Monday, January 23, 2012

Nature's Calendar on a Fast Track

As we bask smugly in vintage Florida postcard weather this winter, let's pause for a moment to remember the roller-coaster ride of the previous two years:
  • Early 2010 was marked by the coldest January in a century, including 10 straight nights of temperatures near or below freezing.
  • The Summer of 2010 was the warmest on record for West Central Florida, with 151 days of temperatures that reached or exceeded 90 degrees.
  • December 2010 was the coldest December on record, with not one but TWO early freezes.
  • Summer 2011 was among the 10 warmest ever in West Central Florida.
  • The mercury hasn't let up in this winter of 2011-2012, with no end in sight to the exceptionally mild temps we've had so far.
Everything in Nature happens for a reason, and so it is with the wild weather fluctuations. Blame it on our changing climate.
Winter surprise: Blanket flower (Gaillardia) still going strong
 I suspect not very many gardeners would argue that climate change isn't upon us. We see it with our own eyes. Flowers blooming earlier, leaves changing color later, or birds and butterflies coming and going sooner or later than expected. In my own garden, I've already had a few monarch butterflies hatching, my native Walter's viburnum is starting to produce its fragrant white flowers about two months early, and my red passion flower-- which normally dies back to the ground in winter - hasn't stopped blooming at all!

What winter surprises do you have in your garden? 
Passion vine in full bloom in January!!
Rather than call it Global Warming, a more accurate term is Climate Disruption, or simply Climate Change.The earth's climate overall is growing warmer (and ours in West Central Florida along with it), but the trajectory is not a straight line, but instead a meandering one with all sorts of extremes thrown into the mix. Record cold, record heat, more intense storms, floods and drought. Think of all the catastrophic, record-setting weather events of just the past year: the Japanese tsunami, the horrendous tornadoes in Missouri, Alabama and North Carolina; the earthquakes in Virginia and New Zealand; the unbelievable flooding from Hurricane Irene.

Never thought I'd see wild cotton
 in bloom this time of year
Gardeners, with their finely tuned powers of observation and love of nature, are perfect assistants for scientists studying the effects of climate change on plants and animals. That is why I am co-sponsoring, through my job with the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, a workshop to recruit gardeners and other interested people to participate in a program called Nature's Notebook. I took this workshop myself last year and loved it. As I walk around my yard, I note which of the plants in the national database that are in my yard are blooming or budding, or actively growing. 

Ditto for the birds, amphibians, insects and mammals that I see. I make note of the biological phase (singing, nesting, feeding, etc.) and then submit my observations online to the Nature's Notebook database, using simple electronic observation sheets. It's fun, easy and makes me feel like I am making a small but important contribution to scientific understanding of our natural world and how it is responding to our changing climate.

The workshop is Saturday, Feb. 11 from 9 a.m.- 2 p.m. at the Hillsborough County Extension Service. It is being taught by a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, one of the lead agencies in the Nature's Notebook partnership. 

For more information and to register, visit

Hope to see some of my gardening pen pals there!

Warm welcome: A monarch just after emerging from its chrysalis this January