Monday, April 9, 2012

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There's Signs

Several years ago, on a sunny April day, I was digging in the flowerbeds, and I unearthed a number of dormant, burrowing-type bees. Honestly, they kind of freaked me out, so I just threw dirt back over them and went inside for a shower and lemonade.

My tree isn't blooming yet this year, 

but here is a photo of it from 
a couple
springs ago. Maybe this guy is
looking for honey?
A few weeks later, our cherry tree burst into flower, and (it seemed to me) the bees sprang out of their winter garden beds on the same day and started buzzing about the tree. I was amazed and impressed at how nature worked it out so that the events would coincide so beautifully. Every year since that, I've looked forward to watching the phenomenon occur on a regular cycle.

Last week, I was delighted to discover that there is actually a branch of science called phenology that looks for just these sorts of phenomena. It comes from the Greek root "phaino," meaning "to show" or "to appear." Literally, it is the study of things that appear, the study of signs. It's focused on recurring plant and animal life stages (like budding, leafing, flowering, fruiting, the emergence of insects, and migration) and the timing of these stages with relationship to weather and climate.

Applied practically, phenology can help you know when to start weeding, planting, pruning, fighting insects, look for migrating birds or fish. One terrific example of a phenological observation/tip comes from Felder Rushing, a former horticulturist from Jackson, Mississippi. He puts it this way: "When fishermen are sitting on the riverbank instead of sitting on their bait buckets, the soil is warm enough to plant."

The table below provides some more advice from the University of Wisconsin Extension:

Do this... When...
Plant peasForsythia blooms
Plant potatoesThe first dandelion blooms
Plant beets, carrots, cole crops, lettuce and spinach Lilac is in first leaf
Plant bean, cucumber, and squash seeds Lilac is in full bloom
Plant tomatoes Lily-of-the-valley plants are in full bloom
Transplant eggplant, melons, and peppers Irises bloom

Additionally, indicator plants like saucer magnolia, lilac, chicory, and Canada thistle can tell gardeners when certain garden pests will be active. Gardeners who know how to read the signs can take steps to protect their plants and fruit.

There is even a national network comprised of various agencies, educational and scientific organizations, as well as backyard observers, dedicated to collecting phenological data.

In the past, I've always just looked at the color-coded charts on the back of seed packages to determine when something should be planted. However, spring seems to have arrived at a different time every year for at least the past 5 or 6 years. The thought of learning to read nature's signs is very appealing to me. I like the idea of becoming more in-tune with my environment; I like the idea of learning to not just look, but to see.


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