade-loving plants underneath the shrubs in the garden.
The shrubs create a shade microclimate suited for these plants.
•If you want to grow azaleas or rhododendrons, you cannot put them in a flowerbed with your other perennials as they need a very acidic soil to survive.
You create a microclimate by amending the soil to suit the growing conditions of acid-loving plants in a certain area of your garden and place them there.
You can create sections like this throughout your garden to suit most plants with special soil needs.
•Want to grow a bog garden? Again, you would section out an area that you will create into a bog garden and create a microclimate for the special needs of bog plants.
Maybe you have low spot in your yard that retains more moisture than other areas. Some plants species will thrive here while others will decline very quickly.
But choose the right plants and you will have a great garden in that wet spot.
•Do you have a spot in your yard that is very dry? In this microclimate, you can try drought-resistant plants and have a fantastic display of plants in an area you thought was hopeless.
•The back corner of your yard surrounded by the fence creates a sheltered spot possibly with full sun or some shade. Spots like these can be useful for placing perennials in higher hardiness zones, or planting your tomato plants earlier than the rest of the garden.
You will need to look at the conditions of the location and then compare the conditions to the plants you may want to use and see if they will work in the microclimate created.
•Do you live near the lake or the river, because the effects of water bodies can create microclimates other gardeners don’t have? Does your yard have slight changes in elevation? Frost could be a problem in low-lying areas.
Gardens next to the house tend to be warmer as the house will give off heat. On the other hand, gardens in the middle of the yard are more exposed to the elements, which can create different growing conditions.
•Does the shed or garage create afternoon shade on part of the vegetable garden? This is the perfect spot to plant cucumbers and lettuce as they enjoy afternoon shade.
As you can see, the definition of a microclimate really is an area suited for growing plants under special conditions. These conditions can be natural or manmade, and can be manipulated further to meet special requirements.
So look around your yard for these microclimates and then experiment and decide how you can use these special areas to enhance your gardening success.
With a careful eye and better placement of your plants, you can use all of your growing conditions to the best of your advantage.