Winter barley cv. Igri, winter wheat cv. Avalon and spring wild oats (Avena fatua) were studied in monocultures in pots and in the field. The field experiments were located near Bristol and Bury St Edmunds in 1988/89. Pot sowings were monthly, whereas there was a single sowing date for each of the two field locations. Base temperatures for emergence in pots were 2·2, 1·3 and 2·3 °C for barley, wheat and A. fatua respectively. Barley was consistently the fastest to emerge. Leaf number was strongly correlated with photothermal time from emergence, with barley producing leaves at the greatest rate. Base temperatures for leaf appearance were −6, −5 and −3 °C for barley, wheat and A. fatua respectively. The field studies confirmed the ranking of the species based on the pot experiments. Both a model based on photothermal time and one based on rate of change of daylength at emergence gave good descriptions of the data. It is argued that correlations of rates of development with individual environmental variables are not sufficient to deduce the underlying mechanisms.