The Write Way: What to Keep Track of in a Gardening Journal
Keeping a garden journal allows you the freedom of not having to remember everything about a past growing season when you are making decisions for a future one. Here's what you should consider writing down.
There are so many mental notes that we all make throughout the season about wanting to do more of this, or less of that the following year, that without some sort of organized journal, many of these things may not ever come to fruition.
Keeping a garden journal allows you the freedom of not having to remember everything about a past growing season when you are making decisions for a future one.
Much of the information that may prove to be useful can be found by contacting your local cooperative extension service, respective government agriculture agency, or established garden centers in your area. Historic weather information can also be found online or requested from state and federal weather agencies.
The amount of information suggested here to include may seem daunting, overwhelming, or unnecessary to the average gardener just wanting some tomato plants on their patio, and for those folks it probably is.
However, for any grower, hobbyist, or professional, learning from our mistakes is part of the garden journey throughout our lives. While every garden journal will be different, there are some categories of information that many gardeners would find helpful included in all of them.
The Planning Phase of a Garden
Why do you even want to grow anything? Are you looking to recreate your grandmother’s backyard? Create an efficient, clean, food system for your family? Looking to create inspiration for your landscape paintings or portraits?
Whatever the reason for planting anything, it is worthwhile to write that reason down, and it’s probably wise to do this in the beginning of the journal. It will help keep you on track when making later decisions. It may also prove to be a later sense of joy or bemusement as you try and remember what it was many years ago that you were striving to do with your garden space.
The planning portion of a garden journal should contain some basic information about your growing area. Things to include:
- Historic date of last frost for the season.
- Elevation of your planting site(s).
- Direction(s) faced.
- Hardiness zone or other information about the average and historic highs and lows in your growing area.
- Site conditions—this includes such things as soil type, which is a good idea to have tested prior to planting, and characteristics of the site (is it open, sunny, shaded, etc.)
Knowing these facts will help to inform you on all of your other planting decisions for both the current and subsequent years, such as deciding which types of plants to select for your garden or when to plant them.
This section may be entirely overlooked if you will not be starting any plants inside before planting them directly in the garden. If, however, you want to get a jump-start on the planting season, you may opt to start some of your garden plants in seed trays (or other containers) inside, for transplant later in the season. Information that you may want to put in your garden journal for future reference could include:
- The date(s) that your plants were seeded.
- The seed variety, supplier information, batch number, and germination rate. This information may be useful to refer to if you happen to have a crop failure or if there is any kind of seed recall.
- The type(s) of containers seeded into, rate of seeding (how many seeds per row, etc.) and the media used. If not a commercial seed-starting mix, then include a list of amendments used and quantities of each. This information will be helpful if doing any post-mortem on seed types that did not do well.
- Information about the growing space such as temperature, humidity, and direction it faces, or grow lights used. Did you use other growing aids such as heating mats or temperature sensors?
Now for the fun part. In this portion of your garden journal, record all pertinent information about the plants you are transplanting or the seeds that you are sowing. Note the following:
- Date for planting/sowing each type of plant.
- Indicate whether it was directly seeded, and if so, include the same information as in the previous point above. If transplanted, indicate where it was purchased from and save any tags that may have come with it. By law, it should indicate the original source and whom it was grown for. For example, it may say “grown by XYZ Greenhouses for ABC Garden Center 2017.”
- Where in the garden it was planted.
- How many were planted? This could be individual plants, flats, rows, or whatever measure seems appropriate.
- Any immediate post-planting care should be recorded such as watering, fertilizing, staking, mulching, etc.
Growing Season Notes
This may be a matter of individual choice, but any treatment or care given after the initial planting can be recorded in this section. Depending on your plant choices and growing conditions, this could be the shortest or longest section of the garden journal. In this portion of the journal, include information like:
- Growing season temperatures (lows and highs) by day, week or month.
- Rainfall or other precipitation amounts during the growing season. Any particularly unusual weather event, such as a late or early season snowstorm, a tornado, flood, or hurricane should be included as well.
- Amount, frequency, and method of irrigation.
- Any amendments or fertilizers used throughout the season as well as their manufacturer, date purchased (they have a limited shelf life) and rates of application.
- Just as with amendments, any pesticides used, whether conventional or organic, should be recorded. Detail the product used, its active ingredient (on the label), date used, weather conditions, amount used, where it was used, target species of concern, and manufacturer information on the label. This may seem excessive information to obtain, but a pesticide label is a binding, legal document. It is a good idea to save copies of them on anything that you opt to purchase or use.
Depending upon your point of view, this may well be the fun part, as it represents the “fruits of your labor,” the “sweat of your brow,” or, you know, the vegetables from your garden.
Keeping good records here will help you decide if you made the correct choices for varieties or if you need to make some changes for the following season. It may seem like a lot of work, but if growing food is anything other than a casual hobby, this is important to know:
- Date(s) of harvest for each type of crop. This can then be cross-referenced with the planting dates to see how long it took from seed to harvest.
- Pounds or kilograms of each crop. If you do not possess a scale, then at least count how many items of each and their relative sizes.
- The disposition of the crops. If you are not selling them, why would you care where they go? Because unless your intent is to donate the produce or give it all to family and friends, you may realize that you are producing way more than you need to be. This might mean that you can scale back your time and investment the following season or that you need to make additional plans for what to do with the bounty (freezing, storing, canning, baking, etc.)?
After the final harvest at the end of the season, it is good to keep records of what was done. It is easy to put it off, but can be difficult to recall later what it was that you actually did with the space. Leave room in your journal to record things like:
- What was done to the site after the last harvest? Was it tilled? Did a cover crop get seeded and if so, how much and what? Was the garden left as-is?
- Was any compost or other amendment added to over-winter? Again, if so, what, how much, and where did it come from? Did you leave any crops in the ground for future winter harvest such as root vegetables?
Make sure to note anything else at this stage in the journal on general thoughts for the past season, or the one ahead. This does not mean you are bound to it, but it may be useful when starting the planning phases of next year’s garden journal.
Include pictures, doodles, anecdotes, dirt smudges, or anything that makes it yours. It is a planning tool for your individual site and could become a treasured family heirloom in the future.
Written by Chris Bond | Certified Permaculture Designer, Nursery Technician, Nursery Professional
Chris Bond’s research interests are with sustainable agriculture, biological pest control, and alternative growing methods. He is a certified permaculture designer and certified nursery technician in Ohio and a certified nursery professional in New York, where he got his start in growing.