I learned a new word this spring. Phenology. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines phenology as “a branch of science dealing with the relations between climate and periodic biological phenomena (as bird migration or plant flowering).” Practically speaking, it is the study of how weather interacts with animal and plant life cycles.
How, you may wonder, did I even begin to get interested in such a thing? It all started with the annual question: when to plant my peas and spinach. Every spring I worry and waver about when to plant cold tolerant plants. It might seem like a silly worry to some, but having planted for many years now and never really been sure of what guaranteed a good crop and what didn’t, it is a perpetual struggle for me. Too early, and the peas rot in the cold, wet ground. Too late, and the spinach bolts before a crop can be harvested.
You see, spinach and peas love cool weather and when the weather gets too hot, they cease to be a good source of produce and become a wilted or bolting mess. There is much advice about when to plant these vegetables, but some of it is contradictory, or irrelevant for our location. “Plant your peas on Saint Patrick’s Day.” On Saint Patrick’s Day, our garden was covered with eighteen inches of snow and the temperature was -30F (-34C). “Plant your peas as soon as the soil can be worked.” Our wet clay soil couldn’t be worked last spring until into June. Too late for cool weather crops. “Plant your spinach 4-6 weeks before last frost.” How do you reliably know when last frost is going to be, 4-6 weeks before it has occurred?
This year, I decided to look for advice from successful gardeners in my zone (5B) to see if I could find any tips. That is where the word phenology came up. “Plant your seeds when other cycles of nature indicate that the time is right.” In the case of spinach and peas I found the following recommendations.
- Plant when the first lilac leaves have unfurled
- Plant when the first dandelions bloom
- Plant when the spring peepers begin to sing
No worries, no concerns, just wait and watch. It relieved my mind to do so. And this weekend, much later than I would have attempted planting in the past, a very exciting thing happened. Friday night we heard the spring peepers croaking in our creek. We awoke on Saturday morning to find our tiny, immature lilac bush has unfurled its satiny leaves from buds that had been swollen for the last couple of weeks. And, just to confirm our suspicions that today was the day to plant, the first dandelion raised its pretty yellow head.
In all my watching and waiting, I was pleased to find a few other signs indicative of this time of year. The willows are yellow with catkins, the bleeding heart is up and leafing, and the early tulips are budding on the north side of our house. It’s time to plant peas and spinach!
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