Spring planting cues from crocuses, dandelions and maple leaves

Young maple leaves in springtime.

Young maple leaves unfurling in spring. Shot on the Bruce Peninsula in May, 2014.

Don’t you just love the instructions on your packet of seeds–”Plant outdoors after all danger of frost”. Right. Where’s that crystal ball when you need it? In Canada, the tradition has been to wait until Victoria Day weekend when warm temps are finally, thankfully guaranteed. But, with our wonky weather these days, patience can run thin. So try these suggestions instead:


  • Plant peas when forsythia blooms.
  • Plant radishes and spinach when the crocuses are in bloom.
  • Don’t plant a potato until you see your first dandelion.
  • Sow lettuce seeds when daffodils begin to bloom.
  • Plant beans when apple blossoms begin to fall.


  • Plant pansies once the aspens have leafed out.
  • Wait for maple leaves to reach full size before planting morning glory seeds.
  • Direct sow marigolds when black locust is blooming.


  • Prune roses when the crocuses are in bloom.
  • Watch out for eastern tent caterpillars once crabapple trees are in bloom.
  • It’s time to fertilize the lawn when forsythia is blooming.
  • When Canada thistle is in bloom, that’s when apple maggots will strike.

I found the above sampling of plantsman’s lore from Old Farmer’s Almanac, Mother Earth News, The Spruce, Harvest To Table, and an extension of The University of Wisconsin. Some of these tips may well have been handed down through generations of gardeners and farmers. What’s marvellous is that each person sharing their little bit of gardening wisdom took notice of the coincidental timings of natural events.

Honing your skills at noticing and recording these happenings not only helps you become a more confident gardener, it’s also a wonderful introduction to Phenology, the science of studying the relationships between periodic events that happen in the life cycles of plants, animals and insects and changes in climate. There are as many biological events as there are colours of the rainbow and they’re all cued by climate: amount of sunlight, temperature and rain or snowfall.

Here’s a sampling of periodic lifecycle events:

  • the start of a bird, butterfly or whale migration
  • leaves turning colour in the fall
  • a particular plant budding, flowering or fruiting
  • an insect changing from larvae to adult
  • egg-laying for birds or fish
  • a phase in the lifecycle of a bee colony
  • when an animal’s hibernation begins
  • when deer start to grow antlers
  • when caterpillars start to make their cocoons

Besides feeling like you just got a peak behind Mother Nature’s emerald curtain, there are two other good reasons why it’s important to keep practicing an awareness of how living things relate to each other. We all know them already. But, at the risk of pointing out the self-evident, I believe these reminders sink in a little deeper every time they’re heard.

  1. Every species in some way impacts the success of a bunch of other species. If a fruiting plant goes into flower much sooner than usual because of warmer than average weather, and the insects that normally come to pollinate it haven’t yet developed into full adulthood, then there’s a chance that the plant won’t get pollinated and the other insects and animals (and humans) depending on the fruit of that plant are, well, out of luck.
  2. Timings of biological events are revealing the impact of global warming in our own backyards. Researchers from the USA National Phenology Network, after completing a nation-wide tracking of leaf and bloom timings, recently announced that spring 2017 has arrived at least three weeks earlier than usual in most of the southeastern United States.

So this spring, try taking your planting cue from the crocuses rather than the calendar. You may never look at your spring garden quite the same way again.

Don’t forget that there are plenty of veggies you can grow before the last spring frost. Check out The No Space, No Time Veggie Growing Guide for ideas. And if you’ve wondered about the perfect time to plant bulbs in the fall, try this list of fun clues: 8 ways you’ll know it’s bulb time.

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