Studying Nature’s Calendar

The Phenology Garden at Chico State University

Phenology is the study of plant and animal life-cycle events related to seasonal and climate changes. Gathering and recording data from year to year enables scientists, gardeners, and anyone curious about the world around them to observe how shifts in light, temperature, and precipitation ripple through the environment.

A conversation between Lorene Edwards Forkner, Editor of Pacific Horticulture and Colleen Hatfield, Professor of Biological Sciences, California State University, Chico.

This working drawing, developed with input from students, a garden design expert, and University Facilities, depicts plant placement in the future  Chico State Phenology Garden.

This working drawing, developed with input from students, a garden design expert, and University Facilities, depicts plant placement in the future Chico State Phenology Garden.

LEF: How did the Phenology Garden at Chico State come about?

CH: Collecting long-term data is critical to understanding trends such as factors associated with climate change. Yet it’s challenging to find the resources and time necessary to compile this sort of information. I talked to my colleagues about developing curriculum activities that would provide students with opportunities to engage in current, relevant research and set up a venue for long-term data collection. Developing a phenology garden had the potential to meet both goals.

A building maintenance project for Holt Hall, where the Biology department is located, called for removing most of the landscape surrounding the building. I submitted a proposal to the University’s Facilities and Management Services (FMS) requesting that a small section of this newly exposed area be devoted to an educational phenology garden.

LEF: Tell us a bit about the future garden and describe Chico’s climate and growing conditions for readers who aren’t familiar with the region.

CH: The garden, which is approximately 30 by 60 feet, faces east and will receive abundant sunlight early in the day and be somewhat shaded from the hot afternoon sun. Plantings will focus on California natives and include primarily woody species as well as some annuals. The area is prominent to people entering the campus from the east, so in addition to serving its educational goals the garden’s visual appeal is important.

Chico is situated in Northern California, approximately halfway between Sacramento and the Oregon border. We have a mediterranean climate—cool, moist winters and hot, dry summers often with little or no rainfall for 6 or 7 months. An important factor in setting up the garden is to select native plants that are adapted to these conditions.

LEF: Where are you in the garden’s development?

CH: During this past spring semester (2014), teams from an upper-division Biology Field Methods class, working with FMS and within a limited budget, developed the garden’s design. Students selected plants based on information provided by the National and California Phenology Projects and with valuable input from John Whittlesey of Canyon Creek Nursery and Design who also helped design the local Gateway 
Museum pollinator garden.

The Phenology Garden will be watered until it is established; after 2 or 3 years the irrigation will be turned off and actual monitoring will begin. Even though the garden will not be fully functional early on, data collected as the plants are establishing will provide a baseline to compare subsequent phenology trends once the water is turned off. During this time, we will be developing and implementing curriculum activities and defining rigorous protocols for how the data will be collected. We will also be training instructors on how to implement the protocols, as it is paramount that data be collected consistently from year to year.

LEF: What might curriculum activities involve?

CH: Activities at the Phenology Garden will be developed to span the Biology curriculum. Students in 
introductory Biology will collect data on a particular phenology topic tailored to whether it is a spring or fall class. As these students progress, they will revisit the garden and build on their experience collecting additional types of data. In this way, the garden will help build continuity in the student’s education.

There is a range of types of information that can be gathered in the garden. Students will observe and gather data about how plants change throughout the seasons, how different plants respond to similar cues, and how pollinators respond. For instance, fall semester activities will focus on fruiting and/or leaf fall, while spring activities will track bud break, flowering, and pollinator arrival. That information will be entered into the National Phenology Network, an online database that tracks plant phenology on a large scale, and the garden may eventually become part of the California Phenology Project.

In addition to working with Biology students, I will be reaching out to other departments such as Environmental Sciences and Geography about incorporating the garden into their curriculum as well.

Beyond campus, the garden has potential for community involvement. We have a Hands-On Science Lab that brings students, grades 2 through 6, on campus to experience science. I will be working with coordinators of that program to see how the garden might fit into their study plans. I also have had conversations with teachers at the local high school who are interested in exploring the potential for bringing students, including a photography class, onto campus and using the garden as a learning opportunity.

With a finished design and plans to get plants and the watering system in place by the beginning of fall semester, we are close to making the Phenology Garden a reality.