‘Tis the season for phenology

– Posted in: From my files, Garden chores, Plant info

According to the UK Phenology Network, “phenology is the study of the times of recurring natural phenomena especially in relation to climate.” It’s something gardeners tend to practice at this time of the year, as we’re all anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring. (Well, us northern gardeners are still waiting, even if the rest of you are already enjoying spring’s pleasures.) I keep a record of when the first snowdrop blooms every year, and I consult my records every winter when the madness of cabin fever overtakes me.

Phenology is even more practical when it is used as a guide to correctly timing the gardener’s work sequence: when you see this happen in the natural world, it’s time to do that. I find these kinds of instructions fascinating, but I rarely follow them. Partly because they’re mostly about when to plant vegetables, and I’m not currently the vegetable gardener in this family. For ornamental planting, I go by the general rule of thumb “as soon as the ground can be worked and I can find the time.” And the obsessive nit-picker in me is always sure I have the wrong kind of oak tree, and how big are squirrels’ ears anyway? Don’t follow my bad example, though. These observations represent the collective experience of many gardeners, and should be refined further by your own observation and experience. (This is one good use of a garden notebook, by the way.) Cyndy of Riverrim has been cataloging her observations for over ten years, and recently discovered some software for tracking phenological observations. Meresy of edge effect provided a list that I believe she compiled from several sources, and asked others to share their own phenology. As I’ve already admitted, I haven’t been keeping a very good record of my own observations, but, of course, I have a phenology file in my trusty file cabinet. I could have written one big long comment on Meresy’s blog, but I decided instead to post it here to share with all of you.

From an old Johnny’s Selected Seeds newsletter:

  • When you hear spring peepers (a type of frog), it’s time to plant peas
  • Time to start plowing when you see the daffodils blooming. [Which daffodils? ‘February Gold’? ‘Fortissimo’? ‘King Alfred’?]
  • Full dandelion bloom is the earliest corn planting time [even for the supersweet varieties that rot in cold soil?]
  • Don’t plant beans until the apple trees are blossoming [but our apple blossoms often get frosted!]
  • Plant tomatoes when the lilacs are in bloom [which lilac? the single white? the double white? the pale purple? the dark purple?]

From an anonymous photocopied magazine page:

  • “When lilac leaves have emerged from their tight winter buds, plant peas, root crops, and lettuce outdoors.”
  • “When lilac clusters are in full, opened flowers, plant beans and cucumbers.”
  • “Late varieties of tulips in bloom signal safe corn planting time.”
  • “Plant peppers and eggplant outside when iris is in bloom.” [presumably bearded iris]
  • “Tomatoes can be set out when lily-of-the-valley is in full bloom.”
  • “Plant beets and chard when daffodils are blooming.” [again, which daffodils? the ones along the road, or the ones on the north side of the house?]

From A Northeast Gardener’s Year by Lee Reich:

  • When you see forsythia and daffodils blooming, sow the hardiest seeds outdoors: radishes, peas, sweet-peas, poppies, carrots, chard, lettuce, spinach, calendula, alyssum, cornflower, and baby’s-breath.
  • When Juneberries and lilacs are blooming, plant out cold hardy seedlings, such as: cabbage, broccoli, onion, leek, snapdragon, dusty-miller, salvia, pansy, larkspur
  • When spirea, wisteria, and wild cherry are blooming, sow cold-tender seeds: corn, beans, okra, melons, squash, cucumbers, nasturtiums, morning glory, sunflower, marigold, zinnia, and petunia
  • When black locust and Vanhoutte spirea are blooming, plant cold tender seedlings of: zinnia, marigolds, tomatoes, and peppers
  • When catalpas and mockoranges bloom, sow fall cabbage and broccoli seeds.

From Living Seasonally: The Kitchen Garden and the Table at North Hill by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, p. 54:

  • As soon as frost is out of ground: spinach, radishes, broad beans
  • Forsythia flowers: potatoes and peas, lettuce and other salad crops
  • Apple blossom fall: beans, corn, carrots, celery, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, onions
  • Peonies fat in bud: cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, squashes, pumpkins [agh! which peony? I have early, mid, and late blooming varieties!]

As you can see, they don’t all agree. Ultimately you have to develop a customized phenology for your own local conditions. How wonderful to be so intimately in tune with the natural world that it guides your hand in the garden’s tending.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

If winter is slumber and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection. It’s a time of year when the leaves are down and the harvest is in and the perennials are gone. Mother Earth just closed up the drapes on another year and it’s time to reflect on what’s come before.

~Mitchell Burgess in Northern Exposure

Comments on this entry are closed.

Talitha April 5, 2006, 3:09 pm

Hah! That’s funny. I never paid any attention to any of this stuff, but when I planted my first batch of peas, I heard spring peepers for this first time this year in the evening.

cyndy March 28, 2006, 9:59 pm

Thanks for posting from your “trusty file cabinet”, Kathy! The info is great, and I esp. like the list from Lee Reich…ps, I don’t think I will purchase the software I was looking at…turns out the penny nail that holds my collection of calendars on the wall of the cellar steps seems like a better investment….that and the fact that my son has tinkered around with Excel for me 😉 !

jenn March 27, 2006, 11:17 am

fascinating stuff!

M Sinclair Stevens (Texas) March 26, 2006, 10:27 pm

One of the reasons I began keeping a garden journal was that this idea fascinates me–although I never knew it had a name until now.

As you point out, we need completely different rules down here where there are no lilacs, apple trees, or tulips to guide us. And luckily we don’t have to wait for the frost to get out of the ground because it never gets into it.

I wanted to track the succession of plants, but they are not so orderly. Some react to the lengthening days regardless of the temperature or amount of rain. Others bloom early in rainy years and late in drought years. Those plants which are triggered by temperature changes court danger as it can be 92 one week and 32 the next…as happened last week.