USDA Zone 3: Where is it? What to Plant? Tips to Success
If you live in the Northern parts of the United States, you might be in USDA Zone 3. Zone 3 is the coldest hardiness zone in the conterminous United States. So, if you live in Zone 3, you will need to plant cold hardy flowers and trees.
Growing a vegetable garden can be a little more challenging in zone 3 as well.
But there are many vegetables, herbs, trees, and flowers that thrive in the downright cold temps of Zone 3. If you know what to look for, you will enjoy a beautiful home landscape all year long.
What is Zone 3?
Zone 3 is one of the 13 USDA hardiness zones. These zones are outlined on the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, which shows the coldest average temperatures for each zone and the frost dates, in the continental United States, Hawaii and in Puerto Rico.
The lower the number, the colder the zone. As you can imagine, Zone 3 is pretty cold. It covers the northern most part of the United States, including Alaska.
But if you love the changing of the seasons, you will like Zone 3.
Each season is very dramatic. The winters are cold, windy, and full of snow. The average minimum temperatures for Zone 3 fall between -40°F and -30°F.
The winters are long, but beautiful.
When spring hits, the brilliant green leaves and flowering trees will take your breath away. The colors of spring are very much appreciated after the stark winter.
And as spring gives way to summer, it gets hot and humid, sometimes reaching the 90’s. In Hibbing, Minnesota, which is in Zone 3B, the average high for July is around 76.7°F.
International Falls, Minnesota, in Zone 3A, has an average high of 77.7° in July.
The warm temperatures of summer can fall drastically as autumn rushes in. But the turning of the season will again take your breath away. Everywhere you look, you see the red, orange, yellow, and purple leaves of fall.
If you like to plant trees, you will love planting in Zone 3.
You may also enjoy gardening in Zone 3. The growing season lasts from early spring to early fall, with the last frost occurring in early to mid-May, and the first frost setting in around the first couple of weeks of September.
Zone 3 has two subzones: 3A and 3B. Zone 3A has an average minimum temperature of -40° to -35°F. Zone 3B has a minimum temperature of -35° to -30°F.
Where is Zone 3?
USDA Zone 3 starts in Montana and covers the northern border of the United States, through North Dakota, Minnesota, and a bit of Wisconsin. It then pics up again on the northern most portion of the Eastern United States, in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
You can find some small pockets of Zone 3 in Wyoming, Idaho, South Dakota, and in the mountains of Colorado, as well.
In Alaska, Zone 3 snakes along the west coast, along the outer edge of the Seward Peninsula, and heads down towards Bristol Bay. It travels through the Alaska Range and the Chugach Mountains and covers a small portion of the Alaskan Interior.
Minimum Average Temperatures in Zone 3
Each gardening zone is divided into two subsets. Zone 3’s subzones are 3A and 3B. Each subzone is separated by 5°F.
So, USDA Zone 3 breaks down to:
- Zone 3: This zone has a minimum average of temperatures from -40° to -30°F.
- Zone 3a: This subzone has a minimum average temperature of -40° to -35° F.
- Zone 3b: This subzone has a minimum average temperature of -35° to -30°F.
The average minimum temperature for the winter months determines the zone and its subset ranges. The temperatures don’t always fall in these ranges, however, since colder temperatures can occur.
Frost Dates in Zone 3
The average first and last frost dates aren’t set in stone. These dates are vulnerable to unpredictable weather patterns and atypical seasons.
However, the frost dates for Zone 3 are usually:
- Last frost date: May 1 – 16
- First frost date: September 8 – 15
The growing season for Zone 3 is May through September, with the fall harvest often starting in the middle of September.
Zone 3 States
With the exception of Delaware (zone 7), each state has more than one hardiness zone, because each state has more than one type of climate.
Alaska, for example, consists of zones 1 through 8, because its climate varies from Artic to North Temperate.
This means that like zone 2 before it, and zone 4 after it, you will find zone 3 in Alaska.
The states covered by Zone 3 include:
- New Hampshire
- New York
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
Although Zone 3 consists of 13 states, it covers very little of the continental United States. It is a small strip across the northern central border of the U.S., with a few other small, scattered patches in various states.
When to Plant in Zone 3
Despite the colder temperatures, gardening in Zone 3 is very rewarding, because so many plants are hardy enough to do well there. And many of the northern universities, such as North Dakota State University, have created cold hardy cultivars that can survive the frigid winters of Zone 3.
If you are planting a vegetable garden in Zone 3 you may have to start some seeds indoors and transplant them outside at the end of May. Many home gardeners also purchase seedlings that they then plant outside after the last frost, as well.
Cold weather crops, such as radishes, lettuce, and peas, can be directly sown into the ground around the end of May. Of course, warm season vegetables perform well in Zone 3 too, including tomatoes, squash, peppers, potatoes, and cucumbers.
Tips for Gardening in Zone 3
Use our hardiness zone guide to determine which plants grow best in your region. There is a wide variety of vegetables and fruit trees, as well as other trees and flowers, that thrive in Zone 3.
- Many gardeners in Zone 3 buy starter plants from the local nursery and plant them directly into the garden after the last frost date. This is generally around the end of May.
- If you want to grow your own seeds, start them indoors about six weeks before the last frost date. Peppers and celery should be started in early April, while broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and tomatoes can wait until the end of April.
- Other vegetables, such as beans, corn, cucumbers, squash, carrots, etc. can be planted directly into the ground after the last frost, generally around the end of May or the beginning of June.
- Check the maturation days on the seed packet. This is the number of days it takes from the time you sow the seeds to the time the vegetable is ready for harvesting.
If the plant requires more days for maturation than the growing season can offer, you need to start your plants indoors or purchase starter plants.
Choosing Plants for Zone 3
If you need help choosing out plants for your garden, take some time to browse your local garden centers and nurseries. They typically offer plants that can survive your hardiness zone.
Seed companies are another great place to look. Just be sure to read the seed packet or information tag when choosing your plants. It should list the USDA Zone somewhere, which is the coldest area that the plant is likely to survive the winter in.
But not all Zone 3 plants need to be able to survive temperatures of 40 below. The zone temperatures are guidelines for planting perennials, trees, and shrubs, which need to be able to survive the frigid winter temperatures year after year.
Plenty of other plants and flowers can be grown in Zone 3, however. They are treated as annuals, instead, and are meant to die back when the frost hits.
When browsing your nursery, you’ll see a perennial section and an annual section. The perennials should be able to survive USDA Zone 3 winters, but the annuals you’ll need to replant year after year.
What to Grow in Zone 3
Once you understand your climate and landscape, it’s time to pick the appropriate plants that will match your needs.
You can plant a wide variety of trees, shrubs, flowers, herbs, and vegetables in Zone 3.
Below are a few varieties we recommend planting in USDA Zone 3:
Trees for Zone 3
Zone 3 is home to many gorgeous fruit trees, flowering trees, evergreens, and native trees.
You can choose from all sorts of fruit trees when planting in USDA Zone 3. Here are just some fruit trees you may consider planting.
- Apple Trees: There are so many varieties of apples that thrive in Zone 3 – it’s hard to list them all. The Honeycrisp™ is the most popular in the Midwest. It is crisp, sweet, and great for fresh eating. The Goodland and the Red Duchess are both great for fresh eating as well but are really good in pies. The Goodland has that classic fall apple smell. Other apples that do well in Zone 3 include the Norkent, Harcourt, Wealthy, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Spartan, Beacon, Haralson, Snow, Lobo, Minjon, Oriole, Red Baron, State Fair, Minnewashata Zester, Frostbite, and Northern Lights, to name a few!
- Cherry Plum: The Cherry Plum was developed to survive the extreme cold weather of the Northern Plains. It will bear fruit after one to two years, but it needs another tree to produce. The fruit is not as big or as tasty as other plums, however. The cherry plum is a small tree, growing only six to eight feet tall.
- Brookcot Apricot: Believe it or not, you can grow apricots in Zone 3. The Brookcot is a dwarf tree from Alberta. It produces a yellowish orange apricot with a red blush that is juicy, with good flavor. The fruit is good for canning or fresh eating. It doesn’t need another tree to produce, but it does better with another.
- Other fruit trees: Canadian Dwarf Sour Cherries, Carmine Red Jewel, Purple Passion, Summer Crisp Pear, Jefgold Pear, Parker Pear, Debbie’s Apricot, Scout Apricot, Wescot Apricot, Manchurian Apricot, Gooseberry, Hackberry, Sand Cherry, Nanking Cherry, Chokecherry, Serviceberry, Lingon Berry, American Elderberry
Flowering trees are a welcoming site after a long, cold winter in USDA Zone 3. Here are some great varieties to choose from.
- Coralburst Crabapple: This small crabapple tree grows only about 8-10 feet tall and 12-15 feet wide and is hardy to Zone 3b. It is compact and rounded. It has dark green leaves and gorgeous pink flowers.
- Blackhaw: This native shrub or tree can grow about 20 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Large white cymes bloom in the spring, and its leaves turn a striking red and purple in the fall. It produces a purplish black berry. It’s best to have two for pollination. The Blackhaw is also called the Nannyberry and the Plum Leaf.
- Japanese Lilac: The Japanese Lilac is a very large shrub or a small tree. It can be oval and rounded or shaped as a vase. It produces large, creamy white, fragrant flowers and dark green leaves. In the winter you can find brown fruit dotting the Japanese Lilac. It is a very attractive tree for all seasons and is often used as a windbreak on farmsteads.
- Other flowering trees: Ginkgo, Juliet Dwarf Cherry Tree, Cherry Plum, Dolgo Crabapple, Gladiator Crabapple, Red Spendor Crabapple, Siberian Pea Tree, Summer Wine Ninebark
USDA Zone 3 is home to many evergreens as well. They bring beauty to the sometimes gloomy winter landscape.
- Mountain Dew Norway Spruce: This cultivar is named for the Mountain Dew drink. It has light yellow foliage in the spring that resembles the color of Mountain Dew. It grows 12 feet tall and six feet wide. It’s great for small lots or beneath power lines.
- Weeping White Spruce: The White Spruce is a strong accent plant for north-western gardens. It has a stately, upright growth habit, but drooping bluish green foliage. It only grows 40 feet tall and eight feet wide, which makes it suitable for small lots as well.
- Colorado Blue Spruce: If you want a gorgeous tree to decorate outside at Christmas, the Colorado Blue Spruce will do nicely. It is a broad, dense, pyramidal tree that grows between 30 and 65 feet tall and 15 to 25 feet wide. Its cones are brown and 2 ½ to 4 inches long, and they have papery scales. The Colorado Blue Spruce is used for windbreaks on farmsteads and in fields.
- Other evergreen trees: Bird’s Nest Spruce, Dwarf Norway Spruce, Weeping Norway Spruce, Weeping White Spruce, Black Hills Spruce, Black Spruce, Limber Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Eastern White Pine, Hillside Upright Norway Spruce, White Spruce, Englemann Spruce, Easter Red-cedar, Dwarf Alberta Spruce, Chalet Swiss Stone Pine
USDA Zone 3 is native to many beautiful trees as well. Here’s a few you might like.
- Paper Birch: This showy tree has white, peeling bark and gorgeous fall leaves. Young trees have reddish brown bark before they mature. The Paper Birch grows to be about 75 feet tall and 30 feet wide.
- Cottonwood: The Cottonwood tree is one of the fastest growing trees, which makes it a popular choice for erosion control. But the female trees produce clouds of cottony catkins in the spring. This cotton can get into everything and make a snowy white mess on your lawn, so choose your location wisely. The Cottonwood grows 150 feet tall and 40 feet wide.
- Eastern White Pine: The Eastern White Pine is a small, showy pine tree. It has a narrow, oval habit with the classic blue-green sheen. The needles are soft and feathery, and the pinecones are long and brown. It makes for a beautiful Christmas tree. The Eastern White Pine grows anywhere from 30 to 80 feet tall, and 20 to 40 feet wide. It’s great for smaller lots, but a lot of people plant them for a windbreak or a privacy screen.
- Other native trees: Hackberry, White Spruce, Quaking Aspen, American Elm, Silver Maple (not native to Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, or Idaho)
Of course, a tree doesn’t have to be native to survive in Zone 3’s climate. You can plant any tree that is hardy to Zone 3.
Vegetables for Zone 3
You can plant almost any vegetable that you’d like to in USDA Zone 3, however many will die back after the first frost.
- Asparagus: Asparagus is one of the few perennial veggies grown in Zone 3. You can plant your asparagus seeds in an asparagus nursery, and then transplant them to your asparagus patch the next year, or you can plant asparagus crowns directly into your patch. If you plant the crowns, plant them in May or early June, in a 6 – 12-inch furrow.
- Cabbage: You can harvest cabbage in the summer or in the fall. If you want a summer crop, start cabbage seeds indoors, or purchase starter plants. If you start your own seeds indoors, plant them six to eight weeks before the last spring frost. Then transplant your cabbage after the last spring frost. If you want a fall harvest, direct sow your cabbage seed in July.
- Corn: Soil temperatures need to reach 60°F before planting corn. You can warm the soil up faster, with a plastic tarp, or you can plant your corn in a greenhouse, hoop house, or cold frame, to give it an earlier start. Otherwise, plant your corn after the last frost date, usually around the end of May.
- Other vegetables: celery, lettuce, swiss chard, spinach, kale, peas, beans, beets, rutabagas, potatoes, onions, zucchini, turnips, broccoli, cauliflower, squash, pumpkin, brussel sprouts, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers
Start warm season vegetables indoors or buy starter plants.
Perennial Flowers for Zone 3
A lot of perennials are hardy enough to survive the cold winters in USDA Zone 3.
Give any of these flowers a try:
- Salvia: Certain varieties of Salvia are hardy to Zone 3 and can grow anywhere from one to five feet high. This flowering plant performs better in garden beds than pots. The Salvia plant is in the mint family, so its leaves are very aromatic. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds all love it. Salvia comes in a wide variety of sizes and colors, including blue, purple, pink, white, red, and yellow.
- Liatris: The Liatris plant grows 1-5 feet high and 9-18 inches wide. It creates tall, flowering stalks with fuzzy purple flowers, blooming in July and August. The Liatris flower attracts butterflies and birds. It is also called Gay Feather and Blazing Star.
- Daylily: The Daylily is a rugged, adaptable flower that establishes and grows quickly, and needs very little care. It grows one to four feet high and is often used as a border or backdrop to other plants. You can also plant daylilies as a ground cover for slopes. They bloom all summer long, but a bloom only lasts for one day. You can get daylilies in nearly every color or shape you can think of.
- Other perennials: Yarrow, Blue Monkshood, American Sweet Flag, Bugleweed, Hollyhock, Lady’s Mantle, Willow Amsonia, Blue Ice, Canadian Anemone, Snowdrop Anemone, Madonna Anemone, Columbine, Compinkie, Bearberry, Spikenard, Sea Thrift, Big Sage Brush, Silver Mound, Goat’s Beard, Astilbe, Snow Drift, False Indigo, Bell Flower, Turtle Head, Hosta, Bearded Iris, Peony
You’re sure to love watching the flowers poke up through the ground after a long, cold winter.
Herbs for Zone 3
There are a few herbs hardy enough to survive the cold winters of USDA Zone 3, but you don’t have to stick with just perennials when planting your herb garden. You can choose annuals as well.
Any of these herbs would be nice in your northern climate:
- Chives: Chives are a perennial herb hardy to Zone 3. They are part of the onion family and produce beautiful purple flowers that are edible. They require full sun and very little care. The soil needs to be about 60° – 70° to plant chives, so planting in mid-to-late spring works best. Chives actually keep pests away, so consider planting them near your carrots, celery, lettuce, peas, and tomatoes.
- Mint: Mint is a creeping plant that shoots underground roots, allowing it to spread rapidly. It’s great for border planting or ground cover. Mint prefers cooler, partly shaded, moist areas. In a cooler climate, it can survive in full sun.
- Oregano: Oregano grows well in containers or along a path. It produces long, trailing stems that look pretty spilling out over a garden wall or a container. It produces a white flower that blooms in late summer. Plant oregano after the last frost. The soil should be around 70°F.
- Other herbs: Parsley, Basil, Cilantro, and Dill
Mint, oregano, and chives are all perennial herbs. You can plant parsley, basil, cilantro, and dill in containers and bring them in at the end of the summer, or simply let them die off with the frost and replant next spring.
The Zone is Only Part of the Story
The USDA Hardiness Zone Map is created using the average minimum temperatures for a specific zone. The hardiness zones are designed to help you choose plants and trees that can survive the winter months in your region.
The hardiness map doesn’t take other growing factors into consideration, however. Droughts, rainfall, soil fertility, and unusual weather patterns can all affect your plant health. Even little microclimates, which are small areas that have a different climate than the surrounding area, can change the way a plant performs.
All of these are important to plant growth and should be considered, when planting in Zone 3.
Understanding your soil type, the amount of sunlight you get, and the general outlook of your landscape is also beneficial. Each plant has different needs. It’s important to match the needs of the plant with a spot that can meet those needs.
Gardening in Zone 3 is incredibly rewarding. Give some of these plants a try – you’ll be happy you did!