to our refrigerator
door with a cow-shaped magnet is a fading piece of print clipped from
some newspaper or almanac long ago. The clipping has outlived at least
three refrigerators and survived several moves, traveling with us like
some heirloom we dare not misplace.
Though curled at the edges and smeared a bit, the words are still
the first leaves of the
lilac appear... plant peas, potatoes, lettuce, radishes and the like.
"When the first lilac blossoms appear... plant beets, carrots, kohlrabi
and other cole crops.
"When lilac blossoms reach full bloom... plant beans, corn, cucumbers
"When the lilac blossoms fade and fall... the danger of frost is
probably past and it's time to set out tomatoes, peppers and other
in Lilac by Gail Mckenzie
These tips, which have served as our planting calendar for many years,
come from phenology, the study of biological phenomena and their happy
coincidences. Farmers and gardeners have been noticing and recording
phenological relationships as folklore for ages.
keep a file marked "Phenology" in which I collect aphorisms the way
some folks collect stamps. Some are pieces of poetry or proverbs.
Others are more like rules of thumb. Here's a few examples:
- When oak leaves
are the size of a mouse's ear... set out
tomato, eggplant and pepper plants
These may seem like superstitions, but there's a lot of scientifically
verifiable information backing up our folklore. Phenology is one of the
cornerstones of Integrated Pest Management, for example, which employs
"plant phenology indicators" in timing applications of various agents
to control insects and disease. In the field, it's much easier to
notice that the forsythia is blooming than it is to calculate "growing
- When new oak leaves
are the size of a squirrel's ear...
look for morels.
- A wet, cold May? A
barn full of hay.
- If owls screech in
foul weather, it will turn to fair.
- Fish spawn when
dogwood is in bloom.
- Catch your fish when
rain is in sight.
- Rains are very near
when toadstools suddenly appear.
- The danger of frost is
past when white clover blooms.
- A swarm of bees in May
is worth a load of hay.
In my own garden, it might be more scientific to use a soil thermometer
and meteorological forecasts before setting out tomatoes, but lilac
blossoms are more elegant.