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


  1. Your photos are stunning. Love the red passion flower. It has definitely been a wonderful winter. Hope we make it through a few more weeks.

  2. Thank you, Susan! I love passionvine but I have to keep a vigilant eye on it to make sure it doesn't take over the entire yard! It is certainly getting a head start this year with our warm winter. I'm amazed at the number of plants that are still blooming and growing in January.

  3. Beautiful photos, Nanette. I've thoroughly enjoyed the 'change' this winter since it's been a mild one. It's hard to believe we are almost into spring... my hope is that it stays like this through those months, too. Wouldn't it be nice if we could order-up the weather! It comes and goes in cycles and balances out eventually. My garden and the wildlife seem to adjust with the ebbs and flows.

  4. Very beautiful pictures. The Nature's Notebook sounds interesting.....

  5. Meems, I agree that this weather has been extraordinary. I hope it doesn't mean we are headed for a sweltering Spring! I am really happy with the way my landscape handles both cold and heat. As average temperatures creep up with time, I think water-thrifty gardens will become even more relevant.

    Nature's Notebook is a lot of fun, NanaK. Filling out the data sheets makes me even more attuned to life in my garden.

  6. I,too,have enjoyed this winter weather.I,m hoping it doesn't mean a bad year for the "h" word...hurricanes...
    I',really interested in the program you wrote about.If I can,I'd like to participate.

  7. Hi Chris:

    I too hope our early warm weather doesn't foreshadow a bad hurricane season. With an 86-year-old all-wood house, I always breathe a big sigh of relief in November when hurricane season ends!

    Love to have you at the Nature's Notebook workshop. If you plan to come, just make sure to register online at so I have enough materials and snacks for all.:-)

  8. Hey Nanette...I'm doing a post on the Florida-Friendly Landscaping recognition program and would like to mention you and your blog in the article if you are agreeable. I would also like to post the photo you have of the sign in your front yard if that's okay. I'll definitely credit the photo as yours. If you're interested would you mind giving me a few words on how you made the transition in your garden. Thanks!

  9. Of course, Susan! I'd be flattered to be included.

    Feel free to include me and use any photos you'd like, I'm all for promoting the recognition program.

    As to how/ why we conducted what I call our "Extreme Yard Makeover" here goes:

    After the severe freezes of January 2010, our yard -- like many -- looked like a bomb had exploded in it. We decided there would never be a better time to start all over. We knew we wanted to get rid of ALL our grass, and install a landscape that conserved water, retained all stormwater, and used a combination of native and Florida-adapted landscape plants.

    Our overall goal was to create a beautiful, grass-free landscape that was lower-maintenance, so we'd have more time for FUN.

    We hired a landscape designer with extensive knowledge of Florida-Friendly principles and design. She listened to what we wanted and came up with a design we loved. We opted to do all the work of installing the new landscape to save money. My husband and I then spent weekends for the next 2.5 months digging up old plants; killing our grass; smoothing out all the hills and valleys in our yard with a Bobcat; hauling mulch, shell and pea gravel; planting our new landscape beds and making our walkways.

    Only one of the existing plants -- a large bird of paradise -- was allowed to stay. Every other plant was removed and replaced!

    Although it was more work than we thought, we have never regretted a minute of it. We love our new landscape. The diversity of plants make it so much more interesting than it was before. It is MUCH less work than our old yard. My husband -- who hates yard work and couldn't tell a weed from a gardenia in our old yard -- now knows the name of every single plant in our redesigned garden and loves to take people on tours of it.

    OK, I know that is way too much info so just use whatever you'd like, Susan, and thanks so much for asking me to be part of your Blog.