EVERYONE WHO TENDS a garden surely has moments when they can sympathize with Phil Connors, the cranky TV weather forecaster who finds he is repeating the same day over and over in the movie “Groundhog Day.”
Caught up in the wheeling seasons, to say nothing of the — uh, constancy of garden tasks, it’s easy to feel trapped in time. Weed this, prune that, defend against snails (so many snails).
Penelope Lively writes in her book “Life in the Garden”: “To garden is to elide past, present and future; it is a defiance of time.” Where but in a garden are we forever assessing last week, planning for next month, while toiling in the here and now to make it all happen — someday?
“You should have seen my (fill-in-the-botanical-blank) last week” is a common gardener’s refrain for good reason.
Timing is tricky in a garden.
Folklore has it that somewhere in Pennsylvania this week, a groundhog (also called a woodchuck or whistlepig) might or might not see his shadow: an event said to foretell either six more weeks of wintry weather or an early spring. Looked at another way, we’re midway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, that moment in time when day and night are balanced, which we in the Northern Hemisphere call the first day of spring.
Eager to put the growing season in motion, should we look to a whimsical rodent or pin our hopes on an astronomical event? A better gardener than I carefully records seasonal details like daily rainfall and freezing temps relative to when the first crocus appears, and what day the crabapples bloom. I once saw an old-fashioned ledger in a dusty tool shed that logged the weather alongside every seed sown and plant dosed with fertilizer. I was enthralled and overwhelmed.
Phenology is the study of time in the natural world; specifically, noticing how plants and animals respond to changes in light and temperature. You can think of it as “nature’s calendar,” as opposed to the human construct that governs our days, or celestial events that chart the seasons from above.
Experienced farmers and seasoned gardeners have been cultivating awareness of seasonal shifts for countless generations, but the topic assumes a new urgency in the face of a changing climate that’s impacting hardiness zones and patterns of precipitation.
Outside, in my garden, the witch hazel is in full flower, hellebores are emerging and tiny snowdrops are blooming. Wild plums are beginning to bud in greenbelts and parks, and on a warmish day, even the mud smells delicious. It’s time to think about sowing fava beans, an especially (delicious) cold-hardy crop. Sometimes, late in the month, we get a relatively balmy dry week that’s perfect for pruning fruit trees and roses. Sometimes it snows. It pays to pay attention.
Find out how you can contribute observations about your garden to a national citizen-science project that’s charting our climate’s new normal, on the ground in real time. Visit Nature’s Notebook, a program established by the USA National Phenology Network, at usanpn.org/natures notebook.