The Phenology Project


Auburn, AL | Landscape Performance LAB, Auburn University’s School of Architecture, Planning & Landscape Architecture


The Phenology Project is a multiyear investigation that monitors the spatial and textural qualities of plants as they change through the seasons. Through careful observation, an expanding palette of plants are photographed each week for the entire year to record how the transparency, tone, and texture of each plant changes. As the ephemeral attributes are documented through photographs, the research team continues to experiment with innovative representational techniques that enable designers to understand, conceptualize and employ these dynamic plant qualities in landscape design.


For centuries, garden designers have advocated that a garden provide visual interest throughout the seasons. This pursuit often manifested itself in flowers and fall color, which is merely scratching the surface of plant qualities. Landscape Architects have the opportunity to extend our understanding beyond the visual stimulation of flower sequences and fall color into intentional, ecologically-rich spatial relationships that evolve and transform through the seasons. This choreography could include all strata of planted form, from the mosaics of the ground plane to the high canopy of trees. Within this view, treerows become ephemeral scrims that provide opacity and habitat in the summer and transparency in the winter. Landscape rooms defined by deciduous shrubs and perennials are able to emerge and vanish within the cycles of the season.

In order to employ dynamic seasonal qualities of plants in design proposals, we need to understand more about how plants change, especially how their transparency, tone, and texture fluctuate through the year. The Phenology Project is an exploration into this realm. Phenology is the study of periodic plant and animal lifecycle events and how these events are influenced by seasonal and climatic variation. Expanding research on climate change continues to gather new phenological data on the exact date particular plant species leaf out, flower, seed, and drop their leaves. Scientists studying the threat of global warming track these annual dates to measure local and global climatic variation. In order to increase the data set, scientists have recently engaged civilians to become volunteer phenologists, carefully observing select phenophases and reporting the data back to the phenological surveys. In North America alone, Project BudBurst, The Great Sunflower Project, The North American Bird Phenology Project, Journey North, FrogWatchUSA, are but a few of the many citizen surveys that are training participants, including countless school children, to carefully observe and record the annual cycles of natural phenomena. These networks are together building a fleet of naturalists, carefully observing the seasonal variation in their own backyard. Landscape Architecture has an opportunity to expand the scope of our discipline to better engage this emerging awareness of seasonal fluctuation. The Phenology Project participates in this growing research, but strives to refine the trajectory of data collection in the field. The Phenology Project consists of three interrelated research procedures: 1. careful observation, 2. experimental representation, and 3. inventive implementation.

CAREFUL OBSERVATION: Capturing the ‘Right’ Data

Seasonal observations have been recorded for ages by gardeners and naturalists. In A Sand County Almanac (1949), Aldo Leopold records “This year I found the Silphium in first bloom on 24 July, a week later than usual; during the last six years the average date was 15 July.” (p 46) Our societies’ engrained fascination with flowers is intriguing and important, but this concentrated focus often distracts an observer from investigating the full capacity of plant performance. A rich set of untapped information occupies the space between current phenological datasets. The Phenology Project advances the documentation of plant phenology beyond written descriptions of bloom dates, and captures the spatial and textural qualities of the plants during each phenological event. Through a series of still photographs taken from the same vantage point at the same time each week, the ephemerality of an expanding palette of plants is chronicled through an entire season. To date, a total of 15,396 photographs have been recorded through the Phenology Project. Only seven species have been included in this submission.

EXPERIMENTAL REPRESENTATION: RePresenting that Data Effectively

The Phenology Project confronts the misconception that plants are static, structural objects, and advocates that they are dynamic, relational shifters that dance in and through the landscape. This nuanced perspective is ultimately tested by how one approaches design. The research team has used a number of design proposals to test and reveal the potential limitations of the research gathered thus far. Each design exploration provides an independent feedback loop to further inform the data capturing as well as the experimental representation processes. Each year the research team has taken on at least one major design project to explore how the ephemeral fluctuation of plants are able to strategically inform the structure and spatial qualities of the landscape.

"It’s a graphically beautiful and practical way of showing seasonal horticulture. . . It offers a snapshot view of a plant, and how it survives and evolves through different seasons. That information is so completely and thoroughly communicated that others can apply it to their projects"

- 2014 Awards Jury



Principal Investigator: David Hill, ASLA

Research Assistants:
Domini Cunningham, photography
Adam Bailey
Jessie Holt
Yimiao Li

Student Participants in ‘Plant Ephemerality’ Research Seminar:
Christina Argo, Associate ASLA
Adam Bailey
Sylvia Barnett, Associate ASLA
Chad Bennett
Rodney Benton, Associate ASLA
Matthew Blansit, Associate ASLA
John Carswell, Student ASLA
Byung Choe, Student ASLA
Enoc Cruz
Gregory Curtis
Qian Deng
Rafael Eques
Stephen Everett, Associate ASLA
Chen Fan
Taylor French
Susan Godwin
Laura Gollar
Steven Green, Student ASLA
Brandon Gregg
Wei Guo
Xue Hao, Associate ASLA
Carlton Hines, Associate ASLA
Maria Hines, Associate ASLA
Jesse Holt, Student ASLA
Kelly Homan
Yubei Hu, Student ASLA
Paige Ishmael, Associate ASLA
Ben Johnson
Michael Kuras
Cortez Lampley
Jonathan Lewis
Qing Li
Yimiao Li
Jingjing Lin
Xuanxuan Luo
Rachel McGraw, Student ASLA
Felipe Palacios, Student ASLA
Xingye Pan, Associate ASLA
Justin Pasley
Crystal Passi, Associate ASLA
Matthew Phillips, Associate ASLA
Drake Reeder, Student ASLA
Seth Ristow, Associate ASLA
Pratisha Shakya, Associate ASLA
Richard Sluznis, Student ASLA
Xibei Song
Dale Speetjens, Student ASLA
Bonne Szakel, Student ASLA
Braxton Tanner
Sudha Thapaliya
Duc Tran
Shihua Wang, Associate ASLA
Yang Wang
Majorie Woodbury
Jiayang Xie
Fei Xiong, Student ASLA
Mi Yan
Chine Yu
Yanni Zhang, Associate ASLA
Long Zhou