What sets you apart from other gardeners? What makes your garden more successful? It seems like everyone has their own trick for ultimate harvest triumph, including new compost tea brews, new additives for the feeding program and all sorts of tweaks to the environmental conditions.

One of the best tricks for a successful harvest from year to year is simple observation, regardless of the deficiency or problem your garden is experiencing. Spend time with your plants! If you do not monitor your garden, you can miss the subtle warning signs of deficiencies, excess or pest problems.

Taking photos has been a useful tool for my observation process. I have learned a lot of lessons by trial and error from season to season, and photographing my observations has been a great reference in ensuring I do not repeat past mistakes as well as providing information for future garden plans. I prefer to use a simple point and shoot digital camera, rather than the camera on my phone, because of the zoom capabilities. I have gotten the best photographic results with the automatic setting and natural light. It is important – and visually awesome – to see details like pollen grains caught in the fuzzy hair of a bumblebee and the proboscis of a butterfly. It’s amazing how little you can spend on a camera to produce such high-quality photos.

I’m sure many readers can agree that at first all plants look the same, but once you spend countless hours observing the leaf or branch pattern, it is easy to differentiate plant varieties. Every second you spend observing your plants brings you closer to understanding their life cycle. As you observe your plants in a healthy ecosystem more and more, when there is a fluctuation in the homeostasis of your garden you will notice it immediately and be able to adjust accordingly.

Observing your plants doesn’t always have to focus on increasing yields and preventing problems. Take a moment to enjoy the beauty of your garden—you will be surprised at the results!

When I’m in my garden, I feel like I'm in a botanical Willy Wonka Land with giant zinnias, gladiolas, blooming brugmansia and nicotiana covered in aphids that are being farmed by ants, which are competing with the aphid-eating ladybugs. There are crab spiders perched on pale pink roses waiting motionless for unsuspecting prey and miniscule insect eggs on the underside of a single chamomile head.

These somewhat insignificant observations result in pretty cool photos, but also provide a visual documentation of my garden and the health of my ecosystem. One of my favorite gardening quotes is “A gardener’s shadow is the best fertilizer.” Undoubtedly this quality garden time—monitoring, observing and documenting—will result in a productive, healthy ecosystem that will give you an edge on your competition. As your garden grows, so does your knowledge base for botany, and this will always keep you one step ahead of your fellow gardeners.

Molly Sweitzer has a B.F.A. and B.S. from Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, and most recently studied life in the soil with Dr. Elaine Ingham at the Rodale Institute. Currently Molly works as the manager of the Companion Plant in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and is the owner of Molly Pollen Botanical Design.