Keeping a Record

Keeping a record of what’s going on in your garden isn’t for everyone, but it has proven valuable for me, as a learning tool, an opportunity to observe closely, and especially as I have left one garden for another, as a way to remind, recall, and transport what I’ve loved and learned in one garden to the next one.

Records can be kept in many ways, one of which may suit you.

Record-Keeping Methods

  • a garden journal, noting as needed when plants are bought, divided, given, found; where they are planted; how they do each year as the seasons cycle
  • keep a daily journal that might take 5 minutes per day to update, 365 days per year, with notes about tasks, pests, planting, blooms, harvests, birds, rainfall, temperatures, daily impressions.
  • photographs of plants, landscape and topography, sun patterns, butterflies and moths, birds, insects, and other visitors to your yard, at different times of the year; or a digital photo journal, with photos every week to document growth, bloom, insects that visit, die-back, frost-kill, etc. You can turn this into a very instructive and beautiful slideshow (like this one)!
  • photographs of labels with their plants, because most labels deteriorate when placed near the plant in the garden (more label ideas here)
  • video of various aspects of your yard in spring, summer, fall and winter
  • drawing, sketching, painting of plants, animals, forms, shapes, landscape and layout, sun patterns, etc.
    early sketch, with notes, for last bed for garden in interior Maine (c.2000)
    early sketch, with notes, for last bed for garden in interior Maine (c.2000)
  • a simple diagram of your garden’s layout or design and what is planted where
  • cardboard box of dated seed packets, perennials and annuals tags, labelled bulb bags, receipts, packing lists, etc.
  • simple written or drawn Google topographical map overlay of garden layouts, microclimate information, sun patterns, soil conditions, zone or sector detail (if you are a permaculturist), wind, noise, etc. (some great mapping ideas here)
  • for vegetable gardens, a planting and harvesting chart
  • for seed-starting and vegetable gardening a spreadsheet with cells for planting dates, seed type and variety, company, number of seeds planted, date and number of first seedlings, number of seedlings, transplant date, first harvest date, last harvest date, yield.
  • track and journal your garden online with a free program like Myfolia or a subscription-based one like Plantjotter ($21/year)
  • If you are really into scrapbooking, you might use a computer program combined with digitised photos to create a keepsake garden record! (as described here)

I keep a sort of hybrid of a few of these:

page from current garden journal
page from current garden journal
  • a hand-written garden journal organised by garden (shade garden, front border, side garden, etc.), listing each plant and when it was bought/received, from where, and what I paid (if anything), its hardiness zone, its mature size, its bloom and/or foliage colour if relevant, and a brief note each year as to when it blooms and for how long. I also note plants that are very slow to emerge from the ground in the spring, as well as winter damage, failure to thrive, transplants, divisions, pest infestations, large butterfly visitations, etc.  It takes me about 15 minutes to update every 2 weeks or so from April to October.
  • I also rely heavily on photographs, taken randomly but frequently all year long. I might spend a half-hour taking an extensive array of photos once or twice a month, plus 5 minutes every few days in season. Not only does this provide me a record, it gives me a great opportunity to assess my plants, notice pests and other damage, notice water needs (wilting, lack of lushness), and, in short, notice.
  • For my vegetables, I keep dated seed packets, though I don’t yet note yield, taste, quality of plants, etc.
  • I keep plant labels (perennials, annuals, shrubs, and vegetables) in the ground with the plants. It doesn’t look as good in photos but until they inevitably break off due to weather, they remind me at a glance what’s planted there, which is handy in season and especially handing when plants are dormant and I am about looking for a place to plant garlic or 20 fritillaria bulbs. As mentioned above, you can also take a photo of your plant at its peak, or in bloom, with its label for a handy record of the plant’s name.
  • And I keep track of last frost, first frost, first freeze, and daily temperatures and general weather conditions (rain, sun, clouds, snow, sleet – but not precipitation amounts) in my regular handwritten (Moleskine) desk diary.

Benefits

page from early plant journal, which was not a garden journal but rather a self-created text book
page from early plant journal, which was not a garden journal but rather a self-created text book

The benefits of recording the garden are many, I’ve found, and it’s especially apparent to me because I didn’t do this much for our first two yards, in Maryland and interior southern Maine. Every now and then I try to recall the name or specific variety of a plant I especially loved in one of those gardens and I am not always successful. Last night, for example, I spent a half-hour online and in my garden books (including a plant journal I kept for our first Maine garden) trying to find the name of just such a plant. After spending so much time, I finally did find it: santolina. But I could have saved a lot of time had I actually written down the plants I planted in that garden instead of plants that I thought I might plant there (many of which I didn’t, and many I planted that aren’t on that list).

A few of the benefits of garden record-keeping include:

  • An overall sense of your garden as a living, functioning organism, with a structure, a design, a set of complex interrelationships.
  • Knowing more what to expect in your garden, and when to expect it: seed germination timing and amount, vegetable and fruit yield, pests and when they move in, pollination timing, bloom times, perennial emergence times (so you don’t , e.g., dig up what you think is a dead perennial a few days before it was about to emerge above ground … been there), where and how plants thrive, how invasive some plants are, what is a weed and what isn’t and which weeds you may want to keep,  and so on.
  • Recognising where to make beneficial changes: planting different seed types, planting different seed varieties, planting earlier or later or in succession, thinning seedlings sooner or more (or later or less), rotating planting areas, enriching poor or depleted soil, transplanting perennials, shrubs or small trees,  moving gardens or plants to more or less sunlight (or creating more or less sunlight by removing or planting other plants), watering more or less, acquiring plants to fill in empty spaces or dividing plants to make more room, and so on.
  • Becoming educated about plants’ names, including weeds’ names, so that you don’t spend hours in the future trying to find those names again. Learning plants’ scientific names is also very useful because it tells you which plants belong in the same family and may likely have the same needs, habits, and blooms, even though the plants seem very different.
  • Most important, I think: Creating an opportunity to observe, notice, appreciate, and enjoy your garden and its complex habitat.

Loving Them and Leaving Them

Since 1991, I have created and maintained a garden in Maryland (3 years), a large garden in rural Maine (8 years), a small garden in coastal Maine (7 years), and a medium-sized permaculture garden in New Hampshire (4 years and counting). It’s not easy designing gardens, choosing plants, nurturing them …and then leaving them to someone else’s devices.

Not easy, but quite instructive. I’ve learned a lot over the years, practicing in my gardens:

First, a newly forwoodstocksummer1992med (previously farmland) 1-acre suburban lot in zone 7 – I started with absolutely no gardening or landscape design experience at all and learned a lot from one designer, local nurseries, local nursery catalogs, magazines (not much internet back then!), and watching what happened to my plants over three years of hot summers and ice storms.

Then, a 10-acre shambling, mostly-waterboroveggardensummeryearunkmeadow-and-forest property in zone 4 – I devoted myself first to a large rectangular vegetable garden, then branched out (ha) into a pond garden, a large front yard border, an entry garden, another large bed by the shed, a cutting garden of annuals, a linear shade border on the north side, and a bed on a knoll overlooking a glade of birch trees. Then I started planting along the driveway. I learned that I love foliage, variegation, shade plants, late summer perennials, and oddly shaped plants, leaves, and flowers.

backyardmidjune2009Next, a tiny, less-than-1/4-acre (and most of it ledge) property in coastal zone 4b/5a, which had already been gardened to the hilt, was fitted with unending brick and plastic garden borders, and required me to fit new plantings in even as I tried to rescue and amend the soil that had been depleted with many non-hardy roses that were continuously dying; the soil was as arid as a desert, not a worm to be found for several years; and it was packed with beautiful peonies!

astilbeinbloomshadegarden30June2013

And now (for now), a 3/4-acre, very flat, zone 5 property with a thin wooded border behind it and a hill of raspberries overlooking it, and which has apparently not been farmed or gardened since at least the 1970s . I was starting from scratch again here, and after watching the property for a year, have created front and back borders, a shade garden, a sunny side garden, a peach guild (permaculture lingo, to be discussed in a later post), a garden in the rock wall running between our property and the neighbours’, a kitchen garden of greens and herbs (and bell peppers this year), with vegetables, herbs and fruits interspersed in some of these garden spaces.

My purpose with this blog is to record, with photos primarily, these past and present gardens (particularly in NH and coastal Maine), and also to talk about the challenges and joys of gardening, over and over, in a place that is only home temporarily.

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