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How to create microclimates in your garden

Updated on November 14, 2014

Would you like to grow a wider variety of plants?

Every plant and animal has adapted to a specific range of environmental conditions. If we understand these conditions we can create them in our gardens using simple garden design techniques. This enables us to grow a greater range of plants that will be healthier and require less maintenance.

Take for example the mango tree. The mango has evolved in a tropical ecosystem. Conditions are warm and humid, sheltered from winds, frosts and cold rains. In contrast the herb rosemary, which is native to the Mediterranean coast, has developed a liking for poor dry soils, direct sunlight and exposure to sometimes very harsh winds.

It is possible to grow these two very different plants in the same garden, but it will require careful siting and a willingness to develop the appropriate environmental conditions, or microclimates, for each plant. In this article I will take you through the main aspects you need to consider when designing a garden with a wide range of microclimates.

Image: Copyright Colin Broug.

Observe naturally occurring garden microclimates

Firstly you need to identify if and where these conditions are already occurring. This requires a careful analysis of all environmental factors in your garden. Spend some time wandering about at different times of the day and throughout the year. If possible draw the winds, sun patterns and frosts that you observe, and take note of variations in humidity, warmth, soil conditions and vegetation growth.

What you will begin to discover is that various spots around your garden are very different to others. In one part of the garden it may be warm and sheltered in winter while the majority of the garden is cold and windy. Other spots may be moist and cool even during a drought. These variations occur naturally and are called microclimates.

Having identified natural microclimates in your garden you can begin to take advantage of them, modify them further to suit your needs and even begin to create some of your own. The following factors all play a part in the formation of microclimates.

Use sunlight to create garden microclimates

The movement of the sun varies throughout the year. In the southern hemisphere the sun is much lower in the sky during winter, rising in the northeast and setting in the northwest. In summer, the sun rises in the east, travelling higher in the sky and setting in the west. These variations work in the opposite way in the northern hemisphere and play a major role in microclimate development.

Depending on the orientation and time of year, different areas of your garden will get more or less sunlight and shade then others. Thus, during winter, a south-facing area in your garden is likely to be cool, dark and damp, while a north-facing garden will be warm and sunny. If protected from winds and frost, such an area will create a natural suntrap, perfect for plants that prefer warmer conditions.

Image: Copyright Andreas Krappweis.

Use the natural topography to create garden microclimates

The top of a hill will offer very different growing conditions to the bottom of a hill. The further up the slope you go, the poorer and dryer the soil will be and the more exposed the site will be to winds. Down slope will be more sheltered and the soils moister and more fertile, however there may be a tendency for the area to be frost affected in winter as frost tends to flow downhill like water and settle in the hollows of the landscape. It may also have a tendency to become waterlogged.

Understanding these topographical variations is another important aspect to creating and using microclimates, ensuring that plants are grown in the conditions that suit them best and giving you a wider range of species in your garden.

Make use of water to create garden microclimates

A body of water reflects sunlight and tends to make the area surrounding it cooler and moister in summer and warmer in winter. Areas around ponds and dams therefore tend to be less susceptible to frosts and can support a wider range of plants. When surrounded by vegetation to the south, east and west in the southern hemisphere, or north, east and west in the northern hemisphere, they become wonderful suntraps, sheltered warm places where many plants will thrive even in the cooler months. Such spots can be shaded from harsh summer suns by deciduous trees and shrubs.

One reason water modifies temperature in this way is because it has thermal mass. Thermal mass refers to the ability of a material to absorb heat or coolness and store it for a long period of time. One of the reasons why water modifies the temperature of the surrounding air is because it has the ability to absorb and store heat from the sun during the day and release it slowly during the night. This is due to its thermal mass. Taking advantage of thermal mass is an excellent way to maximise winter warmth. Rainwater tanks, north facing walls and concrete paths all have thermal mass.

Image: Copyright FSG777.

Provide shelter from winds to create garden microclimates

Both the hot dry winds of summer and the cold winds of winter can be incredibly destructive to plants, particularly as they dry the soil and remove humidity from the surrounding air. Generally speaking, in the southern hemisphere very cold winter winds tend to come from the south and west, while hot dry summer winds tend to come from the northwest.

Windbreaks can be incredibly valuable in protecting your plants and are an important means of facilitating microclimate development. If designed effectively a good windbreak will not only provide wind protection, but can also create a suntrap, provide habitat for pest devouring birds and insects, act as a wildlife corridor and help divert frosts around your garden.

Learn more about creating garden microclimates - Here are a few indepth books I would highly recommend

These are just a few pointers to begin facilitating garden microclimate development. The more you observe and understand your garden, the more important these factors will become in creating a diverse and productive landscape. Share your own experiences of garden design that creates microclimates...

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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      What saddens me is how many folks move into a neighborhood and immediately start ripping out things they have no idea what they are. The most beautiful flowering tree in the whole neighborhood got whacked by a new resident who didn't even know it flowered. She's sorry now but it's too late once it's gone.

      Same goes for flower bulbs and other hidden gems.

      I think folks should live in a home, particularly one that isn't new, at least a year before they start planning their garden. Otherwise, you might end up cutting down a peach tree, uprooting a grapevine or otherwise shooting yourself in the foot by removing something you may have wanted to keep had you only known what it was.

      Nice lens! Great information.

    • KerryVor profile image

      Kerry Voronoff 

      5 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Quite fascinating. I will have to get my husband to read this.

    • norma-holt profile image


      5 years ago

      Useful information and nicely presented lens.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      very interesting, and inspiring!

    • sallemange profile image


      5 years ago

      Some very useful ideas here.

    • Swisstoons profile image

      Thomas F. Wuthrich 

      5 years ago from Michigan

      Nicely put-together lens with beautiful accompanying images.

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 

      5 years ago from San Francisco

      You've provided a very good guide for budding gardeners. Thank you!

    • CaztyBon profile image


      5 years ago

      I'm not a gardener myself, but this was great information. Real nice informative lens.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Very good information to remember. The same irises in my garden will bloom quite a bit earlier in one part of my yard than in another.

    • justramblin profile image


      5 years ago

      Your article has given me many good ideas for new garden ideas. I'm going to pay more attention to the topography in my yard; I've never really thought about having different climates. This has given me some good tips so thanks.

    • Elyn MacInnis profile image

      Elyn MacInnis 

      5 years ago from Shanghai, China

      I have noticed this in my own garden in the US. Wet things love the spot next to the small pond I made. Thanks for thinking to write about this!

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 

      5 years ago from Topeka, KS

      I usually grow plants that are native to my Pacific NW location but I do love having some plants that require a bit more care. Great job on offering microclimate tips and lovely photos. :)

    • wiseriverman profile image


      5 years ago

      This is very good information. I protected a Camellia from the wind in my backyard and it's flourished. I think that's unusual for New York.

      Thank you for making this lens. I'm going to bookmark it.

      Daniel :)

    • hovirag profile image


      5 years ago

      You have great pieces of advice that are straight to the point here for newbies !

    • CraftyStaci profile image


      5 years ago

      I'm not a great gardener, but I've found working with what's naturally growing rather than against it is always best. Thanks for the info!

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 

      5 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Interesting topic!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      We just have a run of the mill backyard garden, but we are looking to improve it. Thanks for the interesting lens!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Wow, very interesting. I always use native plants in my garden. Creating microclimates would definitely enhance the look.


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