They’re up

I was wrong on Friday (see the previous post)–the crocuses were up, at the same time as the hazelnuts began to bloom. Knowing which plants bloom at the same time is an example of phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal variation in the natural world. Knowledge of phenology is very important to horticulturists, naturalists, environmental scientists, biologists, botanists, and people in many other fields of endeavor. For example, it helps me predict both when aphids might appear on specific plants and when ladybugs will arrive to take care of them. And this knowledge prevents me from reaching for a spray can to zap the aphids, because it tells me that nature will take care of the problem for me. You can learn more about phenology and watch spring unfold across the United States at this website.


This picture was taken on March 22, 2014. It looks just like this outside today. Note the daffodil leaves–they’re exactly the same height you see here. Crocuses, daffodils, hazelnuts, and all other plants are responding in predictable ways to environmental cues.


2/26/15: In the garden this week


American hazelnut (Corylus americana) produces tiny, bright red female flowers in earliest spring–normally around the third week in March. They’re in bloom right now in my garden.

The weather can only be described as bizarre–warm, then cold; wet, then dry. Normally hazelnuts bloom in my garden at the same time as crocuses and right before spicebush. This year the hazelnuts are extra early, while the crocuses are barely showing above ground and the spicebush buds are just swelling slightly.

After quite a bit of rain followed by a couple of cold days, we’re in for a warm spell. It’s too late for winter pruning, but it’s a good time to do early spring chores like these:

— start vegetable seeds such as tomatoes and squash. You can find a list of dates for starting seeds in this post.

— the ground is wet and the weather is turning warm; it’s time to weed! Dig up wild garlic and dandelions and pull garlic mustard and western bittercress in your garden plots. The mustards go to seed particularly early, so it’s a good idea to pull them as soon as you recognize them. And they’re easy to pull.

— as weeds and lawn grasses begin to grow, neaten the edges of your perennial and shrub beds. It’s easier to do it now, when the weeds’ and grasses’ root systems are relatively small, than it will be once the weather turns warm.

Finally, get out and look for the earliest signs of spring in our local natural areas. Skunk cabbage is up; hazelnuts are in bloom; you should see vernal witchhazel, pussy willow, and spicebush very soon. Enjoy the spring weather!


Hazelnuts’ male flowers are borne on these long, dangling catkins that turn from green to golden as the pollen ripens.


Maple sugar time (again)


Tapping native sugar maples (Acer saccharum) in Glen Rock to make maple syrup. Now that’s local food!

Two years ago I first showed you this picture of sugar maple trees being tapped for sap here in Glen Rock. The photo was taken on March 10. This year, unless that family’s already begun tapping their trees, they’re missing a lot of sap. Because of the very mild winter the season started early this year–in December in some places and by February 1 almost everywhere. In contrast, the sap usually begins running in late February or early March, because sap production depends on cold nights and warm days. Could be El NiƱo, could be climate change, could be many things, but this winter is just plain strange.

Skunk cabbage is already up; look for it in wet places; look for pussy willow, native hazelnut, and spicebush to bloom quite soon.


Skunk cabbage in bloom in early April 2014 in the Thielke Arboretum in Glen Rock. This year, it’s already up.

I am watching a large flock of robins

industriously sifting through the leaf litter in my minif0rest in search of food. There are so many of them, and they’re moving so rapidly, it looks like the ground is moving. More robins are arriving all the time; there are also mourning doves and squirrels and song sparrows, although they’re harder to see from 100 feet away! And as usual, there are juncos feeding in the leaf litter and on the plant stalks of the perennial garden outside my window.

I want to go outside to do some pruning, but I’m very reluctant to disturb all these creatures that rely on me for winter food (and without any feeders).


Signs of spring


Buds of spicebush (Lindera benzoin) will be among the first to open in spring. Throughout the winter they tantalize. Spicebush is easy to grow and is quite common in wet places throughout our area.

It’s cold outside, but signs of spring are everywhere, and by the middle of next week, the thermometer should be back up in the 50s. Despite the cold, get outside to view the skunk cabbage and spicebush buds and perhaps to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count. It’s on all weekend!

The Great Backyard Bird Count


The number of robins that hang around for the winter seems to be increasing. Is this really the case? Citizen-science projects like the Great Backyard Bird Count can help confirm or disprove this impression.

The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place this weekend, February 12-15 (yes, it will be cold outside!). This joint project of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and the Audubon Society involves over 100,000 volunteers and millions of individual bird lists gathered worldwide. All you have to do is register online, go outside, and count the birds you see for 15 minutes at some point over the weekend (or once or twice a day at different locations, if you prefer). Then submit your data (detailed instructions are here). The information collected helps scientists study big questions, such as the effects of climate change on bird populations.

Cover crops

The Sunday NY Times business section carried a lengthy, informative article about the increasing use of cover crops in large-scale commercial agriculture. Cover crops are planted while fields lie fallow, and they are grown not for their commercial value but for the ecological services they supply: when tilled into the soil, they enrich it with organic matter; while they remain standing, they help control erosion. Chemical fertilizers degrade the soil, but organic enrichment like that supplied by cover crops improves its fertility as well as its texture. The use of cover crops, as the Times article points out, is an ancient practice that modern farmers have long considered to be outmoded. But cover crops can ameliorate some of the harm resulting from long-term use of chemical fertilizers.

The article focuses on a farming family that cultivates thousands of acres. How can homeowners benefit from the use of cover crops in small-scale vegetable gardens? Vegetables are annuals, like almost all commercial crops, and the annual cycle of planting and harvesting continually robs the soil of nutrients. Instead of restoring those nutrients with chemical fertilizers, you too can use cover crops. This fact sheet from the Cornell Agricultural Extension explains you how. Consider adding cover crops to your vegetable garden next year. Your soil will be happy if you do!