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The Climate's Looking Pretty Shifty

Change is coming and the USDA can't help you now.

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If the 30-minute Great Blizzard of '07 back in January was any indication, the weather is not to be trusted. Why, it'd just as soon fry your bulbs as freeze your bollocks. Or perhaps it's easier just to blame El Ni¤o for both the snow angels in El Paso and the cherry blossoms in D.C. Would that there was a way to anticipate such crimes of atmospheric mismanagement!

Well perhaps there is, at least for planting purposes. Climate change is a shifty subject, and there is some great debate about who's at fault: we the people, or God and country? While there's no reasonable guide to determine when to pack away the turtlenecks and when to schedule the waxes, a few organizations are at least taking a stab at what plants can survive the back-alley mugging perpetrated by a climate that is, most definitely, on the move.

Lay aside the swimsuit periodicals for a moment and take up your garden catalogs. See all the zones ascribed to your average boxwood? They're taken straight from the Plant Hardiness Zone Map, worked up by our own USDA to determine the lowest average temperatures any particular area is going to reach.

Virginia, by and large, is a 7. After the climate has a few drinks, though, the commonwealth might start looking like an 8. And that's just the problem for lots of places, the Midwest and Northeast especially, but also for places like Washington, D.C., and Maryland (where rampant bloggers complain they're getting some of our Zone 7 runoff lately). There, warmer temperatures are changing the zones. Cold-friendly plants are getting sweated out as the zones shift northward. Which is why the time has come to revise the zone map.

The USDA last revised the map in 1990, and now, a decade and a half later, it's time to retire it, along with its big frosted hair and Michael Bolton albums. The USDA is promising a new one any day now, one with Internet interactivity and a little sleeve for your iPod. In the meantime, the American Horticultural Society worked up one just a few years back that the USDA rejected. Jealously? Conspiracy? No one knows what goes on in those cornfed brains.

But anyway, the National Arbor Day Foundation came up with a map, based on the AHS version, that, when compared with the 1990 one, shows the zones migrating northward. Zone 3, for example, which once smeared across much of Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota, has all but expatriated to Canada, with its friendly people and fashions from 1990. Virginia remains a Zone 7, though Zone 8, once pulling pork in North Carolina, now tickles our southern border.

The bad news about all this is that plants that need their cold period are getting their clocks reset. Some begin blooming too early; some, like a lot of fruiting trees, may not bloom at all.

Virginia's mellow temperatures spare us these dramatic changes (the trusty boxwood won't lose its seat to the yucca anytime soon). Doug Hensel of the Great Big Greenhouse says that while we may be in a transition period, garden centers aren't yet looking to stock New Charleston.

"You're not gonna start seeing Zone 8 plants in the landscape with confidence, either," he says, though he does bring up the unpredictability of microclimates: Parts of the very bricky Fan are Zone 8, as is a whole region outside Petersburg. Meanwhile, over in Goochland County, Hensel says, distance from the ocean and proximity to the mountains generate a decidedly Yankeefied Zone 6.

Which leads to the good news. Get back to those catalogs and consider new possibilities. Buy a thong bikini! Order a Zone 8 plant! Wear the one in a dark room! Plant the other near a sunny south-facing wall! Anticipating the climate shifts and using microclimates to your advantage are what Bart Ziegler, in a January "Wall Street Journal" article, calls "pushing the zone."

If the yucca are coming, let's at least be ready for the bastards. HS



Speaking of Microclimates

The Greater Richmond Convention Center becomes one Feb. 22-25 for the 18th Annual Maymont Flower & Garden Show.

In addition to the violently blooming exhibits of local garden centers and designers, there are the speakers: HGTV's Jon Carloftis and Monticello's Peter Hatch, for example. Plus, Sam Harris hosts a kind of live game show about container gardening and low-stress growing, and Paul Pietrowski of Outdoor Kitchen Creations does up an outdoor living room that runs pretty high on testosterone.

Look for Tuscan pizza ovens, waterproof HD television, grills and beer taps: the stuff of which divorces are made. Doors open at 9 a.m. each day. Tickets are $6-$14. Call 358-7166 or visit www.maymont.org.

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