Microclimates a boon to gardeners
Sonoma County’s weather is easily described as ideal and especially wonderful for gardeners. Its three major climate zones—coastal marine, coastal cool, and coastal warm—are so diverse that the number and variety of plants grown here amazes.
Marine air from the Pacific exerts the greatest influence in all three climate zones. As cool ocean air moves inland, it is deflected by mountainous terrain and settles into low-lying valleys. The resulting airflows have created dozens of microclimates that account for surprising variations in temperature and rainfall throughout the three major zones.
Some of these isolated microclimates occur predictably on hillsides or on valley floors; others pop up in unexpected locations to the delight of Sonoma County’s numerous amateur and professional horticulturists.
Along the north coast, the coastal marine climate is a narrow ribbon bounded by the ridges above The Sea Ranch and Fort Ross. In the central and southern parts of the county, the zone is pushed eastward as marine air rushes through gaps in the coastal hills. It extends a few miles up the Russian river then swirls southward nearly to Occidental and Freestone. Further south, marine air pours through Valley Ford and Tomales toward Petaluma.
Limited sunshine in most of the coastal microclimates favors shade-loving plants. The mild winters allow tender plants to flourish here year-round, but heat-requiring annuals and perennials do well only in protected sites.
The coastal cool climate runs across ridge tops in the north, then reaches down onto the Santa Rosa Plain and into the southern inland areas of Sonoma County. This climate region is heavily influenced by marine air, but with greater seasonal temperature fluctuations. Days and nights are warmer in summer and colder in winter. And a predictable wind comes up most summer afternoons.
Some microclimates near Sebastopol lie in thermal bands, called banana belts, on hillsides. Many gardens bask in sunshine above fogged-in, cold-air basins and enjoy some of the finest weather in the county. Stands of trees deflect intruding afternoons winds, and plants that prefer a moist atmosphere, cool summers, and mild winters do well here.
The coastal warm inland areas are the driest, hottest, and coldest in the county. The marine influence fades somewhat in this climate zone, but it continues to have a moderating influence, especially in winter, lifting the average lows above freezing. Here, vineyards now abound where orchards once flourished.
Cloverdale, Healdsburg, the Sonoma Valley, Windsor, and most of Santa Rosa feel the effects of this climate. Fruit and nut trees flourish here in adequate winter chill and summer heat.
The dry heat of summer, however, limits the success of many perennials; whereas, in winter, a few microclimates in protective sites allow subtropical plants to survive the cold winters.