Nature’s Notebook and Master Gardeners: A tool for all seasons

Sonoran Desert in August, monsoon season
Sonoran Desert in August


Lush green mountains and creeks filled with rushing, crashing water – not exactly what one thinks Arizona looks like.  But this is the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona in August during monsoon season.

Summer wildflowers spread cheerfully across open patches between cholla and prickly pear ripe with brilliant burgundy fruit.

Just the Beginning – Phenology Training and a Citizen Science Project

My friend Pat and I are treated to these glorious sights as we travel the rocky dirt road up to the Florida Canyon ranger station, part of the Santa Rita Experimental Range, in the Santa Rita mountains south of Tucson to do our observations for Nature’s Notebook, the citizen science program sponsored by the USA National Phenology Network.

Pat , Pima County Master Gardener Participating in Nature's Notebook

Edy, Pima County Master Gardener Participating in Nature's Notebook

Phenology  – Observing and studying plants leads to a lot more!

As part of the Master Gardener class at the Pima County Cooperative Extension though University of Arizona in the spring of 2012, LoriAnne Barnett, the Education Coordinator for the USA National Phenology Network based at the University of Arizona, taught a class on phenology.

What is phenology?

Phenology, we learned, is a branch of science that deals with the relationship between climate and periodic biological phases of flora and fauna.  Okay.  But what did that really mean to us as Master Gardeners?  To find out, Pat and I volunteered to observe and monitor four plants in the Florida Canyon of the Santa Ritas.Tucked away in this remote canyon is a ranger station where scientists from all over the country can come to conduct research.

Our work becomes part of long-term studies

At the station, LoriAnne had tagged the plants we were to watch – two velvet mesquite trees, an ocotillo, and, unbelievably, a very old lilac bush!!  This particular lilac is part of a historic long-term USDA cloned plant phenological study begun in the 1950s, which provides over 50 years of consistent data for scientists to study.  Lucky, lucky us!

Lilacs in spring 2012 - We recorded its bloom time this year.

Lilac in Winter 2013 - As part of Nature's notebook, we'll record when they first bloom again this spring.

Observing 4 plants leads to lots of new questions and beautiful scenery!

As the months have passed, we have observed the mesquite trees flower and develop pods (no pods on the small one, despite the bloom – something to wonder about) and marveled at the gorgeous color of the ocotillo flowers and the continual drop of leaves and regrowth after a monsoon storm.

Observing the flower on velvet mesquite, Prosopis veluntina, during the growing season.

Velvet mesquite, Prosopis veluntina (January)

But our true joy was the heavenly scent of the lilac in bloom in the spring.  Those tiny purple flowers filled the air (and our noses!!) with their delicate fragrance as we would return again and again before reluctantly making our way back down the canyon towards home. As a Midwestern transplant trying to learn about desert flora, this activity opened my eyes to life in the desert in a way I could not have imagined.

Each week Pat and I would delight in the changes we were seeing so very up close and personal.  We also were treated to sightings of fauna that made our trek even more amazing – javalina scurrying along the dry creek bed, a bobcat strolling across our path, snakes and a frightened gila monster running for cover, deer dashing after each other in a panic as we approached, and birds.  So many birds.  Fortunately, Pat is an extraordinary birder and can identify birds by their calls, shapes, and flight patterns.  I’m in awe!  Hummingbirds abound in the canyon while red tail hawks soar over head looking for lunch.

Nature’s Notebook – An Opportunity for Master Gardener Volunteers & Science

Master Gardeners are already in tune to blooms and buds, planting times and zones, emergence and migration.  Having an opportunity to observe and record these events in a program like Nature’s Notebook helps us to remember the how and when of each season and encourages us to create our own hypotheses about what may be to come.

Our data also contributes to a valuable ongoing study about how species and ecosystems are influenced by environmental changes.  

No, this is not work.  This is pure pleasure.  Phenology, it seems, is much more than the science of the seasons. To be with a friend out in the midst of the wonderful place just to monitor and observe the flora and fauna is something I am so very happy to be able to do.

Opuntia engelmannii

Arizona poppy, Kalistoemia grandiflora

Prickly Poppy, Aremone platyceras

Participate in Nature’s Notebook Through Your Local Program

While we participated in the phenology training through our local Master Gardener chapter in Arizona, Nature’s Notebook is a national program. Master Gardener chapters around the country are adding phenology to their list of volunteer projects so check with your local coordinator to find out if your state is participating.

If not, encourage your chapter members to join in tracking phenological changes. You will find all of the resources you need to get started on the USA-NPN website: For information about how you can be involved with Nature’s Notebook, or how to add it to a Master Gardener training course, contact LoriAnne Barnett at

-Submitted by

Edy Alderson, Pima County Cooperative Extension, Green Valley Master Gardener Chapter volunteer
Pima County Master Gardeners on Facebook
Pima County Extension on Facebook

LoriAnne Barnett
Education Coordinator | USA National Phenology Network

2 Replies to “Nature’s Notebook and Master Gardeners: A tool for all seasons”

  1. Hi Edy,
    Sounds like fun! Jim and I have talked about setting up something similar on our land for years now. If we had done so when we first considered it, we’d already have years’ worth of data!

  2. Hi Cookie,
    It’s never too late! If you start now, you can get in on the fun, too. You have a perfect site to use. Let me know if you decide to begin!

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