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Science

Americans see gardening changes as 'plant hardiness zones' shift across half the U.S.

Here's a quick tool to find out if your zone has changed due to warmer temperatures.

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash, Map by USDA-ARS and Oregon State University (Public Domain)

The USDA has issued a new Plant Hardiness Zone Map

Millions of American households have a garden of some sort, whether they grow vegetables, fruits flowers or other plants. Gardening has always been a popular hobby, but more Americans turned to tending plants during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic for both stress relief and to grow their own food so they could make less trips to the store. For many people, it's a seasonal ritual that's therapeutic and rewarding.

But a shift is occurring in the gardening world. Now, due to rising temperature data, half the country find themselves in a different "plant hardiness zone"—the zones that indicate what plants work well in an area and when to plant them. Gardeners rely on knowing their hardiness zone to determine what to plant and when, but they haven't been updated since 2012.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its Plant Hardiness Zone Map in late 2023, months before people in most of the country start planning their planting. We saw the 10 hottest summers ever recorded in 174 years of climate data between 2014 and 2023, but hardiness zones are actually determined by the coldest winter temperatures each year. Winters are warming at an even faster pace than summers, according to nonpartisan research and communications group Climate Central, but that may or may not be the entire reason behind the zone changes.

The USDA acknowledges that some of the zone shifts could be due to climate change but cautions against using them as hard evidence for it since factors such as improved data collection also contribute to changes in the map.

people planting flowers

Gardening can be a solo or community endeavor.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

"Temperature updates to plant hardiness zones are not necessarily reflective of global climate change because of the highly variable nature of the extreme minimum temperature of the year, as well as the use of increasingly sophisticated mapping methods and the inclusion of data from more weather stations," the USDA wrote in November 2023. "Consequently, map developers involved in the project cautioned against attributing temperature updates made to some zones as reliable and accurate indicators of global climate change (which is usually based on trends in overall average temperatures recorded over long time periods)."

At the same time, Chris Daly, director of the PRISM Climate Group at Oregon State University that developed the map with the USDA, told NPR, "Over the long run, we will expect to see a slow shifting northward of zones as climate change takes hold."

As an example of zone shifting, Dallas, Texas, was classified as Zone 8a in 2012, when data showed the coldest winter temperature in the city was between 10 and 15 degrees Fahrenheit on average. In 2023, with data showing the coldest winter temps falling between 15 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit, it's been shifted to Zone 8b.

Some zone shifts resulted in moving to an entirely new zone number, such as Seattle shifting from Zone 8b to Zone 9a. The overall trend was for zones to be pushed northward, but not all areas saw a shift. NPR has a helpful tool here in which you can enter your zip code, see what zone your city was previously in, what zone it's in now, and the temperature changes that caused the shift.

The bottom line is if you have a gardening book with a hardiness zones map printed before 2024, it's time for an updated map. Or check online to see what zone you fall in now to give your garden the best chance of thriving this year.

Quick. What makes you more excited than anything else in the world?

A promising Tinder match? A free trip to New Zealand? The New England Patriots losing the Super Bowl?

I'm easy to please. Photo by jeffreyw/Flickr.


Chances are plain vegetables and legumes don't crack your top five.

Mmmm. Nah. Photo by Alexei Hulsov/Pixabay.

Or 50.

Or 5,000.

Unless, of course, you're Macka B, a British reggae artist, who has recently turned his love for cucumbers, herbal tea, pumpkin seeds, and okra into a series of disarmingly earnest and hella catchy a cappella jams.

They're incredibly worthy of a few minutes of your time — not just for the delightful musical pronunciation of "cucumba," but for their boundless, sincere enthusiasm for healthful, nutrient-rich additions to the human diet.

Like many of his reggae brethren, B is a Rastafarian and follows the faith's Ital diet, whose practitioners generally avoid eating meat products, a practice they believe decreases the amount of "livity," or life energy, in themselves and the world. Hence his excitement for raw roughage and hot liquids.

If B's infectious earworms don't convince you to go vegan, that's OK.

Pumpkin seeds! Photo by Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons.

(Though if they do convince you to become one, that's fine too. That shit is super ethical.)

But if you can manage to muster as much excitement for anything as this man can muster for vegan food, you might just unlock the secret of life.

And if it turns out to be pumpkin seeds, honestly, would that really surprise you?

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Ad Council - Save The Food

I wouldn’t claim to be an environmental whiz kid, but I do the best I can.

I truly believe that even the smallest effort can make a huge difference. I read the numbers on the bottom of my plastic containers to make sure they can be recycled. I use empty bottles of wine to help water my plants — that’s really a win-win because I no longer have to remember to water them! But, I fall short in a few areas. I rarely finish a plate of food and have been guilty of tossing everything in my fridge in search of the one item that’s causing a funk.

Then I learned about food waste. And it’s no joke.

Food is the single largest contributor to landfills, and 40% of food in the U.S. is never eaten. That's a whole lot! But food waste isn't just about what winds up in our trash cans. Producing all of that wasted food uses over 20% of the U.S. supply of freshwater — that's more water than is used by California, Texas, and Ohio combined — and creates as much greenhouse gas emissions as 33 million passenger cars.


Trash on trash on trash. And it doesn't all have to be! Image via Petrr/Flickr.

And food is a tricky issue in general. At the same time all of this food is being wasted, there are so many places, in the U.S. and abroad, where families simply do not have access to the nutritious foods that are out there.

Given all this, it seemed worth taking a look at ways to reduce food waste — or, at the very least, our individual food waste. These tips aren't a cure-all, but doing just a little bit can help to make these very big issues just a bit smaller. Here are a few of my favorites.

First things first: In an ideal world, our food wouldn't go bad.

Sometimes we can’t avoid it. We put a pear at the bottom of a bowl, and by the time we get to it, it’s becoming pear cider. But that’s what refrigerators are for! Did you know that those drawers at the bottom serve a specific purpose? I didn’t. Turns out, it's called a crisper for a reason. Want to become an expert at storing your fruits and veggies? Here are a few tips:

  • Potatoes, onions, and tomatoes don't need to be kept in the fridge. It's actually better if they aren't.
  • Salad greens should be stored in bags filled with a little air and sealed tightly. As someone who tries to remove all air from ziplock bags, this was an interesting tip.
  • Not all fruits can be stored together: Avocados, bananas, and kiwis produce ethylene as they ripen, so they need to be separated from fruits like apples to prevent the latter from going bad.  

Those two drawers? They aren't just for top shelf overflow. Image via LaraLove/Wikimedia Commons.

Now, if you have a few food items that are already past their prime, there’s still time! These recipes are for you.

Full disclosure: I tried a few of these myself, but most of the delicious goodness you’re about to see is courtesy of the DIY mavens online.

Bruised fruit just ... isn’t cute. But it’s still delicious.

Bananas look downright unappealing when they’re brown and spotty on the outside, but did you know that’s actually when they’re at the best for a few recipes?

I had a very unattractive banana lying around and decided to put it to good use.

Not looking so good, banana. Image by Mae Cromwell/Upworthy.

1. Meet banana fritters.

I made these myself. And they were delicious. Image by Mae Cromwell/Upworthy.

2. And banana bread is another great way to get rid of your spotted bananas!

3. Do you have overripe peaches, strawberries, or really any fruit you find irresistible? Turn it into jam! It’s surprisingly easy.

These jars of home-canned peaches look SO good. Image via Rachel Tayse/Flickr.

4. Love breakfast foods? Your bruised fruit can play a role there, too. Those fruit-filled pancakes aren’t just for a fancy brunch. Smash your overripe fruit in a bowl, and make your own pancakes at home.

*Drooling.* Image via Matheus Swanson/Flickr.

5. And how about popsicles? Did you know you could make those with overripe fruit? Your bruised peaches never looked so good.

And then there’s stale bread — it still has its uses!

6. Confession: I’m not much of a bread eater. Too often, I’d buy a loaf of gluten-free bread, forget about it, and toss it. But now I know that dried out bread can be transformed and used for something I really do like: breading things! Fried catfish is going to be perfect from now on.

I'm absurdly proud of these bread crumbs! Image by Mae Cromwell/Upworthy.

7. And if you eat a lot of salads, spice them up with homemade croutons.

Croutons have never looked so good. Image via Tasha/Flickr.

A lot of us have fallen victim to wasting parts of a whole rotisserie chicken. But not anymore.

After that first meal, there’s often so much chicken left that next steps can be confusing. Do you eat the same meal for a few days or toss the leftovers? Do neither! There are tons of ways to reuse leftover chicken.

8. Tacos

A Taco Tuesday staple. Image via Larry Hoffman/Flickr.

9. Chicken salad

Image via Lara604/Flickr.

10. BBQ it! Yes, you can take the same chicken, slather some BBQ sauce all over it, and voilà! A new meal. You can eat it as-is or shred it and make a sandwich. The world is yours.

Mouth-watering leftovers. Image via jeffreyw/Flickr.

11. As we head into winter, you can't go wrong with some comforting chicken soup.

Perfect for a chilly day. Or any day, really. Image via Carol VanHook/Flickr.

12. And as a new West Coast resident, I can vouch for chicken quesadillas. Shred or chop up your leftovers and make them part of this meal. You won’t regret it.

Image via Andy Melton/Flickr.

And — this is mind-blowing — you can revive some of that produce you wrote off as goners. Yes, you read that right.

13. Carrots?

14. Lettuce?  

15. Parsley?

As certain vegetables wilt and start to lose their texture, they can be revived with some good ol’ water. Seriously. This is like a magic trick that we can all pull off.

So, you get it: Food waste sucks, but there are (delicious) ways to contribute to the solution.

Try some of these tips at home, and post your own tips! You never know which one of your tips can save someone else a ton of time and money while helping us all to treat this planet a little bit better.

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Gates Foundation: The Story of Food

Random thoughts I have while looking at sweet potatoes:

"You'd look great as a plate of fries."

"Honestly, who was the first to decide to put marshmallows all over you?"


"Wait. Are these yams?"

A thought I have never had: This type of potato saves lives.

As it turns out, they might actually do just that.

Image via iStock.

Welsy Anena's mother is convinced that orange sweet potatoes saved her daughter's life.  

Not in a "thanks for the side dish, I was so hungry!" kind of way. In an actual life-saving way.

Her daughter, Welsy, had been so sick as a baby, and in and out of a Ugandan hospital — sometimes in such serious condition, her mom didn't know if she'd even make it. But when her baby started being fed orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, her health turned around and now she's a vibrant, healthier kid. Whoa.

Her mom's story isn't the only one that depicts sweet potatoes as an edible hero.

You see, Welsy suffered from Vitamin A deficiency — the leading cause of preventable blindness in developing countries. In Uganda, 1 out of every 3 kids under 5 suffers from Vitamin A deficiency, resulting in almost 30,000 child deaths every year. And that's just in one country.

Orange sweet potatoes can help.

Image via International Potato Center, used with permission.

While orange sweet potatoes are common in the United States, they are very new in Africa.

For hundreds of years, Africans have had their own version of a sweet potato: white and yellow in color, very starchy and firm, and frankly, a terrible source of vitamin A.

That's a heavy contrast from the type of sweet potatoes we find in our grocery stores in the U.S., where they are carrot-colored and known for their vitamins and nutrients, especially their vitamin A.

Researchers had an idea: If orange sweet potatoes combat vitamin A deficiency, what would happen if they could get communities to eat them instead?

Maybe it could help prevent blindness and death in kids. They're finding out.

For the past 15 years, the International Potato Center (CIP) has been leading the way on introducing the orange-fleshed sweet potato in Africa.

Image via the International Potato Center, used with permission.

It's been an adventure and easier said than done. Africans initially scoffed at the idea of orange sweet potatoes. No way. The potatoes had a weird texture and weren't what they were used to eating. They were also grown differently from their traditional type of sweet potatoes. All signs pointed to no. Can you blame them?

The research team from CIP took note and developed a starchier version of the orange sweet potato that still contained more vitamin A than other potatoes, but tasted more in line with what Africans were accustomed to.

Once they had the potato how they wanted it, they had to get people to want to eat it.

They created widespread marketing campaigns that, according to Smithsonian magazine, included radio advertisements and visits to villages in vehicles with sweet potatoes painted on the side.

They traveled around the region teaching about the sweet potato's nutrition.

Image via the International Potato Center, used with permission.

And showed the power of eating them through pictures and words.

Image via the International Potato Center, used with permission.

They made sure to have a big presence at exhibitions and community-wide events.

Image via the International Potato Center, used with permission.

Children's songs were written and performed about the potatoes.

Image via the International Potato Center, used with permission.

The campaign worked. And it's still working today.

Today, the orange-fleshed sweet potato has reached 2.2 million households, which amounts to roughly 10 million people in Africa.

Scientists are super optimistic at the ability to reduce vitamin A deficiency through this new exposure to the potato. They project that by 2023, 30 million children could be saved from blindness and death because of it.

"We have evidence that  eating 125g of orange-flesh sweet potato provides a child the amount of vitamin A required to prevent blindness from vitamin A deficiency," wrote Joel Ranck, head of communications for the CIP, in an email."125g is about the size of one small sweetpotato."

It's no wonder the research team, comprised of Dr. Jan Low, Maria Andrade, and Robert Mwanga from the CIP, and Howarth Bouis of Harvest Plus, just won the 2016 World Food Prize for their work on this initiative. Bravo!

Image via the International Potato Center, used with permission.

Together they have built new excitement and hope surrounding child nutrition and preventable blindness in the 14 countries where the orange-flesh sweet potato is now available, with more countries to come.

Agnes Amony, a Ugandan farmer told Harvest Plus, "I began feeding my child on these nutritious foods following the knowledge I attained in the recommended feeding practices for children under five. My child began gaining weight steadily and I am in no doubt that these foods have saved my child’s life. I am forever grateful and will never stop feeding my child on these food crops."

Every step counts. Or, in this case, every bite.

See more on how the orange-flesh sweet potato could, in fact, change the world: