The map, which was revised to reflect changing climate patterns across the country, is vital to gardeners trying to determine which plants are most likely to thrive in a region.
You're most likely to have seen the map on the back of seed packets or in gardening catalogs. The new version reveals that some plants and trees may survive farther north than they could in the past; plants that might not have been able to survive winter in certain regions now may be suitable for planting there.
The map, based on the average annual minimum winter temperature, divides the country into 10-degree Fahrenheit zones. On the old map most of Long Island fell into Zone 7a, except for a strip in the center of Suffolk County around the pine barrens, which was in Zone 6b. The update leaves the majority of Long Island in Zone 7a, but the northern section of western and central Nassau, and the southern part of the Island from the Queens-Nassau border all the way east to the Gilgo Beach area, are now part of 7b, which is warmer.
A few small, scattered spots around Manorville, Northhampton and Baiting Hollow also now fall into 7b. The rest of Suffolk, including the formerly 6a pine barrens region, also has warmed and is now firmly planted in 7a.
Experts believe more changes will come. Art DeGaetano, climatologist, professor and director of the Cornell-based NOAA Northeast Regional Climate Center, believes that "by 2080, the hardiness zones that currently cover the area from southern Virginia to Northern Georgia may replace those that we see across New York in the current update."
Be sure to check the new, interactive map at planthardiness.ars.usda.gov before placing your seed and plant orders this year. You may find you can try growing something new, like a crape myrtle variety that previously was just out of reach.
Could be 'a very buggy year'
While we're on the topic of warming trends, the unusual winter weather we've had -- which hasn't been part of the trend, but rather an effect of jet streams and the Arctic oscillation (a science lesson for another time) -- has me concerned about mosquitoes.
As the warm and mostly snowless "winter that wasn't" winds down, deer populations are swelling, and ticks and mosquitoes are taking advantage. Tomato hornworms and other pests have been active all winter, too. Add that to the shifts in planting zones, and we may feel the consequences of the current mild weather for quite some time.
Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, a professor of entomology and a specialist with the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program, warned that 2012 could be "a very buggy year."
You see, harsh winters -- even regular winters -- kill off a good portion of the insect population. But this year that hasn't been the case. A lot of hungry ticks emerged on warm winter days, Gangloff-Kaufmann said, adding that she anticipates the mosquito problems we normally see could be "more intense and begin earlier than usual."
And if you live in a wooded area or on the eastern portion of the Island, you're in for another treat: A mild winter means bigger deer populations in spring "because the deer have more to eat with less snow cover and more vegetation exposed for them to feed on all winter," according to David W. Wolfe, Cornell University professor and chair of the Climate Change Focus Group in the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.
"It also will benefit some insect pests and invasive weeds like kudzu that normally are killed back during winter because of severe cold," Wolfe said. "On the positive side, if you are a farmer or gardener experimenting with crops or ornamentals that sometimes can't survive a severe winter, this will be a good year for you."