Gardeners, hikers and citizen researchers participate in the search for nature data

Many gardeners eagerly observe the seasons and look at the life cycle of plants and animals for a sign of what is about to happen – and carefully record their findings.

Now in an era of heightened awareness of climate change, these observations are becoming useful.

John Ditchburn began his garden in 1989 behind an old house on an unusually large plot that was once mining near the center of Ballarat.

“I realized very quickly [the block] was probably too big – it was not space that was the problem, it was time, “says Ditchburn.

a man looking at tomato plants
John Ditchburn fell in love with gardening when he was 16 years old.(

ABC Ballarat: Rhiannon Stevens

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And over the decades, gardening has consumed its time. He has grown vegetables and fruit trees, kept chooks, farmed fish and cared for his compost pile.

He has also spent years creating and updating region-specific vegetable growing guides.

When he started his guides, he interviewed older gardeners in his neighborhood, and he started keeping records.

These days, his Exel spreadsheet records varieties and times when he plants vegetables in the garden or greenhouse, which beds he plants things in, major weather events, frost, rainfall and harvest results.

Space to play or pause, M for silent, left and right arrows to search, arrow up and down for volume.

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This is the kind of longitudinal data that researchers are getting excited about.

Ditchburn believes some changes he has seen in his garden can be attributed to climate change.

In the early ’90s, Ditchburn planted salads in the summer with no problems, but for the past 10 years he has said the heat has been too intense. Now he grows them under the shade cloth.

He used to expect the first asparagus heads to jump through the soil in early September. Last year, the first asparagus came up in mid-August, while the first this year arrived on August 1st.

Getting down to the micro level

Other changes that Ditchburn has observed believe he is environmentally friendly – the arrival of the birds thanks to tree planting in the neighborhood and the appearance of fallout spiders and stick insects probably due to changes in the landscape.

Denis Crawford, an entomologist based near Grampians (Gariwerd) in western Victoria, has spent years researching how to increase insect populations in backyard gardens.

Gardens are important habitats for insects, and most of them are not pests, he says.

“It gives you a little more understanding of what’s going on in natural ecosystems if you’re interested in your own backyard,” Crawford says.

But understanding why garden insect populations are changing is complex.

Landscaping, the weather, even a change in the number of perennials can have a big impact.

Crawford says data is not available to emphatically attribute changes or losses to climate change.

“In the Australian context, there are very few long-term studies of insect populations, and most of the long-term studies tend to be on agricultural pests,” he says.

The hunt for data

In Melbourne, a project to engage citizen researchers in mass data collection to understand how changes in temperature and precipitation affect plant and animal behavior has been underway for more than a decade.

A man takes a photo of a tree with a cell phone
Climate Watch had more than 28,000 Australian users before redesigning an app. The group encourages people to sign up again.(

Delivered by: Sam Richards

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Climate Watch encourages people to download a free app and record sightings and information on a variety of plant and animal species.

Program Coordinator Luke Richards says the Climate Watch team checks the data to make sure animals and plants have been correctly identified before sending it to the Atlas of Living Australia – Australia’s largest biodiversity dataset.

For Mr Richards, the scale of the questions that researchers are trying to answer makes it necessary to involve citizen researchers.

He also hopes the app can help people get involved in the natural world and feel part of the solution.

a phone showing the climate application is held in the hand.
Climate Watch has created trails across Australia where the public can go and record data on specific species found in the area.(

Delivered by: Sam Richards

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The natural world does not have to be a remote national park, he says, it could be the jacaranda tree in your street or the extra-two of the 180 indicator species that Climate Watch tracks.

App users are encouraged to submit more records about the species living around them and view them over time to increase the “scientific robustness” of the data.

While the technology may be new, observing nature is something innate, Richards says.

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