November 20, 2013

A Place to Grow Food (A Place to Call Home: Part 3)

In the next three posts I will discuss more in depth one of the three general types of criteria we decided to evaluate in our search for a new place to call home.

The first type of criteria deals with factors relating to growing conditions. As I wrote in part one of this series, one of the major questions we had to ask ourselves was: could grow our own food relatively easily and reliably as well as raise livestock? Providing for most of our own food is one of our dreams and goals on the future homestead so the factors I list below are pivotal to whether that dream/goal is realistic.
You need the right growing conditions to grow most of your own food!

A quick note on the point system we developed for our criteria. In order to try to stay as objective as possible we decided to create a point system that would give a score to all of the factors we were interested in researching. The idea was that we would add up the scores at the end and try to rank each of the locations we were looking at.

After creating a list of factors that we wanted to score, we first decided on our desired parameters for each factor. For example, for annual moisture the places we were looking at had annual averages as low as 14.54 inches per year or as high as 48.82 inches per year. We decided that 20-25 inches of moisture per year would be our ideal (our Goldilocks range as it were). Then each place could receive a score of 1, 2, or 3 for each individual factor (with one being the worst and 3 being the best). An example is below.

3 2 1
Average annual moisture (in inches)  20-25   15-20 or 25-30   less than 15 or greater than 30 

Secondly, we further broke down the factors into those which are most important to us, somewhat important, and least important. We broke these down this way to weight those factors which were most important with more points and the other categories with fewer points. For instance, The annual moisture of an area is very important to us and as such could earn to 10 points. The distance to the nearest general store is less important to us and thus is worth only up to 3 points. The chart below gives a better idea of how this actually worked.

10 5 0
Average annual moisture (in inches)  20-25       15-20, 25-30   less than 15, greater than 30 

5 3 0
Elevation (in feet)                                 32-2500  2500-5000  greater than 5000                  

3 1 0
Distance to nearest general store (in miles)   0-10   11-20   greater than 20 

Now finally I will attempt to list the factors that we scored relating to growing conditions, give a brief description of each, and explain why each matters when it comes to raising food.

Most Important (worth up to 10 points)

Sunset Climate Zone

Definition:  Sunset maps break down areas into zones based not only on temperature but also: latitude, elevation, ocean influence, continental air influence, the influence of mountains or valleys, and micro climates.

Reason:  This was our starting point for figuring out the climate of a particular location. It takes into account many of the other factors we are looking at.

Sunset Climate Zone   Zone 6   Zones 3a or 5   Zones 2a, 2b, 3b, or 7 

Annual Moisture

Definition:  The average amount of moisture that falls in a calendar year. This takes into account both rain and snow.

Reason:  Perhaps more than any other factor we had to find a balance between not enough moisture to easily grow food without irrigation and too much rain/snow that it would be unpleasant to work outside for most of the year.

Avg Annual Moisture (inches) 20-25   15-20, 25-30   less than 15, greater than 30 

Annual Snowfall

Definition:  The average amount of snow that falls in a calendar year.

Reason:  I like snow a lot, but after a certain point, it can have a huge impact on your gardening methods, livestock husbandry, and how easy it is to work outdoors during the winter.

Average Annual Snowfall (inches) 24-36   12-24 or 36-48   less than 12 or more than 48 

Last Frost Date

Definition:  The average date of the last frost an area receives, usually in spring.

Reason:  Frost can kill many fruits and vegetables so it is important to know when in the year plants will usually be safe from frosts and it needs to be taken into consideration when choosing what varieties to grow and when you can safely begin your spring garden. This date is also important when considering what types of fruit will be successful, since fruit blossoms are very frost tender.

Last Frost Date March 28-April 30   May 1-May 31   June 1 or later 

First Frost Date

Definition:  The average date of the first frost an area receives, usually in fall.

Reason:  Same as above.

First Frost Date  Oct 13-Oct 31   Sept 22-Oct 12   Sept 21 or earlier 

Number of Frost Free Days

Definition:  The average freeze free period between the last frost in spring and the first frost in fall

Reason:  The more frost free days, the longer your growing season. Most varieties of fruit and vegetables need a long growing period of more than 100 days, and many need much longer.

Frost Free Days  183 or more   130-182   129 or less 

Average Minimum Winter Temperature

Definition:  The average minimum temperature that occurs in the winter months.

Reason:  Fruit trees (and other perennial plants) in particular vary in their hardiness when it comes to freezing temperatures. As such it would be unwise to plant a tree will die in subzero temperatures if the average minimum temperature in an area is -20 degrees Fahrenheit. However, it is also often beneficial to have winters that are cold enough to kill of pests!

Avg Min Winter Temp  20-30   15-20   less than 15 or greater than 30 

Average Maximum Summer Temperature

Definition:  The average maximum temperature that occurs in the summer months.

Reason:  This lets us know how hot we can expect it to get in the summer. Some plants need hot weather, others need cooler weather. (But extreme heat also makes it much less pleasant to work outdoors during the summer.)

Avg Max Summer Temp  75-85   70-75 or 85-90   less than 70 or greater than 90 

Somewhat Important (up to 5 points)

USDA Hardiness Zones

Definition:  The 2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is the standard by which gardeners and growers can determine which plants are most likely to thrive at a location (based mostly on cold hardiness). The map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature.

Reason:  You have limited choices of plants to grow if you live into too cold (or too hot) of a zone. We put this factor into the "somewhat important" category since it is somewhat redundant with minimum winter temperature.

53 0
USDA Hardiness Zone   7 or 8   6   less than 6 or greater than 8 

Wettest Month

Definition:  The month that receives the greatest amount of moisture in a particular area.

Reason:  Moisture is needed at certain times of the year more than others when it comes to growing food. For instance, it is better to have a decent amount of moisture in the summer when plants are actively growing than it is to have a drought at that time of year. Similarly wet winters can lead to rot and disease in perennial plants.

53 0
Wettest Month   June-Aug   April-May   any other month 

Driest Month

Definition:  The month that receives the least amount of moisture in a particular area.

Reason:  Same as above.

53 0
Driest Month  Sept-Dec   Jan-Feb   any other month 

 Average Minimum Summer Temperature

Definition:  The average minimum temperature that occurs in the summer months.

Reason:  Some plants and in particular their seeds need certain minimum temperatures in order to germinate, grow, and flower. If it is not warm enough, you won't be able to grow certain types of plants (such as pepper), without using season extension techniques.

53 0
Avg Min Summer Temp  55-60   50-55   less than 50 


Definition:  The elevation of a geographic location is its height above a fixed reference point.

Reason:  Elevation affects climate and growing conditions. Somewhat redundant to other factors, but elevation has a huge impact on the average temperatures. It also influences how intense sun can be which can lead to challenges with sunburned crops.

53 0
Elevation (in ft)   0-2,500   2500-5000   greater than 5000 

Least Important

Hours of sunlight on longest day of the year
Definition: The number of hows of daylight on the summer solstice.

Reason: Plants loves the sun. The more hours of sun, the faster the plants grow! (Which is why some of the biggest pumpkins are actually grown in Alaska...)

Hours of Sunlight   15.5-16   15-15.4   less than 15 

Whew! That was a lot. I will let your brain recover for a little bit. Next week I will discuss factors relating to money & affordability. In the meantime I believe you deserve a video to wash this all down...

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