Natural Selections

Love at first sight

by cathym on May 13, 2021

Story by Colleen O’Neill Nice

I was inspired to write this article after touring gardens in the Pacific Northwest just before travel restrictions were put in place. As I was roaming through “The Farm” of horticulturalist Thomas Hobbs in Langley, British Columbia, I discovered an unusual flower. It was scattered throughout a large, fenced-in area dedicated to vegetables, dahlias and daylilies. The flower form was unique, with hand-painted petals in transitionary shades similar to a watercolor painting. It was love at first sight. The plant was zinnia ‘Zinderella Peach’! 

I have always had an affection for zinnias. They are the quintessential summer flowering annual. Their vivid colors glow in my summer garden plus they are heat and drought resistant – not to mention low maintenance. Zinnias are the perfect choice for the novice gardener because they are one of the easiest plants to cultivate. They are adaptable and fast growing, nearly effortless for children to learn to nurture. I grow the large flowering varieties of zinnias to attract honeybees, butterflies and hummingbirds with their nectar. Their long lasting, bright blooms beautify my indoor spaces, where I can appreciate their many shapes and sizes. I use the dazzling-colored petals to brighten salads, summer drinks and desserts. If you love gardening, you will no doubt, love zinnias!

Landscape zinnias
Let’s begin with two cultivars of landscape zinnias commonly used in flower borders, beds and containers. Both varieties create an abundance of color and continuously bloom throughout the growing season. The flower structure itself consists of three styles: single-blooms which display a single row of petals with the center of each flower exposed; double-blooms which feature several rows of petals with the center hidden in the petals; and semi-double blooms with an exposed and visible center surrounded by several rows of petals.

The Profusion series, an interspecific hybrid, became an instant hit in the gardening world, and was one of the first zinnias to resist powdery mildew. The plants form compact, vigorous mounds that grow 12 to 18 inches tall and spread to 24 inches wide. The two-inch flowers bloom lavishly over a long season from early summer to frost. They tolerate heat, humidity and drought. Single-bloom colors include red, white, apricot, coral pink, deep apricot, lemon, fire and cherry bicolor. The double-bloom palette features white, cherry, deep salmon, fire and golden yellow. Profusion zinnias love full sun and prefer a well draining, humus-rich, evenly moist soil. Proper plant spacing is critical so avoid overcrowding to prevent poor air circulation. Fortunately, deadheading is not necessary since the new leaves and buds cover the old flowers naturally.

The Zahara series of Zinnia marylandica grow a bit larger than the Profusion series, usually 16 to 20 inches tall. The vibrant blooms are slightly bigger at two-and-a-half inches and continuously blanket the spreading drifts throughout the season. The Zaharas are tough plants and thrive in hot, sunny, dry areas. They are highly resistant to mildew and leaf spot. Single-bloom colors include raspberry, white, pink, yellow, red, and starlight rose (bright rose on white). Double-blooms feature several bi-colors—raspberry ripple (pink with raspberry stripes), sunburst (golden yellow with red stripe) and fire (scarlet-orange) which can be mixed with white, orange, yellow, salmon and cherry. The Zahara zinnias make excellent cut flowers, holding their striking colors as they age. 

Profusion and Zahara zinnias are available through local greenhouses and garden centers including Bakers’ Acres in Groton, Kate’s Country Cousins in Lancaster, and Weeks’ Nursery and Greenhouses in Clarence. Green Acre Farm & Nursery in Greece offers a three-color mix of Profusion zinnias in six-inch containers and six packs of Profusion and Zahara zinnias. Palmiter’s Nursery grows both Profusion and Zahara zinnias in jumbo six packs. Seeds are available at Harris Seed, Park Seed, and Swallowtail Garden Seeds. 

Scabiosa-flowered zinnias
The Zinderella series of Z. elegans exploded onto the horticulture scene when ‘Zinderella Peach’ won Europe’s Fleuroselect Novelty Award for its unique color and very unusual flower form. It is the first scabiosa-flowered (pincushion) zinnia offered in unique color combinations. Abundant blooms thrive on healthy plants that grow 24 to 36 inches tall. Impressive two-and-a-half-inch crested, delicate flowers are brilliant in bouquets and arrangements. 

The frilly double blooms of ‘Zinderella Lilac’ combine soft lavender and blush—with a striking dark center. ‘Zinderella Purple’ has tightly clustered short petals over a skirt of layered, longer, daisy-like petals. It is a very distinct, luscious shade of fuchsia-lilac. ‘Zinderella Peach’ boasts large, crested pompom blooms of bright peach with a delicate cream ring around the central eye. Charming ‘Zinderella Orange’ offers a delicate cream halo and bright tangerine pompoms with hints of deep gold. Creamy white blooms of double, semi-double and single flowers adorn ‘Zinderella White’. For an added punch of color, the fiery-crimson ‘Zinderella Red’ includes both single and large-domed doubles. 

Keep your Zinderellas happy and robust by growing them in full sun. Pinch back the seedlings when they are six to eight inches tall to encourage bushiness. Try to thin out plants early, leaving one to one-and-a-half feet between seedlings to discourage disease and increase air circulation. Zinderellas need to be deadhead for continuous blooms. The inflorescence attracts good bugs and pollinators, so scatter your seeds in the vegetable patch and amongst other flowering plants to increase beneficial insects throughout your entire garden. Zinnias are a “cut-and-come-again” annual. They set new buds as soon as the old flowers are cut or deadheaded and then repeat this process reliably all summer. So fill your vases, share bouquets with your neighbors, and float some blooms in your birdbath—the more you cut, the more will bloom. Keep in mind that Zinderella seeds are open-pollinated (they breed true and produce plants identical to their parents), so collect and save some seeds for next year.

If you prefer a medley of vibrant blooms in pink, purple, red, yellow, orange and white with the unique pincushion inflorescence, try a scabiosa-flowered mix. These sun-loving annuals grow to 30 inches tall and thrive in nutrient-rich soil. The textured, two-to-three-inch, dome-shaped blooms resemble the wildflower scabiosa, hence the name. Treat them to bloom-boosting fertilizer during the growing season.

Seed sources include Park Seed, Johnny’s Selected Seed, Swallowtail Seeds, Eden Brothers, and Select Seeds.

Cactus-type zinnias
Some of the loveliest annuals are the cactus-type zinnias (Z. elegans), which have been around for decades. These zinnias have double or semi-double flowers with petals that twist and curl. Spectacular, four-to-five-inch, shaggy blooms include every color of the rainbow except blue. Branching plants grow three feet tall and two feet wide. Their long, strong stems make them ideal for cutting. 

Z. elegans ‘Redman Super Cactus’ produces fiery orange-red, six-inch flowers with contrasting yellow flares at the center of each flower. They bloom constantly from June until frost in fertile soil with ample water during dry periods. This new distinct spidery-petaled zinnia is heat tolerant and mildew resistant. 

Other cactus-type zinnias are available in color blends such as the giant cactus mixes that include warm shades of yellow, orange, rose, red, pink, salmon, and white. The long, needle-thin petals add texture and long-lasting color to any sunny spots in your garden. Plants grow to 30 inches tall and 12 inches wide with blooms stretching to five inches across. To prevent mildew, water early in the day so foliage can dry off before nightfall or with a soaker hose to minimize wetting the foliage. Space plants generously to prevent overcrowding.

At Renee’s Garden, the custom heirloom mix ‘Raggedy Anne’ includes radiant shades of canary and golden yellow, orange, crimson, scarlet, coral, carmine rose, lilac rose, pink, and white—a shade for every garden color scheme. The giant flower faces have curved and twisted narrow petals like quilled chrysanthemums. Plants can be encouraged to branch if the long stems are cut well back into the plant. Grow large and abundant flowers by thinning the seedlings before they get crowded and watering regularly during dry spells.

Plants are online at Annie’s Annuals and Perennials and White Flower Farm. Purchase seeds at Renee’s Garden, Pinetree Garden Seeds, and Park Seed. 

Pink Profusion zinnias mingle with Allium tuberosum and Benary’s Giant Orange zinnias. Photo by Colleen O’Neill.

Cut flower zinnias
New to the cut flower category are the unique colorations of the Queen series. Though it is cultivated in the same manner as other zinnias, it is specifically grown in cut flower gardens. Reaching heights of over 4 feet tall at maturity, these stunning plants make a huge visual impact in the landscape and attract multitudes of pollinators as well. They continue to bloom throughout the summer, even as the flowers are cut for use in vases.

The green ‘Queen Lime’ zinnia is popular and stunning with beautiful, double blooms in shades of chartreuse. ‘Queen Red Lime’ offers the same double flowers but transitions from lime green to shades of rose and pink with soft chartreuse in between. ‘Queen Lime-Orange’ displays a cherry center surrounded by lime petals transitionary to orange—simply stunning! The very elegant ‘Queen Lime-Blush’ features splashes of a rosy tint on lime green inflorescences. Flowers are about two to three inches wide and look almost papery and somewhat Victorian. Well-branched plants grow 32 to 40 inches tall and 18 inches wide with sturdy stems. Queen Lime zinnias thrive in summer heat. They bloom from mid to late summer—even into the fall—after many other flowers are exhausted. Be sure to harvest flowers early in the morning when they are fully open, since they will not continue to open once they are cut. To keep flowers fresh in a vase, add a few drops of bleach to the water. Queen series zinnias are lovely in massed plantings and make dramatic additions to containers and garden beds. The ‘Queen Lime’ cultivars can easily be grown from seed if you cannot find transplants at your local garden center or nursery. Refer to the seed starting tips included with my article.

Zinnia ‘State Fair’ mix displays colossal five-inch flowers with flat petals forming single and semi double blooms. A wide range of colors include red, yellow, orange, purple, pink, white and bicolors. Robust plants grow 3 feet tall, exhibit good disease resistance and thrive in sunny, warm conditions. Reenie Sandsted of Bakers’ Acres in Groton sells ‘State Fair Giant’. According to her, “it grows tall, makes a great cut flower, and is our best seller.”

‘State Fair’ mix is available at Green Acre Farm & Nursery in Greece, Kate’s Country Cousins in Lancaster, Palmiter’s Nursery in Avon, and Weeks’ Nursery and Greenhouses in Clarence.

Bakers’ Acres in Groton sells both the ‘Queen’ series and ‘State Fair Giant’ in six packs.

Seeds are available at Hazzard’s Plants & Seeds and Burpee.

Bicolor and multicolor zinnias
The next category of easy-to-grow zinnias are the chic bicolors and swanky multi-colors. Z. elegans ‘Zowie Yellow Flame’ is a showstopper with three-inch, semidouble flowers with iridescent magenta centers and petals dipped in orange. The flowers darken as they age to a ruby-rose, ending with a finale of yellow and red blooms. As the flower matures, a circle of small golden stars surrounds its center disk. An All-American Selections winner, this bicolor grows 24 to 36 inches tall and stands up to heat and tough conditions. Deadheading will keep these annuals producing flowers, while minimal pinching is necessary to keep the plants full.

Zinnia ‘Candy Cane’ mix, an heirloom with double blooms, is bold and vibrantly striped or flecked. Eye-catching, four-inch inch flowers combine bright pink, rose and cherry stripes on white, and sometimes gold, blossoms sprinkled with orange-magenta splotches. Flowers grow 18 inches tall and bloom from midsummer to frost, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds galore.

The beautiful ‘Peppermint Stick’ zinnias include double flowers striped and splotched in shades of cream, yellow, carmine, rosy-purple, orange and scarlet. No two flowers look exactly alike, and they are perfect for arrangements. Heavy bloomers, the 24 to 28 inches tall plants are easy to grow in full sun and are resistant to deer and rabbits.

The bicolor, scarlet-red ‘Mazurkia’ zinnias flaunt petal tips frosted with pearly white. Sturdy, branching plants grow 24 to 30 inches tall and are perfect for containers or sunny borders. Mix ‘Mazurkia’ with annuals like Verbena bonariensis and Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Purity’. Try Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ and Nigella damascena ‘Miss Jekyll White’ for lively combinations. The typical vase life for zinnias is seven days, which can be extended further with the use of flower preservatives.

The ‘Whirligig’ mix reminds me of a gallardia or gazania. The cheerful, single to semi-double daisy shaped blooms open in every color and pattern, with lively, multicolor combinations and contrasting petal tips. Reminiscent of pinwheels, the three-to-four-inch flowers grow on 24-inch sturdy stems, perfect for summer bouquets. Prevent mildew by watering early in the day so foliage can dry off and space generously to prevent overcrowding.

Bakers’ Acres in Groton sells ‘Peppermint Stick’. Seeds sources include Harris Seed, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Burpee, and Thompson & Morgan.

If you start your zinnia seeds outdoors, choose a spot in full sun, add compost or fertilizer to the soil, and sow seeds at a depth of one-quarter inch. Zinnia seeds germinate well if both air and soil temperatures are more than 70 degrees. Keep soil surface moist until plants emerge. Zinnia seedlings grow in about seven to ten days after sowing. When the seedlings are three inches tall, they need to be thinned out from six to 18 inches apart depending on the variety. This is done to maximize air circulation.

If you start your zinnia seeds indoors, sow seeds five to seven weeks before your last frost date at a depth of a quarter inch in a good seed starting medium in cell packs or flats. Press seeds into the soil and lightly cover. Maintain a temperature of 70-75 degrees F and keep the soil moist. Plants need to be “hardened off” before planting in your garden. This process toughens the plant’s cell structure and reduces transplant shock and scalding from the sun. Acclimatize young plants to outdoor conditions by moving them to a sheltered place outside for a week, protecting them from wind, direct sun and cold temperatures. Once hardened off, choose a location in full sun, add compost or fertilizer to the soil, and space the transplants nine to 12 inches apart, depending on the variety. For strong growth, prolific blooms, and minimal disease and pest damage, water as needed, adding mulch to prevent weeds and retain moisture within the soil. 

Dwarf zinnias
The cutie pies of the zinnia world are the dwarf zinnias—growing from 6 to 14 inches tall and commonly planted in flower borders. Cherished for their small size, these petite plants grow well when interplanted with other annuals, perennials, and shrubs. Although the plants remain small throughout the growing season, the potential bloom size will vary depending upon the zinnia variety. 

Zinnia elegans ‘Thumbelina’ mix includes single and semi-double one-and-a-quarter-inch blooms on six-inch plants. The compact, dome-shaped annuals start to bloom at just three inches tall in shades of orange, pink, white, and yellow. 

Considered the best dwarf zinnia ever grown, the ‘Magellan’ series is truly an outstanding garden performer, especially as a bedding plant. The vibrant, double, four-to-five-inch flowers are arranged with layer after layer of petals crowned with a frilly yellow center. The sturdy, 14-inch plants are smothered with blooms over a long summer season. The mix contains seven bold colors including cherry, pink, orange, ivory, yellow, scarlet, and coral. Seeds for each of the colors can be purchased separately as well. Deadhead the old flowers to keep new buds developing for even more superb color!

The ‘Dreamland’ series has been around for several years enticing gardeners with its early, four-inch, long-lasting blooms on compact, robust 10 to 12-inch plants. The dahlia-form flowers, with waxy petals, are rugged and weather-tolerant during summer storms. They quickly form a solid carpet of color in large beds and borders. Eight harmonious hues include apricot, coral, pink, rose, yellow, ivory, red, and scarlet! Marla Palmiter at Palmiter’s Nursery in Avon offers the ‘Dreamland’ series and grows both a mix and the coral. According to Palmiter, “The ‘Dreamland’ coral is gorgeous and very popular.” When cut, the flowers are stunning and stay fresh for well over a week in a vase. If growing ‘Dreamland’ from seed, sow in succession for a longer flowering period.

Tom Pfentner, owner of Weeks’ Nursery and Greenhouses in Clarence, has been growing zinnias for more than 50 years. “We started with the ‘Dreamland’ varieties then added the ‘Profusion’ and ‘Zahara’s. We also grow the tall ‘State Fair’ mix,” he says. “Zinnias are prolific bloomers and continue flowering well into the fall.”

‘Dreamland’ plants are available at Palmiter’s and Weeks’ Nursery and Greenhouses in Clarence. Kate’s Country Cousins in Lancaster sells the ‘Magellan’ series in four-and-a-half inch pots. Green Acre Farm & Nursery in Greece grows the ‘Dreamland’ and ‘Thumbelina’ mixes in six packs and ‘Magellan’ mix in eight-inch containers. Seed sources include Burpee and Park Seed.

Sun tolerant Coleus ‘Wasabi’ and orange Profusion zinnias spillover their container. Photo by Colleen O’Neill Nice.

Dahlia-flowered zinnias
Benary’s ‘Giant Dahlia’ series (Z. elegans) is considered a premium zinnia recommended by the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. Densely petaled blooms create a beehive shape with added dimension, growing up to six inches across. They are long-lasting in bouquets. Colors include deep red, orange, carmine rose, coral, lime, wine, purple, bright pink, white, salmon rose, scarlet, and golden yellow. Seeds can be purchased by color or in a mix. Benary’s giants are vigorous, reaching heights of 40 to 50 inches and holding up remarkably well in summer rain and heat.

The Z. elegans ‘Giant Dahlia Flowered’ mix offers a vibrant combination of yellows, roses, scarlet, green, orange, pink, red, purple, and coral flowers on strong, 30-to-40-inch stems. Similar in color and habit to Benary’s giants, the flower structure of the ‘Giant Dahlia’ mix includes single, double and semi-double, 4-to-6-inch blooms. Collect and save the seed for next year, since both varieties are open-pollinated.

Seeds are available at Harris Seed, Swallowtail Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and Hazzard’s Plants & Seeds.

Zinnias are the hardest working flower that you can employ in your summer garden! They are fast growers. Plan to direct-sow zinnia seeds in the spring, then sow a second batch in mid-summer. Fill your containers with zinnias using quick and easy six packs. All zinnia varieties—old or new—can brighten up your garden when it may be looking a little tired by summer’s end. Zinnias make colorful companions for ornamental grasses, roses, sunflowers, black-eyed Susans and hydrangeas. Scatter zinnia seeds in your perennial garden to add color and fill in spaces as you wait for plants to mature. When native plant sources are running low on pollen and nectar, attract hummingbirds, bees and butterflies with large-flowered varieties. Plant bright and beautiful zinnias in a butterfly garden near your porch or patio so you can enjoy them as well. The only challenging aspect of growing zinnias is deciding which varieties to plant.

Annie’s Annuals and Perennials
Eden Brothers
Harris Seed
Hazzard’s Plants & Seeds
Johnny’s Selected Seed
Park Seed
Pinetree Garden Seeds
Renee’s Garden
Select Seeds
Swallowtail Garden Seeds
Thompson & Morgan
White Flower Farm

Colleen O’Neill Nice is an avid gardener in Clarence.


The Tree of (a Secret) Life

by janem on March 23, 2017

story and photos by John Ernst

As it stood in February of 2016.

As it stood in February of 2016.

One summer during college, I worked as a landscaper at Genesee Valley Park. I savored the chance to work outside. Each day I would drive my Gator through the misty sunrise at 5 a.m., surveying the park and ensuring that all was well before hikers and picnickers arrived. And each day, I marveled at the mighty branches lying on either side of the trail. It was a bitch to mow and weed whack, so other employees let the grass grow, giving it a wild and unkempt appearance. A few weeks into my job I learned it was called the “tree of life,” and that it had been struck by lightning, breaking it in half, years before. Feeling an odd sense of connection with the tree, I started taking better care of it.

Years later, my attempt at research on the tree has borne little fruit. Its only online remembrance seem to be a photo gallery on the University of Rochester’s website commemorating the tree’s life, and a memorial page on Facebook. I learned that it was struck by lightning on July 4, 2010 and before it fell, it looked like a pair of hands opening to the sky. I also learned how genuinely Rochesterians loved it. Both the photo gallery and memorial page highlighted that.

For more information I called the Monroe County Parks office, which referred me to Chris Kirchmaier, Supervisor at Highland Park. He told me that he was actually on the forestry crew that cut down the tree the day after it was struck. “I’m not sure that there is a recorded history,” he said, “just a popular tree and a cool structure. Every day I drove by there were four, five, even ten people sitting in it or climbing it.” He told me that he’s only 36, and that his older co-worker Joe Bernal, the tree crew supervisor, might have more answers for me.

“Well, it’s a white oak,” Bernal told me when I asked what he knew about the tree. “It had a perfect crotch, probably eight or ten feet up in the air.” Frederick Law Olmsted designed Genesee Valley Park in the late nineteenth century, and Bernal figured the Tree of Life predated that. “That would make it over 150 years old, and that wouldn’t surprise me,” he said. Earlier in his career, Bernal removed tags from the trees Olmsted had planted, but didn’t remember the Tree of Life having one. He expressed similar fondness as Kirchmaier had for the fallen tree. “Even when it was busted in half, I tried to keep the character in both sides and moved it down to the path.” He said that he’d like to see the tree preserved: “White oak is a wood that lasts,” he said. “But if we really wanted it to last, we’d have to lift it off the ground, get the bark off, and maybe coat it with some preservative.” As Supervisor, Bernal doesn’t have the time to take on a project like that, but hopes somebody does—perhaps a group of volunteers or students from the U of R. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said before signing off.

Tree rings

Tree rings

I decided to revisit the tree and count the rings myself. I had forgotten how huge it was; heaving it up and preserving it would be no minor task. I set to counting the rings on the stub of a lopped branch. Many were so close together that they were indistinguishable, and the cracks didn’t make it any easier to count. I deemed it impossible to record any sound empirical data using this method, but I counted over a hundred rings. Maybe Genesee Valley Park’s ancient oak has no recountable history, but the Tree of Life has earned its nickname.


John Ernst is a passionate writer, hiker, and video gamer born and raised in Rochester. He is currently developing his website,

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by Michelle Sutton

The timing of fall foliage color emergence is a phenophase that citizen scientists can track for Nature’s Notebook.

Gardeners on a Mission

Phenology is a rather clinical-sounding word that describes a passionate field of study. The word comes from the Latin root “pheno,” meaning “to appear” or “to bring to light,” and it refers to the timing of seasonal changes and life cycle events in the natural world. New York Phenology Project ( Founder and Project Manager Kerissa Battle says, “Gardeners are intuitive phenologists—even if they don’t know it! Skilled gardeners closely track seasonal change—their success in the garden depends on it.”

“Phenophases” are distinct life cycle events; for plants, they include such things as fall color emergence, fruiting, budding, flowering, and leafing out. “When gardeners start seeds, plant, harvest, or collect seeds, they are essentially tracking phenophases in order to grow what they want,” Battle says. “Gardeners also tend to keep records year to year of when things happen in their gardens. This is the essence of tracking phenology—paying close attention to seasonal change and keeping records.”

Across the country, more than 15,000 citizen scientists are tracking phenological data for a proscribed set of plants and animals. Many of them are gardeners collecting data from plants in their own gardens; others are going to designated “phenology trails” and other sites in the community. Many of them are entering their data in an elegant national endeavor utilizing Nature’s Notebook, a data-collecting tool of USA National Phenology Network (

In 2015, New York Phenology Project (NYPP) observers contributed more than 10% of the national dataset. The national total number of observations recorded in Nature’s Notebook in 2015 was 1.8 million!

Phenology aficionados track “phenophases,” like bloom time of native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). Photo by Michelle Sutton

Phenology aficionados track “phenophases,” like bloom time of native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). Photo by Michelle Sutton

Time of fruitset, like on this winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), is a phenophase that is tracked by phenologists. Photo by Michelle Sutton

Time of fruitset, like on this winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), is a phenophase that is tracked by phenologists. Photo by Michelle Sutton

The mission of Nature’s Notebook is to encourage close observation of nature, both for the joy of it and the data that results. Theresa Crimmins is assistant director at USA National Phenology Network. “As climate changes, the timing of these life cycle events also changes for many species. However, not all species are exhibiting changes, and the changes that are occurring are not all in the same direction or of the same magnitude.”

Crimmins says that the implications for this are wide-ranging and not yet completely realized, but include mismatches in the timing of open flowers and the arrival of pollinators, spread of invasive species, and changes in species ranges. “Local observations of phenology can provide critical data for scientists studying the effects of changing climate,” she says.

marie-iannotti Gardening Expert Marie Iannotti participates in phenology data collection for Nature’s Notebook and uses phenology in a variety of practical ways in her home garden. Photo courtesy Marie Iannotti


When the Lilac Leaves Unfurl…

One of those data collectors is garden writer, speaker, and photographer Marie Iannotti (, whose name may sound familiar because she is the gardening expert for She has written three books, including The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Northeast.

Iannotti remembers getting phenology-based planting advice from an older gardener who advised her to “plant your potatoes when you spot the first dandelion.” She says, “I started poking around to see if this kind of advice was just folklore or if there was some research behind it. When I found out the research on phenology is ongoing and anyone could participate in tracking, I jumped in, and I started collecting all the tips that had to do with gardening.”

Iannotti takes part in the New York Phenology Project through Nature’s Notebook. She says, “Tracking phenology is a great way for gardeners to get to know the cycles of nature and which things tend to occur at the same point in time. I started by tracking lilacs and know that when the lilac leaves first start to unfurl, I can plant lettuce and carrots, and when the lilac blooms, it’s safe to plant cucumbers and beans. When the forsythia blooms, I plant peas. It’s not an infallible system, but it’s a great tool for planning and for increasing your knowledge of natural phenomena. And since weather can be so variable, it’s more accurate than counting backwards from your last expected frost date.”

According to Iannotti, phenology makes us more aware of not just the changes, but also when something is wrong. For instance, why would we suddenly be seeing so many grasshoppers, or an increase in poison ivy? When should we be on the alert for Japanese beetles? When will cabbage worms be hatching, so we remember to go looking for them? “I’m also tracking my garden nemesis, the groundhog,” she says.


Trails and Sites Near/by You

Kerissa Battle says that one of the great things about the New York Phenology Project (NYPP) is that anyone can create a monitoring site almost anywhere. “Even if you only have space for a container garden outside of your house, or you just tag one red maple on the street in front of your house, or you get permission from the town to mark plants on your favorite local trail—you can join this effort,” she says.

Currently most monitoring sites are situated downstate. Battle would like to see more phenology trails and monitoring sites get established in central and northern New York. “Phenology data has been used mostly to monitor long-term patterns,” she says. “However, if monitoring sites are situated along a gradient—such as north to south or urban to rural—the data collected becomes relevant in the short-term as well.” How does urbanization affect the timing of flowering? Are the same pollinators being seen along an urban-rural gradient? Battle says that an array of monitoring sites that represent all of New York’s diverse ecosystems would allow these types of questions to be addressed.

In addition, central and northern New York are home to some of our State’s finest organizations and academic institutions—many of whom are already well-positioned to set up a site and engage students and the public in citizen science. “Indeed some of the most beloved nature preserves and institutions in New York are already involved—and new monitoring sites pop up every year,” Battle says.

Lime Hollow Nature Center in Cortland recently established a one-mile phenology trail with a focus on five woody plants: red maple (Acer rubrum), sugar maple (A. saccharum), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), and eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). They are also tracking the wonderful herbaceous woodland forb, skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).

The Finger Lakes Land Trust (FLLT), based in Ithaca, set up a phenology trail in Roy H. Park Preserve in Dryden, where they are monitoring red and sugar maple as well as black cherry (Prunus serotina), Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). They are looking for more volunteers to get involved with this phenology trail. The FLLT has an intimate history with phenology; one of its founders and its first president was Carl Leopold, son of beloved naturalist and author Aldo Leopold, who was an avid phenology data collector.

According to the FLLT website:

While Aldo is well-known for his phenological observations at his farm and shack in Wisconsin from 1935-1948, the whole family participated in observing nature … those observations have proved extremely important … years later, Aldo’s children Carl and Nina used Aldo’s records to publish a study in 1999 showing that temperature-dependent phenological events are occurring earlier. In 2013, a team of researchers used those same records to publish a new study on record-breaking early flowering in 2012. Just think—the observations you contribute today could lead to an important scientific paper down the road!

Citizen scientists around New York State are collecting phenology data and entering it into Nature’s Notebook. Photo by Kerissa Battle

Citizen scientists around New York State are collecting phenology data and entering it into Nature’s Notebook. Photo by Kerissa Battle

A Bustling Play

Battle set up a phenology trail around her property (which includes her garden) and checks her plants nearly every day when she takes her dogs for a walk. “I get my exercise and slow down my mind while I take in everything I am observing,” she says. “It is meditative and enlivening all at the same time. What could be better?”

“Beyond the pure pleasure of phenology monitoring, you can also craft your garden or yard within the larger context of the surrounding ecosystem,” Battle says. She goes on:

You begin to notice the same pollinators on your tomatoes that you are observing on the milkweed in the field. You begin to notice that the red maples in your yard are flowering later than the red maples in town. You start wondering if the heavy fruit set on the mountain laurel near your garden is because your garden is so lush this year that native pollinators decided to nest nearby and are now pollinating everything in sight. What insects are arriving and when; what birds are hanging around your gardens; what else is in bloom near your garden that might be attracting pollinators?

Suddenly you realize that the pollinators are not just servicing your garden—you are actually feeding them. And then they are moving from your garden to the patch of wild bergamot down the road and the fertilized seeds of the wild bergamot are feeding the birds at the end of the summer, and bam! Your intentional watching has placed your garden in the center of a bustling play—with you as both actor and audience.


Battle encourages those who are interested in creating a new NYPP site—which could be in your backyard—to visit


—Michelle Sutton ( is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.