I love looking out our kitchen window in April and seeing “thirty shades of green.” Everything is starting to look so lush and alive and it makes me feel better about the possibility of warm weather arriving at last. The hostas are unfurling their variegated leaves. Luckily, the nights have been cool enough that the slugs haven’t been very active yet, so the hosta have a head start.
When spring arrives each year, I note the changes in my garden journal. I know I am not the only one who does this. In fact there is a whole science based on the relative changes in nature called phenology.
In formal terms, phenology is “the study of how the biological world and its naturally occurring events are timed with seasonal and annual variations taken into account.” But this is a longer way of saying its how natural things relate to each other and to the climate surrounding them.
Recording Changes in Plants Can Traced to the 8th Century!
When we stop to think about it, we know that throughout history people have been studying natural relationships. Ancient tribes of North America, for example, would schedule their crop plantings according to a variety of signs in nature, be it the phases of the moon or the leafing out of the maple trees. Other early cultures worldwide knew of the signs that indicated that the plants and animals were taking their cues from the local climate. Think of the cherry blossom festivals in ancient Japan and China whose dates can be traced to earlier than the 8th century. Vintners in Europe have been keeping climate records for over 500 years, which gives them a nice, long baseline to work with.
The father of Modern Phenology is considered to be Englishman Robert Marsham when, in 1736, he started systematically and precisely recording the signs of spring on his estate in Norfolk. This tradition of meticulous record-keeping continued for generations in his family until 1958 when Martha Marsham died. As you can imagine, a long-time record that spans 200 years would be really helpful in a lot of crop plans.
Garden Journaling Helps Me Grow My Garden
In our current times of climate upheaval, a science like this would also be advantageous in noting specific changes.
In my own small way, I have been doing this for about 10 years in my garden journal. Ten years may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the dedication of the Marsham family, but it has been useful to me just in my garden plantings as well as interesting to see the year-to-year progressions. I know when the Hellebores start to fade in March, the Epimediums will start to sprout and the hosta will poke through the soil.
What to record?
Traditionally, the three main factors in the study of phenology have been sunlight, temperature and precipitation, all of which – of course – are the basis of climate. These are the factors that work together in determining the timing of natural events. One example would be the bird migrations that base their flying times on the amount of daylight, leaving their wintering grounds as the days become longer. In a reverse order are the bloom times of poinsettias, which cue in to shorter days.
It helps me to record low and high temperatures in my journal as well as rainfall. This way, if in mid-summer certain plants aren’t doing well, I can look back and see what might be a factor in that failure to thrive. Perhaps it will even allow me some insight to correct for that factor next year.
Get Recording With Citizen Science Projects or Your Own Garden Journal
There is now an organization dedicated to phenology. It offers gardeners and amateur scientists an opportunity to record data and have it compiled with the data of other researchers. It is called the United States National Phenology Network and can be reached at www.usanpn.org/ . I kind of liked their description of phenology as being “Nature’s Calendar.” The website offers lots of ideas of keeping records and is looking for volunteer record-keepers from around the country so a larger cache of information can be gleaned. But even if you are not interested in joining other gardeners in keeping track of nature, keeping a record for your own use can be invaluable.
Because the world around us changes so quickly in April, it is the perfect time to begin record keeping. Birds are migrating, leaves and buds are swelling on the trees, perennial plants are poking through the soil, bees are out on warmer days, frogs are singing. Of course the first robin is a good climate indicator. But summer, fall and winter bring their own changes, with flowers blooming and leaves changing colors and eventually dropping.
Project Budburst, Project Feederwatch, or Frogwatch USA are also some good citizen scientist programs to check out. Find them through your online search engine. For a first-hand experience from other Master Gardeners, check out Edy and Pat’s story in their Nature’s Notebook and Master Gardener A Tool for All Seasons blog post from this past January at to see how valuable a notebook can be. Then get yourself a garden journal, make one from a 79 cent notebook, a three-ring binder, or keep records on your computer, and become an amateur phenologist.
Do you keep a garden journal? What kinds of things do you record?
Would you like to compare notes with other Master Gardeners this fall? It might be a fun way of creating our own MG phenology research guide for our own geographical areas.
~ Carla Albright, Tillamook County Oregon Master Gardener