Playing the Odds

If you’re a gardener, you probably know where you live on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.

In the high desert of Northern Nevada, I’m in Zone 7a where the mercury can reach as low as zero in the winter.

Knowing your zone is a little like knowing your banking password. It unlocks valuable information about the plants and trees you should choose if you want your garden to survive the coolest season.

It’s also a little like gambling. You’re playing the odds.

You see, the designers of the zone map understand that not every winter follows the norm and not every plant responds to the elements in the same way. They hedge their bets by saying their designations can steer you toward plants that are “most likely to thrive” in your zone.

Even with that disclaimer, I’m quite fond of the zone map. Without it, I might actually have given in to my fascination with Hawaii and tried to grow my favorite island flowers in the desert. Maybe I could be successful with hibiscus since there is a hardy variety in addition to the tropical. However, the fragrant petals of the delicate plumeria would surely perish, as would the glossy anthurium (whose name falls woefully short of its exotic beauty).

Yes, the zone map is why our yard is as attractive as it is. Desert-friendly honeysuckle, moonlight broom, wisteria, forsythia, and roses are as close to a guaranteed jackpot as one can get around here.

Unfortunately, as the zone map gurus have said, there are no solid guarantees in the garden. Or in life. Every day, it seems, we’re faced with choices that force us to play the odds. With some, if you choose the wrong path you can try again. With others, you get only one roll of the dice.

Take my effort to keep breast cancer at bay.

I was diagnosed with Stage 1B invasive ductal carcinoma in September 2017. My doctors promptly armed me with the cancer version of a zone map. Based on the law of averages, I needed a mastectomy or a lumpectomy followed by radiation therapy, and five years of a hormone suppressant.

Not quite satisfied, I took their zone map and piled on everything I could dig up about the latest trends in breast cancer treatment. Some of it supported the standard protocol. Some of it didn’t. In the end, I unlocked enough information to accept my doctors’ advice on an à la carte basis. I had the lumpectomy, refused the radiation, and started taking the hormone suppressant.

So far, the odds are working in my favor – more than a year with no recurrence. I know it’s too early to call “Jackpot.” Five years is the standard milestone for celebration. Let’s say I’ve managed to spin three cherries, and the machine paid out enough for me to keep playing for a while.

What the heck. I’m feeling lucky. Maybe it’s finally time to take a chance on that hardy hibiscus.