New map for what to plant reflects global warming

WASHINGTON (AP) - Global warming is hitting not just home, but garden. The color-coded map of planting zones often seen on the back of seed packets is being updated by the government, illustrating a hotter 21st century.

It’s the first time since 1990 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has revised the official guide for the nation’s 80 million gardeners, and much has changed. Nearly entire states, such as Ohio, Nebraska and Texas, are in warmer zones.

The new guide, unveiled Wednesday at the National Arboretum, arrives just as many home gardeners are receiving their seed catalogs and dreaming of lush flower beds in the spring.

It reflects a new reality: The coldest day of the year isn’t as cold as it used to be, so some plants and trees can now survive farther north.

“People who grow plants are well aware of the fact that temperatures have gotten more mild throughout the year, particularly in the wintertime,” said Boston University biology professor Richard Primack. “There’s a lot of things you can grow now that you couldn’t grow before.”

He stand the giant fig tree in his suburban Boston yard stands as an example: “People don’t think of figs as a crop you can grow in the Boston area. You can do it now.”

The new guide also uses better weather data and offers more interactive technology. For example, gardeners using the online version can enter their ZIP code and get the exact average coldest temperature.

Also, for the first time, calculations include more detailed factors such as prevailing winds, the presence of nearby bodies of water, the slope of the land, and the way cities are hotter than suburbs and rural areas.

The map carves up the U.S. into 26 zones based on five-degree temperature increments. The old 1990 map mentions 34 U.S. cities in its key. On the 2012 map, 18 of those, including Honolulu, St. Louis, Des Moines, Iowa, St. Paul, Minn., and even Fairbanks, Alaska, are in newer, warmer zones.

Those differences matter in deciding what to plant.

For example, Des Moines used to be in zone 5a, meaning the lowest temperature on average was between minus 15 and minus 20 degrees. Now it’s 5b, which has a lowest temperature of 10 to 15 degrees below zero. Jerry Holub, manager of a Des Moines plant nursery, said folks there might now be able to safely grow passion flowers.

Griffin, Ga., used to be in zone 7b, where the coldest day would average between 5 and 10 degrees. But the city is now in zone 8a, averaging a coldest day of 10 to 15 degrees. So growing bay laurel becomes possible. It wasn’t recommended on the old map.

“It is great that the federal government is catching up with what the plants themselves have known for years now: The globe is warming and it is greatly influencing plants (and animals),” Stanford University biology professor Terry Root wrote in an email.

The changes come too late to make this year’s seed packets, but they will be in next year’s, said George Ball, chairman and CEO of the seed company W. Atlee Burpee, which puts the maps on packages of perennials, not annuals. But Ball said many of his customers already know what can grow in their own climate and how it has warmed.

“Climate change, which has been in the air for a long time, is not big news to gardeners,” he said.

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