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!


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