phenology: do you follow nature’s calendar?

snowdrops and hellebores 2WHICH CALENDAR DO YOU FOLLOW to time your seed-sowing or other garden chores? The one on the wall or desk, or the one provided by nature? I was reminded of this choice in April when a fellow garden blogger remarked with surprise that I had already planted my peas, which I’d mentioned on Twitter or Facebook.  “Are the peepers out there already?” she asked, because she plants peas when the peepers peep, observing a practice based on phenological observations—the “what happens when” of nature-watching.

If you mark down observations about nature year to year—what blooms when, what the weather is doing at the time, what birds or other animals and insects appear or depart on certain dates—and compare them, then you are at least informally practicing phenology. Phenology is the study of recurring life-cycle stages among plants and animals, and also of their timing and relationships with weather and climate, according to the USA National Phenology Network, which also calls this system of interactions “nature’s calendar.”

It’s not the actual dates on a calendar, of course—not things like “plant peas at St. Patrick’s Day,” or “sow tomatoes indoors at tax time” that I use as approximate guidelines when writing my monthly chores lists—but factors including daylength, temperature, and rainfall that affect what happens when year to year, and can serve as cues for the gardener. Nature doesn’t read the printed calendar like we do; I’m not sure what the hellebores and snowdrops (top photo) are trying to tell me out back today.

The tricky thing about phenology is that everyone experiences, and interprets, the cues a little differently. The garden blogger who reacted to my pea-planting, Kathy Purdy of Cold Climate Gardening, has written about phenology before, making just that point by comparing the quite different phenology-based to-do lists of several experts.

So tell us: Do you have any nature cues that you follow year to year at your place to guide your gardening rhythms? To look for Eastern tent caterpillars at crabapple bud break, for instance? To plant potatoes when the Amelanchier, or shadbush, blooms? To prune roses at Forsythia flowering time?

wood frog pornI can tell you that the wood frogs mate when the snowdrops are in bloom. No kidding. Like clockwork.

Have you heard the first peepers yet…and have you planted your peas?

phenology for the greater good

PHENOLOGY SERVES HIGHER PURPOSES than providing conventional wisdoms for gardeners, and particularly in this time of climate change, phenological records are proving especially valuable. The USA National Phenology Network is a partnership among public agencies, non-profit organizations, scientists, educators and even citizen scientists—volunteers including gardeners like us. Its Nature’s Notebook project, for instance, welcomes our observations to help in puzzling out the bigger picture.

  1. shira says:

    I don’t know that I take cues from nature, other than just the weather itself, and then err on the side of caution on top of that. I’m obsessive about checking the long range weather forecasts. Our 10- day (finally) does not have any evening temps below 35, so this morning I planted my peas and salad green seeds. I’m so glad that I didn’t do it on that one freak warm day we had a few weeks ago. Hopefully, (here in 6a, CT) spring is finally here!

  2. Sally says:

    I tend to follow the calendar and nature. I know when the Red-Wing Blackbirds and the Robins re-appear, warmer weather is not far away. I’ve also been checking the weather forecasts here in Ohio and it looks like this week may be the time to plant my peas and salad greens. Fingers crossed! :)

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Sally. I think I use both, too, as you say: calendar and nature’s hints. I am crossing my fingers for both of us now. :)

  3. Corrina says:

    I guess I do a little of both, although after this tough winter, I have followed the calendar more than nature’s cues. I think I need to be a little more patient though! Lettuce and spinach are growing on my deck, but my peas are nowhere to be seen. Zone 5 here.

  4. Rachelle says:

    I check the long-range seasonal forecasts put out by noaa.gov. In my village we have a “snow witch” who forecasts, each fall, the number of measurable snow falls, Her predictions are posted in our village library, with a running tally of the number of snows still expected. in over 40 years she is seldom wrong (like once I think, and that was a particularly snowy period with a gap of a couple hours in a period of three days of continuous snowfall when she wasn’t sure how to count that gap).

    Generally when the sandhill cranes return the ground is unfrozen and within ten days to two weeks we can start hardier cool season crops, garden prep, etc., but that has been almost three weeks now. Last year the forsythia bloomed about now according to my pictures,but that was early. THis year I can’t imagine them blooming for another two weeks!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Rachelle. I love the snow witch story! Fantastic. I hope spring comes before long properly, and that you come visit again soon, too. :)

  5. LJ says:

    We have some robins that stick around all year, so it’s hard to plant based on the birds, but I planted my cold weather crops when the Forsythia was almost in bloom. We had a few weeks of really cold weather after the peas, radishes, and salad greens came up, so I covered the beds in greenhouse plastic and put some water bottles in there with them to keep everyone cozy. Maybe it was a bit early, but everything seems to be doing just fine right now…crossing fingers.

  6. Rhonda says:

    Back when I lived in Kansas in Kansas I used to plant my tomatoes when the pink dogwood down the street was blooming. Only thing funny was, that dogwood wasn’t supposed to live in zone 6, it was quite famous for it’s survival there. Still it was the perfect tomato-planting guide.

  7. Kathy from Cold Climate Gardening says:

    Yes, your own homegrown phenology is best. You are warmer than we are here, and I suspect you have spent more years improving your vegetable garden’s soil. When the garden dries out is as much a factor as soil and air temp in determining when to plant. Last year the peas were planted April 9th. Somehow I just can’t believe the soil will have dried out sufficiently in another week. Thanks for the link love.

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks for the ongoing inspiration, Kathy, right from the start when I “met” you via blogging a few years ago. :) You always make me think! I like to plant peas after mid-March but before April 10 or thereabouts, or else they bump into too much heat at the other end. Maybe I rushed it this time…we shall soon see!

  8. Doug says:

    The only thing that I used to do by the calendar was buy my violas from Loomis Creek Nurseries on April First (opening day there). Alas, Loomis Creek is no more and, aptly, this year it snowed on the first of April.

    I take the first chorus of peepers as my cue to begin the spring. Thousands of them calling “Get to work!”

  9. Nancy Williams says:

    Unsurprisingly, you are quite the psychic. This area of gardening/nature atunement has been on my mind recently. Possibly you remember the Foxfire books, where Appalachian college students interviewed “old-timers” about “folk wisdom”–and an especially nice section was devoted to Planting by The Signs.” I think there are some great secrets to be unlocked here, plus small wisdoms for ones microclimate.

  10. Shauna says:

    I plant based on “windows of opportunity” with regard to moisture. I till the soil as soon as it’s sufficiently dry, whenever that comes, and plant cool-season crops right away. This usually happens in the final week of March here in Iowa. If we get a cold snap and the seeds languish in the ground, so be it; I can always re-seed. I must also confess to rushing the first planting because I compete for bragging rights with my dad in central Illinois, whose planting season precedes mine by 2 weeks. He loves to call and rib me that his peas are in the ground. Will this be the year that I beat him???

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Nancy. Yes, I started reading a bit about planting by the signs, too…and then I feared I’d never get back to work but just get lost in the big, fascinating topic!

      Welcome, Shauna. That’s a good way to describe it — windows of opportunity re: moisture. I think I do the same thing, actually.

      Welcome, Doug. I am at a loss, too, re: the pansies and violas…really upset to lose my friends from Loomis! No peepers here yet at my place, but nearby (20 mins. away) someone told me they heard them the other night, just before the snow started. Crazy, no?

      See you both soon again, I hope.

  11. ayo says:

    Although my current garden has too much shade for most roses, past gardens had quite a few. I always wondered when exactly to prune—did freezing temps delay the pruning date, did early warming push it up? Then someone told me you always “Prune when the forsythia are in bloom,” as you mention, Margaret. Even though I loathe the invasive forsythia, there are enough in bloom around me so that I always know when to tend to the roses!

  12. lynn says:

    the peas are planted, the peepers and the woodcock are part of the morning serenade, it all just gets my instincts going, spring is here, and it is sheer panic, so much to do!!! with a smile, always!!!

  13. Carol Shuler says:

    Here in central Arizona we know it’s spring when the turkey vultures return. From the other end of the country many of the comments are amusing. Waiting for the soil to dry out. No problem. Most of this area only gets 8-12″ annually. Some natural occurrences can be associated with dates. Our monsoon starts around the 4th of July which is also a good time to pick saguaro fruit. I think most experienced gardeners do pay attention to seasonal variations.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Carol. Here, too. They returned recently, swirling around on the first warm winds looking for goodies from up high. I have never been able to believe how the desert survives on such low rainfall; what an amazing and efficient ecosystem it is. See you soon again, I hope.

  14. Linda Pastorino says:

    I usually look at both cues and weather but in my 5B garden I have not seen blooming as early this year. My helebores last year were out end February and they have just appeared last week and blooming only this week. NO daffodll yet in sight and last year, they would be blooming alreaydy. I cut roses back at the sign of first forsynthia and only my pink variety is out so far, so this past week end i started cutting on the hardier climbing ones. I will wait another week to start on the old rose varieties. I think each person feels the property and each year that changes according to weather patterns. We are still getting 32 and 30 during the nights and mornings. I think the topic is a good one to talk about, thanks for that!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Ingrid. I see that many rose societies recommend that, wherever people live — so maybe that’s one that’s a conventional wisdom worth memorizing. Nice to have you here all the way from heavenly gardening country out there. Lucky you!

  15. Jayne says:

    My ten year gardening journals help a lot but I observe what Nature is up to each Spring. On this day in 2006, I noted that the forsythia was blooming. This year the buds are hardly swollen. Last year my daffodils were past by the time the Greenwich Daffodil SHow occurred, and this year, on April 27th I wonder if the daffodils will have reached their peak yet! Two evenings in March I heard the peepers, but they have been silent since. The robins arrived late this year – and they are my clue to plant peas. ( I still havent put mine in the ground yet. ) But I am putting my lettuce seedlings and sweeet peas out during the day in a bright shaded spot.
    Isnt it all so exciting every year??
    Margaret, you were GREAT at the speaking event in new Canaan. My friends and I are still talking about it!

  16. Michele in Salem says:

    I love this topic and I’m really enjoying the conversation. I think I do a lot of tasks kind of intuitively (with help these days from your monthly chores list Margaret).. we spread corn gluten on our lawn when the forsythia bloom. It seems to look happier and more lush every year.

  17. alicia sinkule says:

    Reading the various post made me appreciate my zone 8 southern garden. Azaleas, cherry trees, dogwoods have already finished blooming-irises, roses and lavender cranking up. I’ve got an old metal watering trough that will serve as my veggie patch, but around here, nothing tender planted until after Easter.

  18. El Jay says:

    I wish we had a “snow witch” at least that way i could have been prepared for one of the longest and snowiest winters – ole man winter just doesn’t want to let go – last friday we had 6″ and today we had about an inch or so. my vegetable garden is buried in at least 2-3′ of snow still in my zone 4 garden. I remember awhile back somebody told me that i should plant my peas on St. Patrick’s day – well i was able to once. Not this year tho. my crocuses and daffodil leaves are up but no flowers yet. i remember last year the crocuses were late, they bloomed, then we got a warm spell and they were gone. Lynn, i love your saying – so much to do with a smile always!! i will have to remember that when i’m trying to turn ground that is heavy clay and roots and rocks – a friend of mine calls me the angry gardener – jokingly of course. I swear that the rocks multiply each year. We’re still having temps. below freezing at night – will be so nice to get outside and play in dirt and “get my hands dirty”. The red winged blackbirds are back and the robins are just singing away and the geese are returning. I guess i just need to be more patient. soon, el jay, soon.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, El Jay. Here, too: below freezing at night, wet snow yesterday, snow last weekend, etc. Though at this point it doesn’t stick or melts the next day, it’s keeping me out of the beds, that’s for sure. I am eager for a week of gardening and dirty hands, as you say. Hope to see you soon again.

  19. Liz Szymanski says:

    I winter sow my seeds to get a jump start on the season using recycled gallon milk jugs. The milk jugs act like mini greenhouses, and the seeds germinate when they are ready. The plants are much more hardy because of growing outside when replanted into the soil.
    You can winter sow starting any time after the winter solstice when the days begin to get longer. Due to weather I started this year in March. I planted my herbs, sweet peas, lettuce, and perennials. Late in April I will plant my warm weather seeds.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Liz. I love this tactic — and the milk jug “cloche” idea. Thank you. When I have read about winter sowing nobody mentioned that simple possibility for rigging up a little extra protection. Nice. See you soon again, I hope.

  20. ed says:

    Here in Orange County, NY the ppepers started peeping right before the April Fools Day snow. I have always used natures cues to start my gardening chores, so the sounds of peepers herald in the start of my spring clean up in the garden. I also use the blooming of my witch hazel as an earlier cue to put away the catalogs and get out the gardening tools. Unfortunately, this year winter just would not let go and my schedule as been out of whack.Hopefully all of nature’s other cues will not be interupted by one last blow from winter.
    15 years ago, before moving to Warwick, I would have used the calendar on the wall to dictate what needed to be done as I did not even know what a peeper was. I remember after moving into the house on April 15th and sleeping with the windows open so I could enjoy the country air. The next morning a neighbor asked how I liked my forst night in the country. I said I loved it but had trouble sleeping as it was so noisy all night long. He asked why and I said that i slept with the windows open and there was some loud scretching sound all night long. He laughed and said they were the spring peepers. I laughed and though how I had lived in the city for 10 yrs and slept thru sirens, subways etc, but that these tiny peepers kept me up on my first night in the country. Now I have come to love that noise and at the end of every winter and wait and listen for the first night of the peepers so that I may get out and start a new year in the garden.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Ed. I understand completely about nature’s sounds — which anyone who comes to visit from the city is aghast about. “How do you sleep with all those frogs?” they ask (or birds…). “How do you sleep WITHOUT them?” I want to know. :)

  21. ed says:

    I agree, I look foward to the first spring night I can sleep with the windows open.
    Will the event this Saturday be on? It looks like rain both days.

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