In 53 years on Earth, I hadn’t noticed the word “phenology” until I read about in The New American Landscape, in the chapter “Gardening Sustainably with a Changing Climate” by David Wolfe.
“The study of how the biological world times natural events is called phenology. Scientists now understand that plants and animals take their cues from their local climate. Climate (long-term weather patterns) is impacted by non-biological factors — temperature, precipitation and available sunlight. Species use the predictable yearly changes in the climate to determine when they start natural events such as breeding or flowering.”
So to study phenology means to notice when birds migrate, when trees bloom and fruit, when leaves turn colour and drop, when frogs start peeping and laying eggs, and so on. These behaviours of animals and plants are predictably influenced by climate factors that may change: intensity and duration of sunlight, temperature extremes and durations, amount and timing of rainfall, snowfall, melt, drought.
“A garden did not need people in order to be alive and natural. The flowers might have died, and the last leaves might be falling, but the space was still redolent with the odors of life. It contained a thousand reassurances that no matter what one person’s strife, the seasons continued their cycle.”
― Madeline Hunter, Stealing Heaven
I notice these things in isolation at times but have never connected the dots. This year, I am hoping to notice, record, and connect dots to discover what’s happening where I live this year, and in following years.
Skippy’s Vegetable Garden looked over her records recently for the past 6 years to see how this March differs or is similar to other Marches. That’s a first step in practicing phenology, it seems to me, to notice snow depth, snow fall, rain fall, and temperature variations during a time period. (Barring a major volcanic eruption or very unusual astronomical event, the duration and intensity of sunlight reaching us should be roughly the same year over year — and differences would be hard for the layperson to measure in any case. Extreme sunspot activity — not the regular sunspot cycles — can apparently have a big effect.). The next step is to correlate these climate events to animal and plant activity, which she has also done with one element by noting how her peas fared each year at this time.
She’s inspired me to make a similar sweep through my records — photos, weather notes jotted in my daily calendar, gardening records — for the six early months of spring (March, April and May) that we have lived on this property:
What I notice from these data are the following:
- We had a very early spring in 2012, with our first 70 degree F temp on 19 March; and then I had to cover lilac buds, just-planted peas, tulips, etc., at the end of March when temps turned cold (to 14F) again. In 2012, I had already been out in the yard, cleaning up, by 18 March, whereas in all other years I wasn’t out gardening at all until April.
- 2014, by contrast, was a very slow spring, when we didn’t even hit 50 degrees F until April. But the last frost turned out to be 8 May, one of the earlier last frosts in the last 5 years, and well before the “average” of 20 May.
- In the last four or five years, this year is the latest I have waited to have a gin & tonic in the sunroom. Even in 2014, when it was in the 30s outside, we hit 76F in the sunroom on 18 March. That hasn’t happened yet this year, as of 23 March. But we have already hit 50F outside (on the 11th) this March, whereas in 2014 we didn’t hit 50F until 1 April. So we’re ahead of last year’s game in terms of temps, if not in terms of cocktails imbibed.
- Nights when the temperature dropped to below 0 degrees F is also very enlightening. In 2010, 2012, 2011, and 2013, we had at most one night when the temps went to 0 or below in March. But in 2014, there were eleven such nights in March, and so far in 2015, there have been five. It’s not very surprising that we get this cold, as we are zone 5a, where temps might get to -20 degrees F in winter, in the worst winter. I think the lowest temperature I saw for March in 2014 was -16 degrees F, which is pretty close, but still right in line with our zone 5a status. Of course, we may have been much lower in January or February, but at least we had snow cover then, to protect the roots of perennials, shrubs, and trees. (We have that snow cover this year, too, but did not in 2012, e.g.)
- Our daily highs in March are running 5.6 degrees F under average and daily lows are running 7.77 degrees F under historical average (based on AccuWeather’s historical averages); but last year, they ran 8 degrees F and 12.4 degrees F under average for highs and lows, so I’m hopeful that summer will still come, as it did last year.
From the photos of successive March 19th-21sts, I can see a lot of difference from year to year. I notice that the snow had melted much more in 2010 and 2012 than it has now, or than it had in 2011, 2013, or 2014.
Look at the ups and downs of late March 2012 alone. An early spring (starting mid-Feb when snow melted and plants emerged), followed by a late March cold snap and snow. The top two photos were taken on 18 March, of Irish moss and daffodil bulbs; the two hellebore photos (uncovered and covered) were taken on 23 and 26 March; and the snow fell on 31 March after a few very cold days and nights:
From the photos of successive sunrooms inhabited by the dog — who always started whining to go into that (unheated except by the sun) room when she saw a certain quality of sunlight and assumed warmth — I can see that from 2010-2013 (when she died, in June), she was pretty consistent in her pattern; our first afternoon in the sunroom spanned not even 3 weeks in these four years and probably would have spanned less had she been able to open the door with her paws (her people didn’t always agree with her wild instincts):
Science has never drummed up quite as effective a tranquilizing agent as a sunny spring day. ~ W. Earl Hall
Of course, I miss her entirely, for her love of a warm sunroom and her inner knowledge of the seasonal patterns as well as for her many other traits. Now I must venture forth alone of an afternoon here soon.
And I will need to keep an eye on the bears, the frog eggs, the mating birds, and other such mysteries of life to connect some more dots this year.
I am looking forward to that G&T, when the intensifying light of the sunroom calls me.