Phenology and Other Hard to Pronouce Words

I see two keys to a sustainable ag system -either sub acre or otherwise. The first is to restore the soil to very high fertility levels, including ecosystem diversity, and then maintain those levels despite harvests. The second is to build a stable ecosystem around the farm that reduces pest pressures to acceptable levels in most years. There is an immense amount of material on the first issue -cover cropping, crop rotation, manuring, tilling strategies, etc. The second takes some serious digging to find the only recently building body of knowledge.

Agro-Ecology and Permaculture are making significant strides in discovering how Nature does what She does, but I recently discovered another strain of research that seems to be very interesting as well: Phenology: using indicator plants or phenomena to determine when things like weather conditions are beneficial or when pests will become active. Much of Phenology sounds alot like Old Wives Tales:

“Plant peas when maple trees flower”, “Transplant when you see swallows swooping close to the ground”, “Sow potatoes when the leaves of the white oaks are the size of a cats ear”

But hidden in the folklore is a wealth of anecdotal evidence that is only know being “verified” by modern testing techniques. What that science is telling us is that plants typically preform their various stages (flowering, leafing out, etc) at very specific times, often in relation to soil temps which vary year to year in regards to the actual calendar. Our ancestors knew that the general soil temp correlating with flowering maple trees was allot more consistent than planting peas every year on, say, March 14th or 6 weeks before the first frost date like the gardening books tell us.

Applied Phenology is now becoming a more accepted practice, especially with the rise of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in more conventional Ag. I found a good primer from the University of Wisconsin here, as well as 1.4 MB of text on ATTRA -most of which are links (God I love ATTRA!!!). There is allot to learn out there!

My hope is that Applied Phenology will be one tool to help me to better match flowering plants around the garden plots to the life cycles of pests I am seeking to control by fine tuning my flower selection via bloom times.  150 years ago this Top Down approach was not necessary, but the more I research, the more I learn that to be Sustainable we must first restore much of what we have damaged: be it soil fertility or biodiversity in the soil, the hedgerows, and the plants themselves.  “You must unlearn, what you have learned…”

I also find all this stuff just fascinating… I love it when science has to eat crow and go back to folklore to learn a thing of two!



5 Responses

  1. Great link! I remember seeing an episode of Reading Rainbow years ago where LeVar Burton visited a farm or something and learned all about the scientific basis for old wives tales … of course it was nowhere near as detailed as the links on the ATTRA site. Reading through that stuff also makes me sort of depressed to think about how disconnected people are from their environment. I mean, how many people today can even identify a swallow, let alone pay enough attention to know when one is swooping close to the ground?

  2. Thanks for the links. Great, now more stuff I want to spend hours and hours learning. 🙂

    I know y’all didn’t like Michael Pollan’s Whole Foods bit in Omnivore’s Dilemma, but this post reminds me of some things I’ve been reading in his current book, In Defense of Food. Like the Native American custom of eating beans combined with maize that was ground with limestone. They’ve found that the limestone was key to making more of the nutrients available from the corn. Tradition and folklore do know more than science sometimes…

  3. Meg, agreed- we have a long row to sow to get the average person up to speed on this. But the average person may not need to. One well run 5 acre CSA can supply the veggie needs for hundreds of families. Those families may then get much more involved. I really don’t expect even those interested in living more sustainably to go to the lengths of research that I am.

    E4, glad you enjoyed the site! To be clear, I really, really like Michael Pollan. Take him with Jarred Diamond, Barbara Kingsolver, and Paul Hawken and readers have never had it so good! I do think that he short cahnged several of his arguments in OD, but my overwhelming take of the book was positive and the net impacts on society are undeniable!

    We need to get his latest into our reading queue, though I just ordered 5 more ag books, and Mia put another 5 in from Barnes and Noble (Eat Love Pray, Geography of Bliss, and others). I feel the winter may not be long enough!

  4. very interesting, and I don’t necessarily think science is at odds with this, after all, there must be some measurable pattern which allows the trees to know when to bud and blossom. A good scientist is quick to point out that certain systems are more complex than our current ability to measure, but even in those cases, certain key indicators allow SOME degree of prediction. Just as science should not ignore what folklore can offer, neither should folklore ignore science.

    Bad science on the other hand offers head in the sand quick fixes which usually involve making yourself a perpetual consumer to said miracle product.

    I wonder if phenology works on a macro scale. Could the presence of certain species of flora and fauna be indicators of either a positive or negative trend in the overall health of a local ecosystem. I believe (and this may be vanity on my part) that it does. Since starting the transformation of our home 3 years ago I have seen some species of bird I have not witnessed in years, and never in the city where I live now. Robins, bluejays, and a mated pair of cardinals who are currently wintering in our hedge. I don’t know what it means for the small niche within my backyard, but it certainly makes me smile everytime Giusepe or his lady friend perches on the bean trellis…Thats gotta count for something.

  5. Kory, I think it absolutely counts for something. You have created a welcoming space in your yard, and have been honored by Nature in the birds choosing your homes’ landscape to rear young. I definitely feel that species are indicators of overall ecosystem health-overly dominate pioneer species like most lawn weeds are signs of a landscape in extreme distress, while long lived perrenials living in an intertwined web speak to much richer soils beneath and the ability of that ecosystem to survive more pressures from drought or pests.

    I agree that science is not at odds with it, most of the results of tracking the science behind phenology is currently pointing to either lunar cycels (validating many biodynamic practises) or soil temps which are much steadier than air temps and speak more to when the environment is truly ready for planting, say, potatoes. Frankly given the past century I trust the folklore more than the science to steer us right, and look to the science to fill in the blanks, not to validate the observations in the first place.

    After all, agriculture is 10,000 years old. Science only a few hundred. And neither can hold a candle to the ages old wisdom of the prairie.

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