Inula Royleana
Midwest Gardening
Nature's Signals

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Mother Nature sends a lot of signals to gardeners

Mother Nature sends an lot of signals to us that we should to pay better attention to.  Not all that long ago it was the only way that farmers and vegetable gardeners had to know when to do what in the garden.  They planned garden activities based on the birds, bugs and plants.  The science of these signals is known as phenology.  You have probably heard gardeners mention “it’s time to prune the roses when the forsythia bloom” and chalked it up to old wives tales and garden lore.  But there is absolutely science behind it all, or at least most of it.

Forsythia in bloom by Richard Elzey

Certainly you have noticed for example, experienced gardeners planting their gardens well ahead of the “safe to plant date” issued by your local garden center.  You steadfastly wait for the date to plant but discover that the experienced gardener who pays no attention to the rules has well established plants by the time you turn your soil over.  You may often wonder, how on earth could that gardener know it wouldn’t frost again or is it just luck?

In most cases it is not luck at all.  That gardener was watching for certain signals from Mother Nature to know when to plant.  Of course research and experience also told that gardener which plants are most tolerant of cold nights and could be planted early.  But nature gives a lot of signals primarily by using native plants as indicators.  There are no guarantees that the indicators will always be right, Mother Nature can be fickle.  Early or last spring can destroy the best of calendar plans, but gardener’s phenology is fairly reliable.  Plants are intimately in tune with nature’s calendar.

Here are a number of natures signals to gardeners that seem to pretty reliable.  No forsythia in your area?  Look for another plant in the listing that is an indicator.

  • When the soil thaws and dries it is time to:
    • plant spinach and radishes
  • When the forsythia or daffodils bloom it is time to:
    • prune rosebushes
    • plant the peas
    • apply pre-emergent weed control
  • When the peepers (Pseudacris crucifer, tiny frogs) peep it is time to:
    • plant the peas
  • When the crocus begin to flower it is time to:
  • When the tulips and daffodils bloom it is time to:
  • When the aspens open their leaves it is time to:
    • plant frost hardy annuals like pansies
  • When the plum and peach trees bloom it is time to:
    • plant hardy cool season crops crops
  • When the crab apples bloom it is time to:
    • Check for tent caterpillars
  • When the first dandelion blooms it is time to:
    • plant the potatoes
  • When the lilac opens its first leaves it is time to:
    • plant cool season crops like lettuce, beets, peas, broccoli, carrots and onions
  • Before the lilac opens its flower buds it is time to:
    • apply pre-emergent weed control
    • plant cucumber seeds
  • When the iris and daylilies bloom it is time to:
    • set out the melon, pepper and eggplant transplants
    • plant the pepper plants, eggplant and melons
  • When the lilac is in full bloom it is time to:
    • plant beans, cucumbers and squash
  • When the lilac blooms fade it is time to:
    • plant cucumbers
  • When the lily-of-the-valley are in full bloom it is time to:
    • plant tomatoes
  • When the apple blossoms drop it is time to:
    • plant tomatoes
    • plant potatoes
    • plant corn
    • fertilize the lawn
  • When the oak leaves first open up it is time to:
    • plant beans
  • When the dandelions go to seed it is time to:
    • plant warm season annuals like petunias
  • When the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear it it time to:
    • plant seed corn
    • plant warm season annuals and crops
  • When the maple leaves begin to open it is time to:
    • plant perennials
  • When maple leaves are fully opened it is time to:
    • seed morning glories
  • When the grape vines show new growth it is time to:
    • plant tender perennials and annuals
  • When the chicory flowers open it is time to:
    • check for squash vine borers
  • When the shadbush flowers it is time to:
    • check for gypsy moths
  • When foxglove blooms it it is time to:
    • check for mexican bean beatles
  • When the Canada thistle blooms it is time to:
    • protect fruit from apple maggot
  • When the morning glory starts to climb it is time to:
    • check for the arrival of Japanese beetles
  • When the fall mock orange is in full bloom it is time to:
    • plant cabbage for spring
  • When the wild rocket blooms it is time to:
    • check for cabbage root maggots

There are some gardeners who plan gardening activities based on the phases of the moon, known as lunar planting, astrological gardening, etc.  Historically some farmers used lunar phases to guide their planting.  Personally, I can only keep track of just so much.  And as a gardener I am much more in tune with the plants than the moon.

Be careful which plants you take your signals from though, a hybrid daffodil or lilac may not always follow Mother Nature’s rules!  And of course micro-climates such as urban heat islands or shade can alter even a native plant’s timetable.  If you start paying attention to the signals, you will learn which plants are the most reliable indicators in your area and your gardens.  Even the native plants will alter their schedules based on droughts, unusual rainy periods, extreme heat, etc.  But perhaps if the native plants have altered their schedule, you should be following their lead?

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