Garden Phenology

by Sarah West

The autumnal equinox is approaching, a fact each passing morning reminds us of more clearly. I rise at more or less the same time of day, but the sun does not. For nearly a month now, it has lagged behind my waking, leaving more and more of my morning tasks in darkness. The evenings are the same, startlingly so at first, until this time of year, when I shift into an acceptance of the waning days, however reluctantly.

Late summer has a particular feel. It is faded, crisp. The plants in my garden are changing because of it: blotched with powdery mildew, yellowed, heavy with fruit. Squash plants have become ghosts whose weighty bequests find refuge on my kitchen floor. Flowers turn to seedpods. Leaves scatter. The peppers stand, laden with jewels, as if nothing is happening. But the tomatoes know, their leaves recoiling at the cold nights and morning dews. They make slow work of ripening now, so resigned are they to this season.

Phenology is an ecologist’s word for watching. Greek in origin, it stems from phaino, “to show, to bring to light,” and logos, “study or discourse.” Comprehending the phenology of a place can be as simple as choosing somewhere to sit: by the kitchen window, the back stoop of your house, a bench on your routine stroll. Come often to watch. Messages rise slowly to the surface. Patterns lock into place. Details that at first went unnoticed prove to be indispensable elements of the story.

Gardening is an act of phenology. The gardener must watch: for insects, for disease, for changes in the pattern of sunlight on garden beds, for weather and ripening. Over time, the gardener learns the specific traits of her plot. He becomes prescient of its impulses, as if part of the same biological system. By the grace of participation, she is, and the soul of her garden comes to light.

This is how the farmer succeeds: by locking himself firmly in one place. She cannot farm well without a deep connection to her land built over time. Good yields, deliciousness, nutrition, beauty—these are all the results of intense observation, of a commitment to place.

Via telecommunications and the internet, we have access to the whole world, or at least a version of it. We can read a newspaper published anywhere, initiate conversation with citizens of any nation, assist those in need, entertain, flabbergast and offend. How casually we hold this great power at our fingertips. During the occasional spell when my internet connection stops working, I have no choice but to notice the immediate environment again. Though I am not a frequent internet user, it is often how I start my day, checking in with the world through the avenues of email and websites. When it’s not available, I see the morning with fresh eyes. Things happen with an easy slowness: I breathe in the moments, feel purposeful in my tasks.

It is only by being fully in our own place, even if only occasionally, that we can understand what it means to be in any place. An Arizona farmer could not succeed instantly in the Willamette Valley. A summer gardener would feel bewildered by her first winter attempt. But a sense of place is translatable because it is an act of awareness. Internet and television, however necessary to our modern lives, are void of these rich details: the ones that come without us looking for them, marching from our peripheral vision, invitations to the singularity of this day. There is no place from which to observe the world without participating in it. It is our responsibility and our privilege.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, September 20, 2012)