Plants can provide a forecast for weather and point to climate change

PHENOLOGY, the study of seasonal changes in living things, measures the timing of events like the arrival of migratory birds, the breaking of buds, the spawning of frogs and the falling of autumn leaves, writes Dick Warner

It’s an important tool for measuring climate change over long periods of time. For example, there are accurate records for the timing of grape harvests in continental Europe that go back without a break for more than 500 years, much further back than instrument recordings and provides invaluable information to compare with modern data.

But Klaus Laitenberger is developing a phenological calendar to help Irish gardeners. Klaus is an expert organic gardener who lives at Milkwood Farm in Co Leitrim where, amongst other things, he has an online seed shop, runs courses on gardening, writes books, and produces an online magazine about growing organic fruit and vegetables.

The inconsistency of the Irish climate is becoming more apparent every year and this makes it hard for Klaus to give accurate advice to gardeners about when to sow and harvest. So he’s suggesting that we observe what’s going on in nature and adjust our gardening calendar to fit in with it.

He’s already collected some very useful data but he’s hoping to add to this by getting people in different parts of the country to send him in their phenological observations.

As an example of how this works, we are now in what Klaus calls “pre-spring”. We should be looking our for the first flowers of daisies and coltsfoot, for hazel catkins and the first blackthorn blossom. These are the cues to plant tomato and pepper seeds indoors on a heated bench, and to plant broad beans, garlic and Jerusalem artichokes outdoors. A few weeks later, in early spring, forsythia and primrose flowers, followed by the first leaves on gooseberries and horse chestnuts, means you should sow onion and shallot sets, followed by early potatoes.

Then, in mid- to late spring, look out for the first apple blossom, leaf buds bursting on oak and ash trees, lilacs flowering, and the appearance of cuckoo flowers. Then he says to plant peas, beetroot, parsnip, early carrots and main-crop potatoes outdoors. The calendar divides the year into 10 sections, each with key garden tasks linked to signals from the natural world.

This close observation of nature would lead to more efficient and productive gardening because it allows for the vagaries of an early spring or a prolonged autumn and will be tailored to take into account local conditions. The guidelines for sowing times on most seed packets available in this country are based on growing conditions in the south of England.


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