Garden Q&A: What plant zones can tell you about gardening choices – The Florida Times-Union

garden-q&a:-what-plant-zones-can-tell-you-about-gardening-choices-–-the-florida-times-union

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Plant labels, catalogs and magazines all mention that this-or-that plant is suitable for this-or-that “zone.” But what does “zone” really reference? And why should you care?If you search “hardiness zone,” “heat zone” or “planting zone,” a colorful United States map will pop up. On the hardiness zone map, you can quickly find Jacksonville and know that we’re in zone 9 … specifically 9A. But Modesto, Calif., is also identified as zone 9A and our climates aren’t anything alike. For instance, Modesto gets an average of 13 inches of rain a  year, compared to our 50 inches. Yes, both places get hot, but Jacksonville is also humid. How could both cities be in the same hardiness zone?Here’s the long version of the answer: in the early 1960s, the US Department of Agriculture first produced its Plant Hardiness Zone Map as a tool to aid gardeners and researchers. The map was divided into 13 zones based on the “average annual extreme minimum temperatures at a given location during a particular time period,” according to the USDA website — in other words, the average coldest temperature for an area. By the USDA’s research, if we’ve chosen plants for zone 9, we can expect them to survive temperatures down to 20-30 degrees.“Great!” you say, as you sit on your patio in 90-degree heat. “It’s not the cold I’m worried about. It’s the heat. How do I know if a plant will survive the summer heat?”An important question. After all, if a plant gets too cold, it simply dies, while the signs of heat stress are more subtle. When the temperatures rise, plants may stop blooming, the leaves may turn pale, the plants may become more susceptible to pests, and roots stop growing. Plants dying from heat can linger on for years.Less well known but just as helpful as the hardiness zone map is The American Horticultural Society’s (AHS) Heat Zone Map. Developed in the 1990s and based on 20 years of data from nearly 5,000 weather stations, it identifies 12 nationwide zones based on the average number of "heat days” — a day in which the temperature climbs to more than 86 degrees. As we’ve all observed lately, at this temperature, many plants begin exhibiting heat stress and begin to shut down, such as stopping flowering.These heat zone ratings are comparatively new and not all sites are using them. However, as our average temperatures rise, this information will be more and more important and subsequently will become more available. Look for plant tags to have two pairs of numbers, like 4-9, the hardiness zone, and 11-1, the heat zone.The Heat Zone Map can be ordered by contacting the American Horticultural Society at 7931 East Boulevard Drive, Alexandria, VA 22308-1300, or via their website at www.ahsgardening.org or via phone at (800) 777-7931.It's an extra step in making good choices for our garden, but, as I look around my own charred and/or drowned, it’s information that will save effort and money as I plan for next year’s garden.Can we grow papaya in North Florida? I see them at nurseries but know nothing about them.Sometimes the best gardening advice comes over the back fence from our neighbors and fellow gardeners. And in this case, there seems to be a lot of success stories from papaya home-growers in North Florida. But, as it is with all things green, a little research and adjusted expectations are in order.Papaya is native to Central America and needs tropical and subtropical conditions. This makes them well suited for South Florida and the southern parts for Central Florida. But they’ll need protection from the cold here in North Florida. Papaya plants are not tolerant of cold or freezing temperatures and are damaged or even killed below 31 degrees.They also don’t like drought conditions (which do happen in North Florida occasionally, even though you probably don’t believe me today), wet roots, constant winds, or shade. They want 6-8 hours of full sun with warm to hot temperatures (70-90 degrees). Higher than 90 degrees may cause flowers to drop, and temperatures lower than 59 degrees may affect flowering or result in misshapen fruitPapayas grow well in containers that can be brought indoors in winter. That may be problematic, however, when the tree —  usually a single trunk — reaches its mature height of 30 feet, a consideration for selecting a site for your tree.There are three different tree types, female, male and bisexual plants (self-pollinating). The female and bisexual plants are the only ones that produce fruit, so it’s a good idea to plant two or three to increase your chances of fruiting.There are many varieties of papaya, but few are available to most home gardeners. Important varieties in the US include "Red Lady," "Maradol," "Tainung No. 1" and various Solo-types. ”Solo” papayas are a smaller variety known to be juicier and sweeter than other papayas.If you can’t find the plant in a nursery, papayas are easily started from seeds of the ripe fruit from the grocery, which is likely to be bisexual. A local grocery recently offered "Maradol" fruit, loaded with ripe seeds. Planted in full sun at just about any time of the year, the seeds should germinate in a few weeks. Plant it in the ground when the seedlings are about a foot tall. Better yet, plant the seeds where they will grow so the roots are not disturbed by transplanting. The seedlings will flower after five or six months.Papaya trees are very hungry and want a very good soil, rich in organic matter and nutrients. Fertilize young plants every 14 days using ¼ pound (of complete fertilizer. Fertilize older trees with 1 to 2 pounds of fertilizer once a month.Papayas have very particular likes and dislikes and can be finicky. They don’t necessarily live a long time. Yet, once established with all its needs met, it is comparatively easy to grow, providing delicious summer fruit.Paula Weatherby is a Master Gardener Volunteer with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS. For gardening questions, call the Duval County Extension Office at (904) 255-7450 from 9 a.m. to noon and 12: 30 to 3: 30 p.m. Monday-Friday and ask for a Master Gardener Volunteer.
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