Have you ever heard the advice to plant beans when apple trees are in bloom or sow peas when daffodils are in flower? These bits of old-fashioned garden advice do have some wisdom in them but will they really help us time our seeds right? Let’s have a look at these sayings and see if they work.
If you have an interest in the relationship between plants and animals through seasonal changes, have a look at this article on phenology. There are some great videos there too.
Old-Fashioned Garden Sayings
There are lots of these sayings online and in garden books.
Here are a few.
- Plant potatoes when dandelions bloom.
- Plant peas in spring when the daffodils or forsythia bloom.
- Plant bush beans when the apple trees bloom.
- Plant pole beans and cucumbers when apple blooms finish.
- Plant melons when iris bloom.
- Plant cold crops including beets, carrots, spinach, and lettuce when lilacs first leaf.
- Plant tender annuals, beans, cucumber, and squash seeds when lilacs bloom.
- Plant corn when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear. Others say a sow’s ear.
- It’s time to transplant nightshades including eggplant and peppers, plus melons when iris flowers.
- Plant melons when peonies flower.
If true, these would be very handy ways to know when to sow.
So what’s the problem?
The short answer is, it’s anecdotal and there are too many variables at play to make any one of these signals reliable. Yes, they may—in some years and for some gardeners—coincide with the best time to plant, but often they will not.
Keep reading for examples.
How Reliable is it to Sow Based on Bloom Times?
Many of these old pieces of garden advice tell us to sow particular seeds when certain other plants are in bloom. And at first glance it seems feasible. I’ve certainly noticed the lilacs in bloom while I’m sowing squash.
But should we garden this way? Does the timing always line up?
Here are a few problems.
1Unusual Warm Spells Can Trigger Early Blooms
If we just went by the bloom times of other plants to determine sowing times, a rogue warm spell in spring—where temperatures are much higher than seasonal norms and some plants get ahead of themselves—would have us sowing much earlier than we should.
And that is likely to backfire.
Those warm spells don’t last. We kid ourselves that we have jumped the weather queue and outsmarted the yo-yo fluctuations of spring, but when have we ever, really? And you never know until weeks later if last frost really was last frost.
Just as we get those seeds started, seasonal norms return and r.i.p. seedlings. And those early blooms may be toast as well. Just ask a fruit farmer who has lost his crop to early blooms followed by frost.
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2Different Cultivars Have Different Timing
Bloom times can vary depending on the species and cultivar as well as growing conditions and weather.
If we based our pea sowing time on daffodils in bloom—even if they are blooming at the appropriate time for that cultivar—do we sow according to the early-spring, mid-spring, or late-spring bloomers? Which daffodil has the right timing?
Sow peas when the daffodils bloom is basically the same as saying, sow some time in spring, which is not helpful at all. Following this, we could easily sow much too early or late.
Is it time to sow bush beans when an apple tree blooms? Not necessarily.
What a blooming apple tree tells us is it has just experienced the specific conditions necessary to trigger apple blooms. And that’s it. This blooming time may or may not align with the right time to sow seeds.
The right time to sow comes back to what you’re sowing, when it should be planted in relation to your average last frost (science) and your growing conditions. The apple tree is just responding to its environment and has not read the instructions on your seed packet.
3Bloom Times May Be Delayed
Even if a bloom time proved to be a reliable indicator in previous years, it would be silly to be steadfast about sowing by it.
For example, what if the apple tree goes through a drought or disease in fall and does not flower the next year? Or drops its buds early on?
Not that we’d really hold out this way indefinitely but theoretically we’d be waiting for a sign that it’s time to sow bush beans that will never come.
So, as much as we’d like these sayings to be useful, on their own they are not. The bloom times can have truthiness in them—and sometimes the timing may be right—but they are just one potential signal.
The best advice is to read your seed packet and follow the instructions because the only thing a blooming lilac bush is really telling us is that there are lilac blooms.
If you would like a seed sowing plan to follow, see 1-2-3 Seed Starting Plan for Vegetables Gardens. It shows what to sow indoors and outdoors from early spring to summer and includes some perennial flower recommendations as well.
Or get the complete ebook with printable planning and tracking sheets here:
A Weekly Indoor & Outdoor Seed Sowing Plan for Beginners
by Melissa J. Will
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~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛