Watching and Recording Plant Phases

Spring is springing early in Connecticut and I have more than anecdotal observations to prove it. I have multiple years of plant phase data recorded by me and other citizen scientists on the Project Budburst website. Project Budburst is a very cool project that asks plant watchers across the US to record first leaf, first flower, first ripe fruit, end of season leaf color changes, and other plant phenophases. Trained scientists then use these observations in their research.

The thought that I, a simple gardener, could help advance science enticed me to become a Project Budburst observer during late spring of 2009 when I recorded first flower of Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) and common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). The following spring I began my observations early and was able to record first leaf and first flower of common lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and  first flower of Spiderwort (Trandescantia ohiensis).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Now I can go back to these records to compare first leaf dates for my easiest to observe shrub, common lilac. This is what it looked like March 22, 2012, its first leaf phase.

This same lilac shrub did not reach first leaf until March 29 in 2010 – nine days later than this year. Last spring, 2011, it reached first leaf the first week of April, about two weeks later than this year.

All Project Budburst observations from 2007 through 2010 are currently available to anyone. Data from 2011 should be available on the site soon.

Getting started as an observer takes a few minutes but the steps are easy. A cool side benefit is you’ll learn the latitude and longitude of your property.

You can choose to make single observations or regular observations. Hint: the regular observation choice minimizes the need to input longitude, latitude, town and other site information repeatedly.

You can download field journals for each of the plants you choose to observe. These journals are available by plant type – wildflowers and herbs, grasses, and different trees and shrubs – and by state. Even if you don’t become an observer , these field journals provide useful photos and information about specific plants, trees and shrubs.

As I wrote in an earlier post, Project Budburst is a fun project to do with kids – getting them outside and increasing their knowledge of the natural world that surrounds them. You don’t have to live in rural areas to participate, all are welcome. When my granddaughter is old enough I hope to enlist her in BudBurst Buddies so we can plant-watch together along with the website buddies Lily and Sage. We’ll start with the flower that intrigues all young kids … the dandelion.

I’m not as good at journal-keeping as other gardeners with excel spreadsheets or written records of the growth-bloom-dormancy cycles of their plants. My records are not quite as organized. My records are in the photos I’ve taken, quick notes I’ve jotted, or blog posts I’ve published, but retrieving my data takes time. The plant phases I’ve documented through Project Budburst are easy to retrieve for my own comparisons. Knowing my observations also become part of science is a great side benefit.

There are citizen scientist programs in many areas of science – wildlife, health, space, insects, geology, weather – as listed in this 2011 article in Scientific American. You can also read about citizen scientist programs in this post at Native Plant & Wildlife Gardens.

Make a difference. Become a citizen scientist in at least one of these venues.

Garden thoughtfully,


Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Joene Hendry

Tick-Borne Disease May Surge in 2012

Northeasterners may very well see a spike in tick-borne disease during this spring and summer, but not because of the non-winter we’ve had.  The numbers of blood-seeking, disease-infected black-legged nymphal ticks will be due to a series of events that began with the acorn crop of 2010.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA You may recall having to rake, and rake, and rake acorns off your lawn  in 2010. It was a bumper acorn crop that led to an increased white-footed mouse population in 2011. More food equals more mice. Not only are mice the preferred host for Ixodes scapularis – black-legged ticks – but mice are really good at transmitting Borrelia burgdorferi – Lyme disease – to ticks. Actually, mice are better at infecting tick larva than other tick hosts such as deer, birds, squirrels, chipmunks, fox and opossum. More food equals more mice equals more disease-infected tick larva.

This surge in 2010 was followed by very few acorns in the autumn of 2011. Since acorns are a major forage food of white-footed mice, fewer acorns equals fewer mice. Fewer acorns last autumn also led to particularly heavy deer browsing of ornamental plants, shrubs and trees and extremely persistent squirrel marauding of bird feeders during the autumn of 2011 and non-winter of 2011-2012, but back to mice and ticks.

Ticks need blood meals in each of their three life-cycles. Tick larva, the one-year olds, hatch free of disease but become disease transmitters after feeding on a diseased host. Larva drop off hosts after feeding and grow into nymphs. Tick nymphs, the two-year-olds, feed on hosts, drop off, and grow to adults which feed on hosts to allow them to reproduce what will become tick larva. The larval ticks of 2011 will become the nymphal ticks, which are as small as a poppy seed, of 2012. Nymphs will seek out blood hosts from May through July. With fewer mice available as hosts, nymphs will seek other hosts. To a hungry nymphal tick, people, dogs and cats are just as attractive as any mouse.

I heard Dr. Richard S. Ostfeld, from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY, explain this during his presentation at New England Grows in February. Ostfeld’s and colleagues’ work of more than two decades is also the focus of the article, Lyme Disease Surge Predicted for Northeastern US: Due to Acorns and Mice, Not Mild Winter, in ScienceDaily.

One aspect of Ostfeld’s work I found intriguing was his research on host permissiveness – analysis of where hosts travel, what they eat, how many ticks they support, and how well hosts transmit Lyme disease to black-legged ticks. Ostfeld’s group caught small hosts, kept them until they were free of ticks, re-inoculated them with larva (remember the larva are born disease-free), then tested the number of ticks that survived and were infected with Lyme disease.  Ostfeld reported mice as the most efficient at transmitting Lyme disease to ticks. He said 92% of ticks from mice were infected, as were 55% of ticks on chipmunks, and just 4% of ticks on opossum. He listed percentages of infected ticks from other mammals as well, but mice, chipmunks and opossum were the three that stood out to me.

Ostfeld explained that grooming has a lot to do with the number of ticks that survive on hosts. Apparently opossum are very good at killing ticks while grooming. Mice are not. On the other hand, Ostfeld noted, mice are very good at surviving in the fragmented environments humans have created by building homes and communities in what was formerly forest or meadow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA My experience in south-central Connecticut matches what Ostfeld outlines. Tons of acorns in 2010, tons of mice – many in the house – during the 2010-2011 winter. No acorns in 2011, and few mice in the winter months of 2011-2012. Ostfeld also said to expect increased adult tick activity during mild winters. Adult ticks become active and seek hosts when temperatures are a bit above freezing. During a wooded walk on a warm February 2012 day my camera caught this little beauty crawling on my pants. I found two other adult ticks doing the same. Adult ticks can also transmit disease, but are less likely to do so than nymphs. Needless to say, a tick check followed my hike.

We cannot completely avoid ticks while living in the Northeast, and gardeners, by the very nature of what we do, are at high risk of becoming a tick host. Tick numbers are highest in forest interiors, second highest at the edges of wooded or shrubby areas, and lower in cut lawns. While doing any outside activity it’s advisable to wear light colored clothing so you can more easily see and pick off any ticks and the tiny nymphs. While hiking or gardening it’s best to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants tucked into your socks or boots. How many gardeners actually dress this way in the heat of summer? Certainly not me. Therefore it’s really important to make a full-body tick check part of your daily routine. Finding and removing ticks from your skin early lessens the likelihood they will transmit disease to you.

Garden thoughtfully … and remember those daily tick checks,


Read more about tick habitats:
Lyme-ticks thrive in Japanese Barberry thickets and More on the Japanese Barberry-Lyme Tick Connection

Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Joene Hendry

March 2012 Blooms in Connecticut

What a glorious few days … warm temperatures, strong sunshine, and blooms popping out all over. Time for spring bulbs to shine if they can escape the creatures so active in my Connecticut gardens.

Voles have managed to find most of the crocus I’ve planted. I imagine them gorging on crocus bulbs till full then happily transporting any unconsumed bulbs for storage elsewhere along their tunnels.  I’m sure they giggle at me under their vole breadth as they rearrange my crocus. I now have single bulbs  blooming here and there in places I never intended them to be. So much for planting in groups! I once had a beautiful stand of crocus planted on either side of my front steps right where they were most noticeable from the front door. Used to, until the voles ate their share and rearranged the rest.

Last autumn – on the promise of vole-resistance – I purchased Tommies, Crocus tommasinianus. I don’t yet know if they are truly vole-deterring or if my vole population declined because of no snow or the fox that found my front yard so appealing last summer, but the Tommies are blooming exactly where I planted them. These are ‘Ruby Giant.’



For many of the previous years my Tete-a-Tetes, one of the earliest blooming narcissi, were visited by a hungry deer just as they began to poke their fresh green shoots out of the ground. I’m sure the deer, who are not supposed to like narcissi/daffodils, were just as anxious to see greenery as I. Nonetheless, when I found my emerging Tete-a-Tetes with their tops chomped off, I hoped they caused the four-hooved forager to have an upset tummy.

Here’s what they looked like exactly one year ago.



This year, the garden idea fairy bonked me in the head with the old, rusty pitch fork remnants I have here and there. The head bonk worked. I came up with this method of protecting the Tete-a-Tetes and so far, so good.

These Tete-a-Tetes may be blooming in a pitch fork jail, but they are doing so with all leaves intact.



Today is Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day, a celebration of shared blossoms from across the globe, a garden party hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. You can visit there to see what’s going on in Carol’s garden and find links to all the garden bloggers who share their gardens with the world today. If you need a pick-me-up this is the place to find one.

Garden thoughtfully,


Digiprove sealCopyright secured by Digiprove © 2012 Joene Hendry