Phenology: Be Observant

Keep your eyes on changeable nature for signs it’s time to get gardening.

Apple trees put forth blossoms  when it’s warm enough for honeybees to visit. Photo by Adobe Stock/Leonid Tit.

How do we gardeners know when the time is right to sow our beans or plant our potatoes? When looking in any gardening book, we find complicated charts that involve counting back the required number of days from our area’s last expected frost date for each type of vegetable. But any chart with suggested planting dates can’t possibly take into account the nuances of my small patch of ground in my hilltop garden. I know from experience that I’m unlikely to get the late frosts that plague plots lying lower in the valley. I also know some of my neighbors will enjoy snowdrops a week ahead of me and will be the first to welcome back the songbirds.

There’s an old proverb that says, “Spring is sooner recognized by plants than by men.” Plants, birds, and insects don’t use charts to know when it’s time to burst their buds or sing for a mate. Swallows know when the insect population will be sufficient to feed a hungry brood, and apple trees know to put forth their blossoms when the days are warm enough to bring out the honeybees.

Observing nature’s responses to the environment is known as phenology. The term derives from the Greek word φαίνω (phainō), “to show, to bring to light, to make appear.” It refers simply to the study of how plants and animals are influenced by natural events, such as changes in the weather and day length. Phenology is nature’s calendar, signaling that it’s time for daffodils to push up through the soil, for robins to start building nests, and for maple leaves to turn red.

A Matter of Time

Generations of farmers and gardeners have kept records of seasonal events and observed their correlations to plant, insect, and animal life. From these records they determined the best time to plant to achieve optimum growth and avoid pests. Over the years, these observations gave rise to traditional sayings that indicate a time for action, such as “Plant corn when the oak leaves are as big as squirrels’ ears,” or “Sow morning glories when maple trees have full-sized leaves.”

There’s growing evidence showing the usefulness of these observations. The USA National Phenology Network’s program, “Nature’s Notebook,” is a nationwide initiative to collect and organize observations of plants and animals taken by amateur and professional naturalists. In a recent study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, this program’s modern-day records from across North America were compared with observations recorded over 150 years ago by naturalist and author Henry David Thoreau in Concord, Massachusetts, plus four decades of observations collected at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado. The result was a broader picture on changing weather patterns and their effect on flowering times. The authors found not only earlier flowering, but an increasing variability in the timing of flowering in recent years.



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