Juli has been gardening in her yard for 21 years. She has almost run out of room for plants, shrubs and trees. Almost.
What Is a Microclimate?
Microclimates are just a smaller version of the everyday climate where you live. Microclimates are made up of temperature, rainfall, wind, and sunshine, to name a few parameters.
Every side of a building, such as a house, has one. To escape a wind that is whipping at you and your clothes, step to a different side of the building, and you’re protected from the wind. You’re now in another microclimate. Stay there for a moment and note the day’s weather report and the general temperature outside. Without the wind, is the temperature a bit warmer? If the day is sunny, how is the sunshine in that spot? Is it shining directly at you and making you warmer or are you in the shade feeling cooler? A plant has similar reactions to small changes in the climate—only it's stuck where it was planted!
In order to grow well, a plant likes to have its own space that caters to its needs. Knowing approximately what microclimates are around your home and knowing the soil and water requirements for the plant you want will make yard work easier. Think of microclimates as places to make mini-gardens. Imagine a trip to the garden center. The plant selection has you saying, "I want one of these and two of those." Figure out which microclimate they fit into, take them all home, and make mini-gardens around your house. Maintenance is low when a plant is in the right place- less work for you!
Elements Affecting a Microclimate
Hilly areas vs depressions
Type of soil
Sand, clay or loam (just right soil)
Bodies of water
Near an ocean, lake, river, creekbed that is wet or dry
Plants already growing there
Fence, storage shed, air conditioner unit
Driveway, walkway to house
Which Way Does Your House Face?
To find the microclimates, let’s look at the outside of a house with a yard.
Most houses have at least four different microclimates—one for each side of the house. Some house designs might have more depending upon the additions to the basic four-sided structure. The front of a house faces north, south, east, or west. Often a house faces a combination of directions like northwest or southeast. The remaining sides, of course, face other ways. Most of us don't think about direction except that we know where the sun comes up.
The sun's light is strongest from the south and west. This has an impact on temperature. The direction the wind usually comes from also has an impact on temperature and moisture in the air. For example, a hot dry wind will dry plants out unless they are suited for such a condition.
Each side of the house is a microclimate with its own temperature, rainfall, wind, and sunshine that is slightly different from the general climate. Yikes! Why the need to know this? Remember a plant is stuck where it's placed. If the wind usually blows at a particular side of the house the gardener chooses a spot out of the wind for the plant that needs a lot of moisture. In the wind, the plant will dry out and become a stick figure. In a space with very little wind, it will thrive. If the sun shines on the front of the house all day, the gardener will choose plants that like it hot and sunny.
Microclimates Surround the House
Counting the Microclimates Around Your House or Property
Take a walk around your yard. Bring the kids or grandkids with you as they can count how many “sides” there are to your house (use the "tips" below as a guide). Remember there are at least four sides to a typical home, but often there are additions to the house which adds extra walls and corners. Notice how much sun there is on each side. It might be a good idea to walk the outside of your house in the morning, midday, and late afternoon, in order to see how the sunlight changes in each area or microclimate.
Now to complicate things, make note of anything that creates shade, like the roof's overhang or a large tree or a fence. Features like these also create a microclimate. For example, the house has a wide overhang all around. On one side of the house, wind drives the rain toward the house even under the overhang. The other side of the house has less wind. There the rain comes almost straight down. Rain doesn’t reach the plants on the less windy side because the wide overhang blocks the rain and the plants get very little water. In order to grow a plant there, it is necessary to water with a hose, adding to your work and the water bill.
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From this walk, you should have a fairly good idea about the sunlight, water, and wind on each side of the house. Ready for the next step?
Tips to Determine the Microclimate
Make some notes about the spot you want to plant using the guide below:
- Shade: What's blocking the sun: buildings, fences, trees?
- Sun: Is there morning, afternoon, or most of the day sunlight?
- Wet: Are you near a creek or pond? Is there a dip or low level in the ground where water collects? This adds moisture to the air and the ground.
- Dry: Doesn't get much rain because of the roof's overhang? Is it a very sunny spot or soil doesn't hold moisture long?
- Wind: In the USA winds generally blow west to east. The side of the house that gets the most wind is likely to be facing west, southwest, or northwest.
- Soil: Often, soil close to the house is sand from the construction of the house. Checking for power lines first, dig six inches deep into the area you want to plant. See what kind of dirt comes up on the shovel: sand, clay, or loam?
- Temperature: Warm or cool most of the day?
- Structures: Is there a wooden screen, a fence, or a concrete wall next to the patio? These might create shade on one side and a sunny, hot spot on the other.
Example Notes: Patio Outside of the Back Door
Shady in the early morning, sunny rest of the day. Slightly downhill from neighbors, so often very wet after rain. Soil is clay. Structures are two house walls and wood privacy fences that block wind. Temperature is very warm when sunny with little wind.
Conclusion: Mostly sunny, hot and sometimes too wet. Need plants that can take a lot of sun with almost no wind. Plants also need to tolerate too much water at times.
Time to Plant
Now you have a general idea about the microclimates in the yard. You have a guideline to decide which plants will grow well in one area and which might grow better in another area in your yard. Look at your notes. Think about the area you want to plant. What is its microclimate? Shady and dry? Sunny and wet? Windy?
There are plants available in your area that will grow well in each part of the yard. It just takes a little detective work before you buy. Read the plant tag for a plant's requirements, ask a knowledgeable garden center person or a neighbor with a beautiful yard. The neighbor might be happy to share their successes and failures with you if you ask.
What about the plants already planted in your yard? Would they benefit from another microclimate instead of the one they’re in? Some plants that don't thrive in the open might benefit from an area near the house. If plants are doing well in their condition, find out what other plants would grow well in the same place. These other plants, called companion plants, have similar soil, light, and water requirements.
Steps for Transplanting an Existing Plant Into a New Area
- Prepare a new hole for the transplant.
- Dig all around the plant's root ball carefully. Keep as much dirt on the roots as you can.
- Scoot the plant and its root ball onto a tarp or old sheet.
- Carry or drag the plant to its new location.
- Carefully place in new hole keeping top of root ball level with the ground around it.
- Add soil in a couple of layers. Pack each layer down firmly by hand, foot, or shovel before adding the next one. This keeps the right amount of soil near the roots.
- Water thoroughly every day for the first week. Water two to three times per week the rest of the growing season if there's no heavy rain.
Homes With Only Balconies or Patios
For people whose homes are in apartments or condos without yards, the microclimate of your patio or balcony, or front door is all you need to consider. Again, think about what time of day the sun shines: morning, afternoon, most of the day.
- Is the balcony covered? (Plants will need more frequent watering to get what they need.)
- Is the patio protected from the wind by a fence?
- Does the fence provide shade?
- Is the patio open to sun and sky and lots of rain?
- What's the condition by the front door?
- Shady all day or hot and sunny?
- What plants like those conditions?
There's a lot to think about. Become friends with trial and error. Plants that die don't stop a gardener. Plants that thrive make a gardener's day. Using the microclimates around your home as a planting guide will promote good growth, cut plant loss and save work. And if you build structures such as fences, walls, or an addition to the home, you will create a new microclimate.
© 2017 Juli Seyfried