How to Create a Garden Journal
Is this the year you finally get your gardening records organized? If so, consider creating a garden journal. It’s a good way to consolidate all your gardening records in one place so that you can manage your landscape more effectively. There are lots of reasons for starting a garden journal, but the best reason of all is that it will make you a better, more observant gardener. There’s no downside to that!
Is a garden journal really necessary?
To answer this question, please indulge me as I recount my own experience. Once upon a time, my garden consisted of a half dozen plants in a very tiny garden. I certainly didn’t need a journal to help me remember the names of the plants or their maintenance requirements. But my landscape eventually grew along with my passion for gardening. I started accumulating all my gardening records in a simple pocket file folder. The folder became crammed with landscape ideas jotted on Post-it notes, articles snipped from gardening magazines, rough sketches of my garden, wish lists of plants to buy, and receipts for plant purchases. The folder also became a repository for plant tags (yes, I do keep my plant tags and no, I’m not a hoarder). Eventually, my overstuffed folder approach just didn’t work anymore to keep me organized. After giving the problem some thought, I concluded I needed a proper garden journal. But what kind of journal?
What are the choices for establishing a garden journal?
Once I decided I needed a garden journal, my choices for creating one then were more limited than they would be if I were creating one these days. For example, one approach was to go “old school” and record hand-written notes and observations in an ordinary spiral notebook or three-ring notebook with tab dividers. Or I could have invested in a nice leather-bound journal designed specifically for gardeners. I chose the spiral notebook option. It was cheap, easy, and convenient. Besides that, if it got a little dirty from being hauled around the yard with me, no big deal. Nowadays, high-tech digital garden journal options are available as witnessed by the availability of free or inexpensive templates on-line. Mobile apps provide yet another option for taking photos and recording gardening activities on a smartphone or iPhone.
As for the approach to my own journal, I view myself as a mostly low-tech person. My simple spiral notebook was a good decision initially, but I lacked the discipline to keep it up to date. So, I abandoned the notebook in favor of creating a Word document on my computer. That worked much better for my needs. It’s a convenient way to maintain my landscape records and help me organize my “to do” list of gardening tasks.
If you plan to start a garden journal, choose whatever journaling method you determine to be simple and practical. If it’s burdensome, you’re not likely to stick with it.
What should a garden journal include?
The contents of a garden journal can be as simple or as detailed as you wish. The choice is up to you. Not all gardens are alike, obviously, and the gardening details captured in a journal will vary from gardener to gardener. As you mull over what to include in your own journal, think of it as (1) a historical record of your landscape, (2) a landscape task management tool, and (3) a place to jot down your ideas about new plants to try or improvements to your landscape. With those basic categories in mind, think about including the information that’s most useful to you. For example, a garden journal can be used to:
Maintain an inventory of plants. This is one of the most practical reasons for maintaining a garden journal. An inventory allows you to capture information about your plants all in one place, including botanical name, common name, cultivar or variety name, height, width, sunlight and moisture requirements, date planted, location in the garden, and any other information that is important to you. A chart format is the handiest way to capture this information, particularly if you have a large or complicated landscape. For my purposes, I found that an Excel spreadsheet on my computer works very well. While it’s not physically part of my written journal, it serves as a companion document. In fact, I rely heavily on Excel to capture a great deal of landscape information in chart form as you will see from the examples provided in this article.
- Map the location of plants within the landscape. In conjunction with the plant inventory, consider including a sketch of your landscape (either hand drawn or generated using a landscape design software tool). Don’t forget to indicate the location of bulbs or ephemeral species that sprout in spring and go dormant by early summer. Once the foliage dies back, it’s easy to forget where such plants are located. It’s also important to note the location of plants that are slow to emerge in spring such as false indigo (Baptisia), milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium). By the way – stay tuned for an article on landscape design software tools in a future article of The Garden Shed.
- Combine seed packets or plant tags within a journal so that all plant information is collected together in one easy-to-find location. Seed packets and plant tags are handy to keep because they provide a description of plants as well as their cultural requirements and usually an illustration or photo. They also usually include patent information, which can be important if you plan to propagate the plant. If you have a paper journal, attach the packets or tags to pages of the journal or store them in dividers that have pockets. If that’s not practical, then store them separately but keep them organized for easy access and retrieval. I find that a small plastic container is ideal for storing my plant tags (which are organized alphabetically by botanical name). Here’s another idea: If you keep a digital journal, take photos of the fronts and backs of each seed packet or plant tag and store the images that way.
- Capture images of your plants throughout the growing season. If you are artistically inclined, you may enjoy including sketches of plants in your journal. But most of us aren’t that talented. Alternatively, take lots of photos of your garden throughout the growing season and transfer them to a computer file for easy access. The images can help you remember which plants need to be divided or cut back, which color combinations do or don’t work, or perhaps which plants need to be replaced. As your garden evolves, it is useful to look back over those photos and compare them from year to year.
- Record daily high and low temperatures. This information is useful for tracking weather trends such as the last frost in spring, the first frost in fall, the first date that the soil freezes, etc. As you compare patterns from year to year, you can better schedule your planting or maintenance tasks. This information is also helpful if you have microclimates on your property where the air and soil temperatures are either warmer or colder than surrounding areas.
- Track rainfall. Use your journal to record how much rain or snow your garden receives throughout the year and when. Tracking this information can help influence your plant choices for tolerance to either drought conditions or too much moisture. It may also help you determine the best water management options for your landscape.
- Record where plants were obtained and associated costs. As a historical record, a journal can reflect when and where you bought each of your plants and how much they cost. This is useful when you need to replace a plant or add to existing plantings but can’t remember where you acquired the original plant. Also, the journal is a handy place to file paperwork (proof of purchase) should you need to replace a plant that died during the guarantee period.
- Track plant successes and failures. As gardeners, we can learn as much – if not more – from our gardening failures as we do from our successes. If a plant disappoints you or fails to thrive, it’s useful to record the failure and why you believe it occurred. The insight you gain can then help you make better or wiser plant choices. Here’s an example: Suppose you are growing a plant such as Perovskia (Russian sage) that starts out well but flops over later in the summer. Does the plant need to be staked? Does it need to be divided? Does it simply need to be pinched back early in the growing season? Should it be replaced with a shorter variety? Decide which approach makes the most sense and use the information you record in your journal to create a TO DO list for next year’s garden.
- Track plant performance within a species or family of plants. A garden journal is an excellent way to capture data in greater depth on varieties or cultivars of a specific species. For example, I am a big fan of asters (Symphyotrichum species). When the rest of the garden is beginning to close up shop for the season, asters spring into action in late summer and continue blooming well into late fall. I also love observing the hordes of bees, beetles, flies, and butterflies that visit them. But I’ve had mixed results with asters in my garden. Some do very well, blooming prolifically year after year, while others die out after a couple of years. Since I have more than 90 aster clumps representing about two dozen varieties and cultivars, I rely heavily on my garden journal to monitor their performance and sequence of bloom. The journal also influences my decisions on which varieties to grow more of and which ones to eliminate.
- Record bloom times. It takes a lot of forethought and planning to keep your ornamental garden looking colorful and inviting all season long. It also takes a lot of planning if you’re trying to support a variety of pollinator insect species. A journal is indispensable to both goals as you attempt to coordinate or overlap bloom times on multiple plant species. It can be used to record the first bloom on a plant, how long the plant is at peak blossom time, and when the plant is finished blooming. It can also show you where gaps occur between bloom times. Those observations can then drive decisions about using plants that have a longer bloom time, or that re-bloom, or that attract desirable insect species.
- Keep track of maintenance tasks. At the end of the year, it’s useful to review all the journal entries for the entire year in search of comments about plants that need to be divided, pruned, staked, trellised, cut back, or deadheaded. Those observations can then serve as the basis for a master “TO DO” list of maintenance tasks to be performed during the following year.
- Track plant pests and diseases. Document pest or disease problems in your journal, noting which plants were affected, the symptoms, what product or treatment was used, and when. Keeping records of scheduled sprays or other plant treatment programs and products used helps you to stick to a regular treatment plan.
- Monitor seed longevity. It’s easy to accumulate piles of partially used seed packets. It’s also easy to forget what seeds you have or how long they stay viable. A garden journal can help solve the problem. Use it to create a seed viability chart that reflects the date the seeds were purchased and the expected years of viability. To help you set up a seed viability chart, check out websites such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which provides a Seed Storage Guide that lists the average storage life of seeds under favorable conditions.
- Influence decisions on new plantings. Keeping good records of the plants you have now can influence your decisions about acquiring new plants. For example, we know that repetition in a landscape border makes the design more cohesive. With that concept in mind, you might want to add more of a specific plant. That decision, in turn, might require removing other plants that don’t contribute much to the design. Your records can help you decide what plants to buy and how many. The discipline required to develop this list will save you time and money, as well as help you avoid impulse buys, as you shop for the plants on your “wish list.”
- Manage crops in the edible garden. While the suggestions listed above apply to the ornamental garden, this final suggestion applies to the vegetable gardener who can use a journal to keep track of crops and crop varieties being grown, planting and harvesting schedules, pest and disease treatments, fertilization plans, and moisture requirements. A journal is also an indispensable tool for developing effective crop rotation plans from year to year.
For all practical purposes, a garden journal serves as a reference tool or historical record of your landscape and an effective way to maintain an inventory of your plants. As for format and content, the idea is to use whatever journaling approach best suits your gardening needs and interests. Don’t stress out over maintaining the journal to the point where you don’t enjoy the process. But do get in the habit of recording your gardening activities or observations on a regular basis. Maintaining a garden journal trains you to be more observant and more attuned to the natural seasonal rhythms of the garden. Regardless of how much or how little detail you include, ultimately, you will come to regard the journal as one of your most cherished and useful gardening tools.
Garden Journaling, North Carolina State Extension Gardener Handbook, Appendix A
Maintaining a Garden Journal, Washington State University Extension, by Kathy Wolfe, 2012.
Take Notes Now For A Healthier Garden Next Year, University of Minnesota Extension
Tips and Tasks: Garden Journaling, North Carolina State University Extension Gardener