Miss Floribunda: Waiting for forsythia to bloom

April 10, 2015

The appearance of yellow forsythia flowers tells gardeners to start spring pruning.

Dear Miss Floribunda,

It’s April 1st and my February Gold daffodils are finally blooming. I haven’t dared do my March pruning because, as you suggest, I’m waiting until my forsythia is in bloom. Now I hear that the cherry blossoms, which peaked in late March of 2013, won’t peak until April 15 this year!  I can’t figure it out. Is there a new schedule I should be following for pruning and planting this year?

Feeling April Foolish on Farragut Street

MISS FLORIBUNDA —

MISS FLORIBUNDA —

Dear Feeling April Foolish,

I’m glad you are waiting until your forsythia blooms, and I hope you take other cues from nature rather than trying to adhere to any fixed dates. When you live in a capricious climate, as we do, you really need to ignore the calendar and watch what is happening outside your window. This practice has a name: phenology. Literally it means “the science of appearances,” and is the study of such seasonal biological phenomena as bird migration, animal hibernation, autumn foliage, and the sprouting and flowering of plants. All of these are signals help us plan the work in our gardens.

For example, I took heart during the last March’s snow when I heard a melodious honking and looked up to see a V-formation of geese flying overhead on its way to Canada. I knew that, no matter what the temperature might be, those geese knew that the lengthening days meant spring had come. And sure enough, the snow was immediately followed by the Galanthus flower, a.k.a.snowdrops, the first flower of spring in this area.

The Japanese, by the way, began recording the flowering of their cherry trees as early as the 9th century. In the western world, it was Carl Linnaeus (known as Carl von Linne in his native Sweden) who recorded his observations systematically in the 18th century, along with other amazing achievements that earn him the title of “Father of Ecology.” And, if you’ve ever looked at an Old Farmer’s Almanac, you’ve seen quite a bit of phenological lore — including what phase of the moon is best to plant root vegetables, why grasshopper eggs hatch when the lilac blooms, what are the signs of imminent rain, etc.

Folk advice is of varying value — it won’t help us to know that it’s a good time to plant potatoes when the shadbush blooms if there are no shadbushes in our area. Nor do many of us want to peer up into oak trees to see if the leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears before planting corn. However, I know that it really is true that a good time to plant corn is when apple trees finish flowering because I actually have apple trees and have watched the plants’ growth cycles from year to year. From my own observation, I have learned to wait to plant cool weather veggies such as potatoes and peas until crocus pop up in my yard. When my next-door-neighbor Patapanelope’s lilies-of-the valley bloom, I know it’s safe to put out tomato plants. The point is to find floral phenomena around you that reliably indicate a level of light and degree of soil temperature appropriate for garden activities. We all see the yellow forsythia flowers each year, and that tells us to start our spring pruning and to organically fertilize our lawns. The appearance of bearded iris in gardens means that the soil is warm enough to plant seeds of tender annuals and vegetables and to put out tomato, eggplant and pepper plants. If you have a  lilac, it is true that you can plant beans and squash when it’s in bloom and cucumbers after the flowers fade.

I’m pretty sure that my readers can add to this list. Please write to me with what you have observed. Better yet, come to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society, where we’ll have a plant exchange. Thin out your extras and swap them with those donated by our members.

The next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society will take place Saturday, April 18, at 10 am at the home of Joe Buriel and Dave Roeder, 3909 Longfellow St.