As a passionate vegetable gardener I’ve learned that whilst the growing season seems to fly past at an alarming rate, a year can be an awfully long time when it comes to your memory.
It barely seems like you’ve harvested the last of your crops before its time to start planning for the spring. At which point, I suddenly realize that I struggle to remember which varieties I grew last year, where I grew them or the specifics of their care.
To help refresh my memory, some years back I started to keep a garden journal. Now I have all the salient information available to me whenever I need it. As a result of my journal I’ve seen my gardening results improve each and every year, as I’m able to utilize my past experiences as a guide to the future.
If you can see the benefits of starting a garden journal but don’t know where to start, here are some top tips based on my own experiences…
Find the Right Journal
I’ve started (and indeed stopped) a number of garden journals over the last few years. Some got damaged, others got lost. Over time, I’ve slowly found the type of journal that works best for me.
Firstly, I like a hard-backed journal. There are several reasons for this; they’re easier to scribble in perched on your knee in the yard, and they tend to be a lot sturdier. Gardens are messy places, and sooner or later your journal is going to have to deal with water, soil and dirty fingerprints. A hard backed journal tends to cope with a little wear and tear much better.
Secondly, I have found that smaller journals tend to work best for me. Whilst large journals can seem tempting, they’re less practical for carrying about. I want something that I can tuck into a pocket when I spot a flower that needs dead-heading or a strawberry ripe for picking.
Lastly, whilst I have experimented with dated journals, I find that these are not the most efficient of tools. The vast majority of my journalling happens on a weekly basis, when I have a whole load of notes to add. On weekdays, when I have very little gardening time available, virtually nothing is written. As a result, journals with dates in tend to have five near-blank pages, followed by me trying to squeeze a small novel onto Saturday’s page.
In truth, I have found that a small, hard-backed lined notebook tends to work best for me. I select the next blank page, carefully record the date at the top, then make all the notes necessary. No wasted space whatsoever.
Give Your Journal a Home
My journal is kept in my garden shed, where it’s always available at a moment’s notice. All the same, I don’t mind admitting that my shed can get a little “unruly” as the busy growing season starts to kick off.
If I’m not careful, my journal can quickly disappear as I put it down in the wrong place, then absent-mindedly place a load of new seed trays on top. Sometimes journals have resurfaced months later, long after I’ve given up hope and started a new one.
The point is this: try to decide on a place for your journal. Make it somewhere easily accessible, and always put in back in this place once you’ve finished with it. In this way you’ll never mislay it, and it’ll always be on hand when you need it.
What to Record
Quite what you record in your journal is up to you, but these are the elements that I have personally found most useful…
Make a note of what you’re growing this year; not just a general list but be as specific as you can about the different varieties that you’ve chosen. In this way you can slowly refine what you grow over subsequent years, ensuring you select those varieties that seem to do best in your garden.
Make a note of how you’re growing your plants; are they being supported, are they being fed, are you pruning them and so on? By recording this information you’ll get a clearer idea of what each plant seems to respond to, and can slowly improve your results over successive growing seasons.
Arguably most important of all, record dates continually. In this way you can look back and see when you planted your seeds last year, when your seedlings got planted out, if bad weather affected things and when you got your vegetable crops and flowers. In this way you can figure out exactly what you should be doing when.
As an example, here in the UK I struggle to get my peppers to ripen before winter rolls in, even when they’re grown under glass. Thankfully, by recording dates over a number of years, I figured out exactly when I need to be planting my seeds to ensure the subsequent fruits ripen at the perfect time. Since then, my pepper-growing results have improved immensely!
Most plants appreciate a sunny spot, but nobody’s yard is perfect and there’ll always be some shady spots. By recording where you grow each plant, and how it did, you can figure out the best ways to utilize these less perfect areas.
If you’re a vegetable grower, noting down what you grow where (I even draw a map these days) can also be useful for ensuring you’re rotating your crops properly, and so maximizing yields.
Don’t think that your garden journal just has to include written notes. Feel free to use it as a scrapbook, sticking in seed packets and so on. In this you’ll always have the grower’s instructions on hand without having to root through your seed tin.
Don’t Forget the Photos
Photographing your yard can be one of the most helpful processes of all, and when combined with your journal can provide a wealth of information. You’ll be able to record how big each plant gets, and can compare these year by year.
It’s also a great way to quickly record planting densities and the resultant growth patterns. Personally, I keep my smartphone with me when I’m exploring the garden, taking pictures as I go. Don’t worry; these don’t need to be award winners – they’re only for your personal records.
How Often to Journal
How often you journal is up to you, as is the level of detail you choose to record. Personally, I like to settle down each weekend during the main growing season (typically March to October in the UK) and jot down as much detail as I can. You just never know what you’ll want to refer back to in years to come.
On any given week I can now look back to see exactly what tasks I did in the garden. I can see notes about what is growing well, what I planted out and what needed a little help. I can see when flowers grew and when I harvested fruits and vegetables.
This, combined with my obsessive photo taking, provides a great reminder of past growing seasons, and helps me to improve my results each year. Remember folks: knowledge is power, and you never know what snippet of information will come in handy in future years.