Phenology: Planting by Nature's Signs

Gardening Through Observation

Mar 13, 2018
Iris Crop
Robin Sweetser

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Follow nature’s signs when planting in the garden! For centuries, farmers took their cues for spring planting times from observing what was happening in nature. Here are some key observations.

Phenology: Following Nature’s Signs

The idea of watching for nature’s seasonal signs is called phenology. For gardeners and farmers, this involves studying natural phenomena to know when to plant crops in the spring. 

Trees, shrubs, and flowers are sensitive to temperature and day length, and develop on a regular schedule based on local conditions. Other natural phenomena, such as bird migrations and the emergence of insects and amphibians (like spring peepers), also signify the coming of spring. It only makes sense to use these events as indicators of when the weather is right for planting.

Observations made over many years have led to some fairly reliable conclusions, such as those listed below. 

Following Nature’s Lead

Nature’s “signs” are different in every region; however, you should still relate to these examples:

  • When the forsythia is in bloom, it is safe to plant peas, onion sets, and lettuce.
  • Look for dandelions to bloom before planting potatoes.
  • Perennials can be planted when the maple trees begin to leaf out.
  • When quince is blossoming, transplant cabbage and broccoli.

While not totally foolproof, following nature’s clock helps us tune in to the rhythm of life around us.

What are some signals where you live?

Learn More

See our Planting Calendar to find the best times to plant seeds—based on frost dates—in your area.

Check out our Vernal Equinox: First Day of Spring page for more great facts and folklore about the season!

About This Blog

Get inspired by Robin Sweetser's backyard gardening tips. Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer's Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. She and her partner Tom have a small greenhouse business and also sell plants, cut flowers, and vegetables at their local Farmer's Market.

Reader Comments

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Great resource

This is a terrific reference, especially since I never know from day to day what the weather and temperature will be this spring in zone 7A. I figure mother nature knows better than me...

Planting time

Thank you for this time line of planting. It is very helpful. Is there anything I can do, plant, or construct that would deter my deer from eating my flowers and tomatoes?

Thank you. Theresa

Deterring Deer

Deer will eat almost anything if they’re hungry enough, but plants with fuzzy or sharp foliage and strongly-scented flowers may make them think twice. See our Deer Pest Page for more tips.

Deter deer

I had several deer coming at night, eat certain plants, shrubs and grass. I learn from an older neighbor that Deer don't like the smell of people and that I try hair clippings. I went to a local beauty school and asked if they could save the hair clippings from haircuts for me. They laughed when I told them my plans. I went back a couple of days later and picked it up. Sprinkling a little bit of the hair around plants, shrubs and in my garden. Lo and behold no more deer. Hope this helps, worked for us.

I just love your articles Robin

Out of all the different articles I read on this website - I have to say Robin that your perspectives and points of knowledge you bring to fellow gardeners are the ones I listen, treasure and print out! Thank you for this and please keep up the ever so interesting reads. I always end up smiling much like your beautiful smile after each read.

Thank you

Thank you so much for your

Thank you so much for your kind words Alycia! I’m glad that you are finding this blog to be helpful.

But what if I only have daffodils?

This is a neat little list and it covers practically everything we grow, but the daffodils are the only plant on the list that we have, so how will I know it's time to plant radishes when there are no crocuses around?

The critters have eaten all

The critters have eaten all my crocuses so I keep an eye on a house I pass on the way to work each day. They have a spectacular stand of crocuses that serve as my reminder. If no one near you has them I think that since crocus usually blossom between snowdrops and daffodils that you could use that timeframe or just plant when the daffys are budding. Check out the dates on your seed packet too, they usually go by the last estimated frost date and keep an eye on your soil temperature. They will germinate in soil as cold as 50 degrees. They like cool weather and a few light, late frosts are not going to kill them.

Planting dates

I enjoy reading your articles! Planting dates really are confusing for me as there are so many sources and different dates are provided try. There are two reasons planting dates are important as I try to extend growing season: I want to plant cool season crops as early as possible in spring so they don’t get bolted so quickly; and I don’t have to clear them out for the space when they are still at peak for my warm season crops. I noticed that you mentioned planting and transplanting, is that means planting directly and transplanting seedlings? If so, how many weeks we should start seeds indoors before transplanting? And if I use row cover or cold frame how many weeks would extend? Would you please recommend a good planting calendar? Thanks.

Yes, planting means sowing

Yes, planting means sowing the seeds directly outside and transplanting is planting seedlings that you have started indoors. Your seed packets should give you a range of time to start the seeds indoors such as 4-5 weeks or 6-8 weeks before last frost. If you plan on moving the seedlings out to the garden early with some kind of protection like row covers or a cold frame you can use the earlier planting date for starting your seeds. It is thought that the use of row covers or a cold frame can make it one zone warmer for every layer of covering used but at the very least you will gain a few degrees of extra warmth on a cold night. Check out the planting calendars on this site www.almanac.com/gardening/planting-dates or www.almanac.com/gardening/seed-starting-dates/zipcode.

Great blog post. Thank you.

I have really enjoyed reading your article. It was great information and very helpful. I have also heard it is OK to slowly remove mounds protecting roses when forsythia is in full bloom.

Best to wait a bit...

Every time I have tried to plant a cool weather crop on or shortly after St. Paddy's Day the seeds rot or the plants freeze. Perhaps it's the propensity of our Long Island weather to incur big spring snows - two really bad blizzards have occurred in very late March, one on April Fools Day! Locust trees sleep in late, so when they bud, the weather is clear and warm enough for everything. I may lose a bit of lettuce to the growing warmth, and the peas don't get a second run but nothing dies, either if I wait a bit.

Use hosta to know that winter is really over.

In Illinois it often snows in April after spring flowers are blooming which can kill them. I discovered that the hostas NEVER pop out of the ground until all danger of snow or winter has passed. So before I planted anything tender in April or May, I checked to see if the hostas had started growing.

 How very observant of you

 How very observant of you Pam! Many people would have missed that totally. Everyone’s garden is a little different so we really need to be aware of what is going on in our own backyards.

Don't know that these

Don't know that these planting guides were nature related but mt grandma said plant lettuce seed Feb. 14, on top of any snow. She and a neightbor also said plant pea seed on St.Pat's day, neighbor said also potatoes on that day. I've done the first 2 successfully but haven't planted potatoes for years. Otherwise, I use the moon signs of day guides in Farmer's Almanac...truth..

CORRECTION: It is the

CORRECTION: It is the SWALLOWS, not the SPARROWS that traditionally return to Capistrano.

Hi Bill, Of course it is the

Hi Bill,
Of course it is the swallows! I think we have gremlins at OFA that change things in the middle of the night; either that or I had a temporary brain cramp. Sorry for any confusion that glitch may have caused.
Robin

My Pap use to use these sign

My Pap use to use these sign all the time. Love this article remaindered me of him. He's the one that got me reading The Old Farmers Almanac. Yes Most often that not these sign have held true !

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