When I worked as a municipal horticulturist, I took care of twelve high-maintenance gardens, and a number of smaller ones, over I-don’t-know-how-many square miles of city, plus several hundred small trees, an insane number of shrubs, a greenhouse, and whatever else the bosses threw at me. I had to find a way to stay organized besides waking up at 3 a.m. to make extensive lists. My solution: keep a garden journal.
Vegetable gardeners with an organized journal can take control of production and yields. Whether you have a large garden or a small organic farm, it certainly helps to keep track of everything in order to beat the pests, make the most of your harvest, and keep up with spraying and fertilizing.
Keeping a garden journal reduces stress because your overtaxed brain won’t have to carry around all those lists. It saves time by keeping you focused. Writing sharpens the mind, helps it to retain more information, and opens your eyes to the world around you.
My journal is a small five-section notebook, college ruled, and I leave it open to the page I’m working on at the time. The only drawback with a spiral notebook is that after a season or two I have to thumb through a lot of pages to find an earlier comment. A small three-ring binder with five separators would do the trick, too. If you wish, you can take out pages at the end of each season and file them in a master notebook.
I keep two notebooks – one for ornamentals and one for vegetables. However, you might prefer to pile everything into one notebook. Do what feels comfortable to you.
These are the five sections I divide my notebooks into – though you might use different classifications, or put them in different orders. Don’t sweat it; this ain’t brain surgery. Feel free to experiment. You’ll eventually settle into the form that suits you best.
First section: To-do lists.
This is pretty self-explanatory: you write a list, you cross off almost everything on it, you make a new list.
When I worked as horticulturist, I did these lists monthly. I’d visit all the gardens I took care of. After looking at anything left unfinished on the previous month’s list, and looking at the garden to see what else needed to be done, I made a new, comprehensive list.
Use one page of the to-do section for reminders of things you need to do next season. If it’s summer, and you think of some chores you’ll need to do this fall, make a FALL page and write them down. Doing this has saved me lots of headaches.
Note: Don't be like this guy.
Second section: Reference lists.
These are lists that you’ll refer back to on occasion.
For example, I’d keep a list of all the yews in the parks system that needed trimmed, a list of all gardens that needed weekly waterings, a list of all places that needed sprayed for bagworms, a list of all the roses that needed to be babied, etc.
I would also keep my running lists in this section, too – lists I keep adding to. For instance, I kept a list of when different vegetables were ready for harvest – even vegetables I didn’t grow, as my friends and relatives reported to me. Then when I made a plan for my veggie garden, I would look at the list to get an idea of when these plants finished up, and then I could figure out when I could take them out and put in a new crop. I also had a list of “seed-to-harvest” times, so I could give each crop enough time to make the harvest date before frost.
You can also keep a wish list – plants and vegetables you'd like to have in your garden.
Third section: Tracking progress.
This is a weekly (or, “whenever it occurs to me to write about it”) section as well.
If you plant seeds in a greenhouse, keep track of what seeds you order, when you plant them, when they germinate, how many plants you transplant (and how many survive to maturity), and so forth.
When you finish up in the greenhouse, use these pages to look back and record your thoughts – “I will never again try to start vinca from seeds! Never!! Never!!!” Then you don’t annoy yourself by forgetting and buying vinca seeds next year.
You can do the same thing when you move on to the vegetable garden – what dates you tilled the ground, planted the seeds, when they germinated, and so forth. Make notes on yields and how everything tasted. “The yellow crooknecks were definitely not what I’d hoped for. Try yellow zucchini next year.”
Be sure to write a vegetable garden overview at season’s end, too. “Next year, for goodness’ sake, get some 8-foot poles for the beans! Also, drive the poles deeper into the ground so they don’t fall over during thunderstorms.”
During the winter, you can look back on this section and see ways you can improve your yields and harvest (“The dehydrator worked great on the apples!”), and you can see which of your experiments worked.
Fourth section: Details of the natural world.
When keeping a journal, don't limit yourself to what's going on in your garden. Track events in the natural world, too. Write down when the poplars start shedding cotton or when the Queen's Anne Lace blooms.
You've heard old gardening maxims such as "plant corn when oak leaves are the size of a squirrel's ear," or "prune roses when the forsythia blooms.” If the spring has been especially cold and everything’s behind, you can rely on nature's cues instead of a calendar when planting or preventing disease outbreaks.
Also, by setting down specific events, you can look at the journal later and say, "Oh, I can expect little caterpillars to attack the indigo plant when the Johnson's Blue geranium is blooming." Then next year, when you notice the buds on your geraniums, you can seek out the caterpillar eggs and squish them before they hatch. An ounce of prevention, see?
When I read back over this section of the journal, patterns start to emerge. I noticed that Stargazer lilies bloom just as the major heat begins. This is no mere coincidence: It's happened for the last three years! So now when I see the large buds, I give the air conditioner a quick checkup.
Fifth section: Notes and comments.
This is more like the journal that most people think of as being a journal – here, you just talk about the garden, mull over how things are looking, or grouse about those supposedly blight-resistant tomatoes that decided to be contrary and keel over from blight.
I generally put a date on each entry, then ramble on about any old thing. You can write a description of the garden at sunset, sketch your peppers, or keep track of the habits of bugs you see crawling around in the plants. This ain’t art, this is just fun stuff (which, in the end, yields great dividends).
Maybe you’ve been to a garden talk on the habits of Asian melons and you need a place to put your notes. Put them here!
This is a good place to put garden plans, too. Years later I run into them again, see old mistakes I've made, and remember neat ideas I haven't tried yet.
Get a calendar.
Then, when December comes, get next year’s calendar and the gardening journal and sit down at the kitchen table. Using last year’s notes, mark on the calendar events to watch out for -- when the tomatoes first ripen, when the summer heat starts to break, and when you expect certain insects to attack. In the upcoming year, you just look at the calendar and say, “Well, the squash bugs will be hatching soon,” so you put on your garden gloves and start smashing the little rafts of red eggs on the plants.
A garden journal can be a fount of information, a source of memories, and most of all, a way to keep organized. Who thought a little spiral notebook could do so much?