People who want to become better gardeners will find that keeping a garden journal or notebook is helpful in reaching that goal.
Naturalists, biologists, ecologists, and others who work in the world outdoors have traditionally written their observations in field notebooks and lab notebooks, because the effort pays off. Writing down their observations helps these people to focus more purposefully on what they are seeing.
The same idea works for gardeners.
Writing down what you see, what you plant, when you plant it, how plants respond to a particular fertilizer or compost or flood/drought situation, and more, helps us become better gardeners.
Recording our observations in a garden journal or notebook provides some clarity. It helps us truly see which activity or amendment or crop variety might promote more successes.
Our gardens become more productive as we learn from our successes and not-so-successes.
Does it have to be an actual notebook?
A gardener should choose the type of notebook or system that will be easiest to use. If an app or computer program seems easiest, then that may be your best choice.
However, actual writing and drawing on actual paper can be more helpful to learning about your garden than typing into a program, spreadsheet, or app.
Studies have shown that, for putting information into your longterm memory, hand-written notes are more effective than typed notes. (See this pdf document by Mueller and Oppenheimer, as an example.)
The advantage seems to be that, for many people, putting observations into their own words improves the ability to remember and to incorporate those observations into a larger mental framework or image.
The physical act of writing, itself, also adds an element of body-memory that may be missing in typed information.
What kind of journal or notebook is best?
In my earlier gardening years, I kept garden notes somewhat randomly. Some garden notes were in plain spiral notebooks; others were variously on loose graph paper and notebook paper or calendars.
I still have most of these notes, and they did improve over time, but the inconsistent and scattered nature of the notes makes it harder to locate any exact bit of information that I might be trying to find. In the past several years, I have become more deliberate about keeping my garden journal.
A guided garden journal and notebook
Now, I write my garden notes in the Garden Planner and Notebook that I designed and published with new gardens in mind. The introductory information in each section reminds me to consider things like companion planting, cover crops, crop rotations and more as I work in my new garden.
In my old garden, I did not need these reminders. I knew how my old garden worked, what to plant, when to plant it, and where in the garden it should go. A simple calendar or blank book was all I needed for keeping a garden journal or notebook.
Now, I am happy that I had the foresight to know that I would need all of these reminders as I moved to a new garden, new climate zone, new soil. If such reminders would help you, a journal like the one I designed might be a good choice.
A blank book
Another type of notebook that I like to use is a blank book. This year, one of the garden goals that I had listed in my Garden Planner and Notebook was to learn more about herbs. Specifically, I have a goal to learn more about herbal medicine.
I set up a blank book to be a “Gulf Coast Herbal for 2021-22” with sections for the eight herbs that I planned to focus on first. All eight seemed to be safe for beginners to work with.
Only one of the eight does not show up routinely on edible-plants lists.
Because this garden notebook has a specific additional purpose, beyond garden success, it is arranged a bit differently than my main garden notebook.
I set up each herb section to include traditional uses, HOW to use them, growing information, some additional (modern/recent) research on the mode-of-action for each herb, potential hazards, and any recipes or treatments that I tried, along with results of those treatments. Essentially, I am my own guinea pig for trying these out.
I have learned a lot! This Herbal is just the first volume in what I expect to be, eventually, several booklets of information about the medicinal uses of herbs that I am growing in my Gulf Coast garden.
The blank book that I chose for this garden project is a Moleskine brand booklet that has lined pages. It comes in a 3-pack. The books are a good size, 5″ x 8.25″, and short enough (not too many pages) that they are easy to organize and fill.
Some blank books I have seen are so beautiful and have so many pages that they can be a little bit intimidating. I like the plain booklet style of the saddle-stitched Moleskine. I can write and draw in it without worrying about ruining a beautiful hardcover book.
Also, the blank cover gives me a lot of freedom in setting out the purpose for each booklet.
It would not be difficult to set up a small blank book like this lined Moleskine booklet as a garden journal or notebook for the coming year.
What should I write in a garden journal or notebook?
Any notes you take should be useful to you. The kinds of information that I find useful to write in a garden journal or notebook include these:
- Planting dates, both for starting seeds in pots and for planting them in the garden
- Plant variety names (not just Collards, but ‘Georgia’ Collards, for example) for my crops
- What I noticed about the crop (size, productivity, flavor, pest problems, and more)
- Basic map or diagram of where things are planted in the garden – this needs to be remade two or three or four times each year as old crops come out and new crops go in, to help work out crop rotations
- Results of a soil test, if I had the soil tested that year
- How I used those soil test results in choosing and using fertilizer/nutrient-sources for the garden
- Pests that show up, which plants they are on, the damage they are causing, and what date I first saw them
- Methods of dealing with the pests, and notes about what works (and what doesn’t)
- Notes about the success (or not) of any companion planting that I have tried
- Notes about pollinators and other beneficial insects that I see
- Notes about the weather, especially the big events that can cause damage (such as floods and frosts)
- Notes about major goals for the garden and the progress made (or not) in achieving them
However, I have been gardening for a few decades. Also, in the past year and a half I have been working to “speed learn” how my new yard works. This all influences the amount and kinds of information that I write down. Your choices of observations and information to record may be different from mine.
This, though, is a thing I know for sure: As I observe my garden each day, keeping my goals in mind and thinking about the underlying meanings of my observations (what they tell me about the garden) speeds up my learning.
Do garden notes have to be in whole sentences?
One of the best parts of keeping a garden journal or notebook is that it is all yours. If you are a whole-sentence, narrative kind of person, then writing out whole sentences might be your choice. However, it is not the only option.
Lists, like a list of “what I planted today” or “places I ordered seeds from this year” are also great ways to record information.
Drawings and diagrams are also good tools for recording some kinds of information. I draw my garden beds whenever I replant, and record, either in the drawn shape or outside the shape with arrows pointing inside, where each crop is planted.
Sometimes, I include a note about what should be planted in that spot next.
Using the Garden Planner and Notebook
Most of the options in the “what to write” list that is earlier in this article also are given space and explanation in the Garden Planner and Notebook. This makes it easy to use!
Read the sections, then add the information and observations that you want to track in the spaces provided. If you don’t want to fill out every section, then don’t.
Some of the options in the “what to write” list shown earlier, like my goals, I have written in the lined pages that are included as a section called “Notes, ruminations, and inspirations”.
Also on those pages I have written notes about the upcoming fertilizer shortage – so many countries have reduced both fertilizer production and exports! Other notes compare crop varieties; how I managed the 3×3 patches of arugula in spring; and estimates by various researchers of how much space is needed to grow enough food for one person, or (in different research) the entire UK.
Other gardeners might use those lined pages for inspirational quotations, historical information about particular plant varieties, or other bits of garden lore.
I already ordered a new copy of the Garden Planner and Notebook to use next year. One thing I didn’t think about when designing the book was that, at some point, there will be a whole row of these identical Planners on my shelf. Finding which one is for the current year could become a bit complicated.
To help me identify the correct copy, I have written the current gardening year in permanent ink (using a “Sharpie”) on the front cover of each one.
Also, 2021 has a couple of stickers on the front. These are more instantly obvious than the hand-written year.
I have different stickers ready to apply to the 2022 Garden Planner and Notebook when it arrives.
I hope that all your gardens are growing well!