Phenology: Forsythia in my yard. Started to bloom March 11, 2012.

No, not the moon signs. The forsythia blossoming signs!

You know how every year, you buy a copy of the Old Farmers Almanac, and read all of the goofy articles and the gardening tips, and then get to the actual planting charts in the back, and if you can figure them out, they don’t seem to quite line up with what you know about when to plant for your area? That is, if you can figure out the charts at all? Well, that would be me.


Phenology: Plum tree in my yard. Started to bloom March 24, 2012. The robins are here in mass (almost scary numbers - like Hitchcock's "The Birds").

And although I’ve been inspired by this post to give “planting by the moon” another try, I’ve yet to get around to it. Planting annuals that produce their yield above ground while the moon is going from new to full, and planting biennials, perennials, bulb and root plants while the moon is going from full to new sounds romantic and old timey and wise. But for me, planting as soon as the weather and my own schedule permits for the crop in question always trumps waiting on the moon to be in the right phase. But then I do things like plant my beets too early and the cold weather makes them think they have been through a second winter and they all send up a seed stalk and don’t make a bulb.

Maybe you’ve heard things like “plant your peas on St. Patrick’s day”, which is March 17th? This might be great advice in SE Washington, but it was absolute lunacy when we were living at almost 7,000 feet in SW Colorado, when the date to plant peas was more like the end of April. And what if it’s a particularly cold wet spring? Or an especially warm one? Should you always plant the same crop on the same date, regardless of what the weather is doing?


Phenology: Willow windbreak green up - early March at top, late March - all over.

There must be a more reliable alternative. There is, and I’m here to tell you, that alternative is phenology, my fellow gardeners, phenology.

Phe nol o gy. noun.

  1. The scientific study of periodic biological phenomena, such as flowering, breeding, and migration, in relation to climatic conditions.
  2. The relationship between a periodic biological phenomenon and climatic conditions.

The date the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano? That’s phenology. The date that the cherry trees bloom on the mall in Washington DC? That’s phenology. The date you see the first tendril of perennial bindweed rearing its ugly head above ground in Southwest Colorado? That’s phenology. That is, IF you write it down every year. Because the thing about the natural world is that the plants and animals who live in it 24/7 notice if it is a warm spring or a cold spring and adjust accordingly. They will bloom early, or late, depending on the climate that year. And if you do what they do, and adjust when you plant your crops to what else is happening around your garden, your plants will have a better chance of thriving.


Phenology: Daffodils blooming in yard. Start March 9 2012. What to do when chickens stomp on daffodils? Pick some to enjoy inside before they are all covered with mud...oh, and get around to fencing the yard!

My husband and I keep a half-assed phenolgy journal in this nice blank page book we bought about 10 years ago. When we were in Colorado, we noted when we heard the first spring peepers (chorus frogs) each year, when the Canada Geese first flew over in the spring, when the scrub oak leafed out, when the hawthorn hedge behind our house started blooming, when we saw the first blooming dandelion, when the hummingbirds first arrived…you get the idea. And then I correlated these events with when it was time to plant particular crops in the garden. Or at least I tried to. Generally, it was whatever weekend fell after that date, since I was working full-time.

But now that my work IS gardening, I can really sink my teeth into this technique. So this year, I am paying special attention to when native and ornamental plants bloom, and how that lines up with the vegetable planting calendar I’ve created based on advice from seed packets, seed companies, and other sources. I’ll keep you posted on what I find out. The March/April 2012 issue of BackHome magazine has a nice article on Phenology for Gardeners. They suggest the following to get you started.

  • Plant peas when forsythia and daffodils bloom (or when you hear peeper frogs)
  • Plant potatoes when the first dandelion bloom
  • Plant beets, carrots, cole crops, lettuce and spinach when lilacs are in first leaf (my sources say cole crops and spinach can be planted earlier – so we’ll see…)
  • Plant corn when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear
  • Plant bean, cucumber and squash seeds when lilacs are in full bloom
  • Plant tomatoes when lily-of-the-valley plants are in full bloom
  • Plant eggplant, melons and peppers when irises bloom

The trick here is to make your own list. Because not everyone has a lilac in their yard (or maybe lives someplace where they simply don’t grow). And there are more than 600 species of oak world-wide. Many in the US are not native. They probably don’t all leaf out at the same time. So correlate YOUR phenology to YOUR plants in YOUR area (and pick species that are common to your area, so that you can get a general gestalt, and not just rely on the one plant in your yard.) You can even join the National Phenology Network and add your data to their country-wide database. It’s fun to compare where you are to other parts of the country.

The USA National Phenology Network (USA-NPN) serves science and society by promoting broad understanding of plant and animal phenology and its relationship with environmental change. The Network is a consortium of individuals and organizations that collect, share, and use phenology data, models, and related information.

How cool is that? And can we say reliable citizen science helping document global climate change? What a great project to get your kids involved with, right?

Happy spring! Happy gardening!

Miles Away Farm Blog © 2012, where we’re miles away from having a phenology calendar for our location, but did notice an early dandelion blooming yesterday,  AFTER I planted the potatoes. Right on time!