Phenology in the Garden: Planting by Nature's Signs

Irises with light purple petals
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Use Natural Cues To Grow Your Garden

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For centuries, gardeners took their cues for planting times from nature—a field of knowledge called phenology. For instance, one piece of advice said to “plant potatoes when the first dandelion blooms.” Learn more about planting by nature’s signs—and see more examples!

Most of us may not be familiar with the term, “phenology,” even though it’s been part of The Old Farmer’s Almanac culture for centuries. Look up almost any weather or farming adage, and you’ll find it is based in phenology.

What is Phenology?

What is it, though? Phenology is the study of cyclical natural phenomena and events—from bud burst to bird migration—and then letting nature’s timing help you understand when to plant and harvest. Native and ornamental plants act as nature’s “alarm clock” by signaling that temperatures and precipitation are optimal for planting.

Since average frost dates are just an estimate, observing the plant and animal activity can be very helpful. While not totally foolproof, following nature’s clock helps us tune in to the rhythm of life around us.

Examples of Phenology

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

How to Observe Nature’s Cues

What are the seasonal cues where you live? Observe the connection between “firsts” and what’s happening in the yard and garden:

  • First bud (of various plants)
  • First bloom (of various plants)
  • First animal migration
  • First appearance of different insects
  • First emergence of hibernating animals
  • First amphibian (like spring peepers)

Other natural phenomena, such as bird migrations and the emergence of insects and amphibians, 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!

For many gardeners and farmers, nature is more predictable than historic frost dates. However, it’s always a good idea to check planting dates by first frost dates as well. See our Planting Calendar to find the best times to plant seeds—based on frost dates as well as Moon-favorable dates.

About The Author

Robin Sweetser

Robin has been a contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the All-Seasons Garden Guide for many years. Read More from Robin Sweetser

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