Nature has an order. Winter is followed by spring, when the lilacs bloom and the robins return north to nest. The study of that order is “phenology.”

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension and Sea Grant are running a program, Signs of the Seasons, under which volunteers will monitor 13 different plant and animal species – keeping track of when leaves or flowers first appear, leaves change color, birds nest, and other natural phenomena.

A training session for volunteers will be 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay. Other training sessions will be held later this month in Falmouth and Belfast, and another one will be in June at the botanical gardens.

The program has a number of goals, said Esperanza Stanicoff, an educator with the University of Maine Extension based in Waldoboro, who is coordinating the program with Beth Bisson of the Maine Sea Grant team.

One of our major goals is to assist people with climate literacy so people understand how plants and animals are affected by changes in climate,” Stanicoff said.

She said information about changes in climate can affect when farmers plant their crops and might explain why the lobster population is moving north.

The climate is changing, and there are a lot of different things that show it. The United States Department of Agriculture changed its plant hardiness zones last year, showing that weather is warmer.

But the climate is not changing at the same rate everywhere.

“The records show that Maine has the fifth most warming of any state over the past 100 years,” Stanicoff said.

Gardeners will be ideal volunteers for this kind of program, Stanicoff said, and a number of Master Gardeners have already volunteered to take part. Gardeners keep close track of when the plants they care about start producing.

Signs of the Seasons program began last year and is active in all 16 Maine counties, but the sponsors want to get more volunteers this year.

We are excited to have Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens involved, because volunteers can get involved in making observations in the gardens or in their own backyards,” Stanicoff said.

People do not have to keep track of all 13 species on the list to be part of the program.
One of the plants in the program is the common lilac, Syringa vulgaris.

I have kept track of the lilac bloom since 1994, when our daughter got married and wanted lilacs from our garden to decorate the church.

Her wedding date was May 21, and we worried until just days before the wedding that the lilacs would not come into bloom in time.

Since then, the lilacs have been in bloom at least a week before May 21, and last year – one of the earliest on record – they were in bloom very early in May.

And I am not the only one who has noticed the earlier bloom for lilacs.

The Boston Lilac Festival has been a huge event over the years,” Stanicoff said, “and they have had to adjust the date because the blossoms have gone by. They had to move it by 11 days.”

The same thing has happened in Maine with Maine Maple Sunday, because in recent years the sap has stopped running by the time of the traditional date, the last Sunday in March.

And while the sugar maple is one of the plants that volunteers observe, the sap run is not one of the items they observe.

Everything is happening early,” Stanicoff said, “but not all species are changing at the same rate, and that could make things interesting. For example, it may occur that the Monarch butterfly and milkweed are not in sync, that they are mismatched, and that could create problems.”

Monarch butterflies are dependent on milkweed for food, and without the milkweed being available at the right time, the Monarchs could disappear.

Stanicoff hopes Signs of Seasons will continue for a long time. She said some researchers are looking at journals that gardeners wrote many years ago to figure out what the climate was like back then, but the scientific recordings from many parts of the state will be invaluable.

People who have participated in the program have both enjoyed it and learned from it,” Stanicoff said. “Even the Master Gardeners who have taken part have said they have learned a lot. It involves a step-by-step program that is put into a very sophisticated online database that is kept at Boston University.”

Part of the training teaches people how to submit their information to the database. The training sessions are free, and volunteers have to attend only one of them.

People can register for the training sessions at the botanical gardens through the gardens’ website,, or by calling 633-4333, Ext. 101.

They can also register for any of the sessions by contacting Stanicoff at 832-0343 or [email protected]
For information about the program, go to or

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:
[email protected]