Why Keeping a Garden Journal is so Important and, How to Keep it Simple
By: Emily Shirley, Adv. Master Gardener
We have mentioned the idea of keeping a garden journal and all the advantages of doing so, but we continue to get comments on why people don’t seem to be able to do this, as well as questions about how to organize. Some say they have good intentions and they start, but for several reasons, they don’t keep it up. It is a good conversation to have, so here we go.
Let’s start with the basics. What is a garden journal? It is a written record of your garden and your garden-related activities. And by “written” we mean hand-written, typed on a computer, and maybe includes things you may want to attach, such as attaching receipts from the store or copies of your seed packets. You can keep your garden journal contents in any notebook, on note cards organized into a file or a combination of a folder with attachments and information entered into a computer journal. A ring binder works best because it allows you to insert sheets of graph paper, calendar pages, pockets for your seed packets and plant tags, and pages for your photographs. Keeping a garden journal gives you a written record of your garden plans, successes and failures.
Sometimes future “plans” become dreams that have to “bake” in my head until at some point they become a reality. The garden journal is a place for me to jot down what I think I may want to do at some point in the future with some small plot for a new garden area. I can continue to think about this area and change things around until I feel that it is ready to be done. (My Garden Journal has a section for “New Plans” and we can talk about that more as we talk about how to set up and divide your journal.)
For vegetable gardeners, an important function of the journal is keeping track of crop rotation. I name the different garden areas on my property so I know what I am referring to when I make note of what is planted where at various times. We know that planting the same crop in the same location each time you plant depletes the soil and encourages pests and diseases. Many vegetables should be planted on a 3- to 5-year rotation schedule. This is where the sketch of your garden areas, with the names of each area, comes in handy.
A Gardener Rabbit Hole
So let’s get off subject just a minute and go down a gardeners “rabbit hole”. Because crop rotation is so important and is one of the most important reasons you will want to keep a garden journal, let’s talk about crop rotation and the different plant families just a bit more before moving on to the subject at hand.
Different vegetables belong to different families, and different botanical families have different nutritional needs and have different issues.
We learned in our Master Gardener classes about these different plant families:
Solanaceae – The nightshade family is the most commonly represented group in most home gardens. These include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes (not sweet potatoes). There are common fungi that build in the soil when nightshades are planted in the same spot year after year.
Cucurbitaceae – Vining plants produce their fruit on a long vine with seeds running through the center of the fruit and most are protected by a hard rind. Cucumbers, zucchini, summer and winter squash, pumpkins, melons and gourds are included in this family.
Fabaceae – This is the large family of legumes. These are our nitrogen fixers. Peas, beans, peanuts and cowpeas are common vegetables in the legume family. Gardeners who use clover or alfalfa as cover crops in the winter need to rotate them along with other members of the Fabaceae family, since they are also legumes and susceptible to the same diseases.
Brassicacae – Also known as the cole crops are members of the mustard family and are used by many gardeners to extend their growing season. Frost sometimes improves the flavor of these crops. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, radishes, turnips and collard greens are mustards grown in home gardens.
Liliaceae – Members of the onion family require rotation just like other families. These include onions, garlic, chives, shallots or asparagus. Asparagus must be life in place for several years. Also, when selecting a site for your asparagus bed, make sure that no other family members have been grown nearby for several years.
Lamiaceae – These are not really vegetables but are members of the mint family. These include mints, basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage. These are sometimes inter-planted with vegetables to deter pests.
We are still talking about crop rotation here so stick with me for a minute. When you grow plants from the same family in the same place year after year, they leach away specific nutrients that they need. Eventually, the area will be depleted of the nutrients that particular family of plants need.
Vegetables in the same botanical family will also be susceptible to the same pets and diseases. If you plant the same families in the same spot year after year it is like hanging a sign up for certain pests and diseases. You want to keep them on the run and confused. You will do that with crop rotation.
Some will say, “Wait a minute – this is all too confusing and complicated. I thought gardening was simple.” Well, yes it is simple. All you really have to do is make sure that plants from the same family do not get planted in the same spot for more than three years in a row. If there is a particular pest or disease in one area of the garden, don’t plant the affected botanical families there for at least two years. For example, if you had problems with your tomatoes last year, do not plant tomatoes, peppers or eggplant in that area for at least two years. It is simple but you do have to remember a few things. This is where the Garden Journal comes in handy.
Every year, before you plant your garden, refer to your journal and make a note of where plants were planted last year and how they performed. If they performed poorly, rotate that family to a different area of the garden. This will greatly increase the yield of your crop.
Okay, that is the end of the gardeners “rabbit hole” so let’s get back to focusing on the Garden Journal.
There are not a lot of complicated rules that someone else has made up that you need to follow when it comes to keeping a Garden Journal. Keep it simple and try to find time to record something every day or so, and record the important things as soon as possible so you do not forget. Make it your own and make it something that is useful to you.
At a minimum you may want to include:
- An initial sketch of your garden layout. (Again, name each different garden area for reference.)
- Pictures of your garden areas
- A list of plants you know you will plant each year because these are the plants you know you and your family like. You will want to note plant times for each of these. You can also make notes to remind you of things. For example: “I plant my Irish potatoes by Valentine’s Day each year.”
- Any research papers on these plants. (This will be a one-page “cheat-sheet” where you have looked up things about this particular plant such as plant times, fertilizer requirements, watering requirements, etc.
- A list of plants you would like to try and your research about these plants. (Their growing requirements, when you would plant them, etc.)
- Resources. (Including favorite seed catalogs, web sites that you typically refer to, etc.) This is a good place to list local businesses that carry the things you typically need each growing season. (For example: “O’Neal Feeder Supply carries the onions I plant each year. I get my strawberry plants and sweet potato slips from Country Gardens.”)
- Reminders. (For example. “Remember to call Country Gardens around May 15th and tell them how many sweet potato slips I need this year.”
- Expenses and receipts.
- Calendar (It is handy to just purchase a refill of the type calendar that fits into a ring binder so you can just make entries each day.
- Dates to remember. Keep a list of these and then at the beginning of the year, go to your daily calendar and note a reminder to yourself – such as when to divide perennials.
Description of an ideal Garden Journal:
- A three-ring binder that is three inches thick
- Sheet protectors
- Large envelopes with holes punched in order to put in the binder
- A three-ring calendar refill to make daily entries
- A designated “In-Box” to drop things into until you have time to put them in the binder.
- A set of dividers with tabs. Tabs will include:
- Calendar (goes as the first thing in the journal because you will open up to it almost daily.)
- Garden Layout – layout of your garden areas (with the names of each area noted.)
- My plants – list of plants you typically plant each year, with a note of when you typically plant each of these.
- Plant Research – file your research paper here.
- Resources – Behind this tab is a sheet that lists all your resources, including people and telephone numbers. Sometimes you need to call others for help. You can include a “Reminders” page in the resource section.
- Dates to remember
- Future Plants – list of plants you will try at some future date.
- Garden Design Ideas – Put sheet protectors behind this tab to hold pictures of design ideas that you cut out from magazines, etc.
- Expenses & Receipts (put a sheet protector or envelope behind this tab to hold things in as you get them.)
- Pictures – you may need sheet protectors to hold pictures if you do not just print them out on regular paper.
- Equipment — If you have a lot of gardening equipment, you may want to include a tab on garden equipment, or make a separate binder for information on your equipment. (For example: I have three tractors, a weed-eater and a mower.) I need to keep up with when everything is serviced and making a note in my garden journal, and then transferring that to a permanent “equipment’ journal is easy since I am making entries in the garden journal daily.)
Keeping a garden journal is fun and fulfilling. It is something “garden related” that gives you something to do on those rainy days when you cannot get out in the garden. Start by having a designated gardening “in-box” where you drop things such as receipts, articles, research papers, seed packets and plant tags. Keeping a Garden Journal is THE way to learn from your successes and mistakes and improve your gardening skills. And, you don’t have to remember a thing – it is all there in your Garden Journal (binder)!