Take Your Garden to the Next Level with the Help of a Garden Journal

Claire Splan

When some people hear the words “garden journal,” they think of very literary, pastoral writing about a very perfect garden. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of thing, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

The kind of garden journal I’m suggesting is more data-driven than dreamy. It’s a place to record goals, important dates and actions, to-do lists and achievements. A journal tracking your significant garden activities will provide you with useful information to use year after year, as well as a tool to help you build your gardening chops.

3 Ways a Garden Journal Will Make Your Gardening Life Easier

If keeping a garden journal seems like more of a hassle than it’s worth (I know, I know — who needs one more thing to keep track of!), well, think again. Here are three solid reasons why a garden journal will benefit you in the long run:

1. You’ll keep a record of what and when you planted, pruned, and fertilized and how that worked out.

You know those seeds you planted last year that have grown into bushes that are taking over your yard? What the hell were those again? And that cherry tree that still hasn’t fruited? What’s with that?

If you had kept a garden journal, you’d have a note about what seeds you planted and maybe even kept the seed packet with some care instructions. You might be able to find out that those seeds were Mirabilis, which reseed like crazy and require deadheading or even mowing to keep from becoming invasive. And maybe the plant tag from the cherry tree that you stuck in a pocket of your garden journal would tell you that cherry trees take several years to start fruiting and you just need to be patient. Those little details can tell you how to care better for your garden — or even reassure you that you’re doing just fine as it is.

2. You’ll be able to implement bigger garden plans in smaller, more manageable steps.

You don’t have to start an edible garden by plowing the back 40— especially if you don’t have a back 40. Start by planting three or four veggies and see what you have the most success with. Keep track of costs (of seeds/seedlings/fertilizers/etc.) and then track how much produce you harvest. Was one crop more worthwhile than another? If one crop fails to live up to expectations, what should you replace it with next year? What other crops can you add?

Or suppose you want to add a water feature? That can be a back-breaking job to tackle in a weekend or two, but if you break it into steps (clearing the site, digging the pond, shopping for the liner and filter, setting it up, filling with water and plants, adding fish) that you can plan for and put on your calendar, it becomes easier — on your back and on your budget.

3. You’ll build your skills and knowledge as a gardener.

You’ll learn so much by recording your gardening successes and setbacks. (Note that I said “setbacks” and not “failures.” There are no failures in gardening!) You will start to recognize important signs that warrant further attention, like signs of disease, just as you’ll learn that not every aphid attack requires a full-on assault. If you pruned a plant at the wrong time and it didn’t bloom, you’ll be able to look back at your journal and make a note that next time you should prune earlier (or later). Those are lessons that can save a lot of heartache (and even some dollars) in the future.

How to Set Up a Useful Garden Journal

To make your garden journal really useful, you need to make it easy for you to use.

If you’re a digital person, then go digital. Apple’s App Store has several apps you can try, such as Gardenize or Gardener’s Journal. The Google Play Store has many android garden journal apps as well. Several seed companies also have downloadable garden planners on their websites, although they tend to be more limited in scope and are better for planning plantings than for documenting all garden activities.

My personal choice is a simple paper calendar or monthly planner, especially one that comes with pockets and a few spaces for notes. It’s easy to make quick notes on what was done when, and you can tuck plant tags, seed packets, or photos into the pockets to save for future reference.

Once you’ve decided on the format you’ll use, follow these steps to set yourself up for success.

1. Begin with goals.

What do you want to do this year in the garden? Maybe this is the year you start an edible garden or establish some fruit trees. Maybe you have a hardscape project in mind that you need to plan and budget for. Maybe this is the year you get into propagating your plants from seed.

Whatever your goals are, write them out clearly. Then break them down into steps and plot those steps on the appropriate months.

2. Calendar key dates.

You’ll be doing yourself a favor if you make note of some gardening dates to remember. Here are a few of the important ones:

  • First frost date for your area
  • Last frost date for your area
  • Target dates for finishing pruning, such as winter pruning by Valentine’s Day and summer pruning by Fourth of July
  • Target dates for finishing planting, such as bare-root planting by Groundhog’s Day, warm-season crop and fall-bulb planting by Easter, cool-season crop and spring-bulb planting by Thanksgiving Day.

Likewise, if you know you’ll be hosting an outdoor event (such as a wedding or 4th of July party), put it on the calendar and work backward to plan out what you’ll need to get done when in order to be ready for it.

3. Take photos

When it comes to gardening, a picture isn’t worth a thousand words — it’s worth ten thousand words! Take lots of photos, and not just of the pretty things. Photographing trouble spots can be extremely helpful in diagnosing problems and making plans to remedy them. If you’re not using a digital garden planner, you can just set up a digital folder to store your garden pics in and print them out every so often to add to your hard copy journal.

4. Track planting, pruning, fertilizing, and harvesting

Just noting dates when these things are done and the amounts will give you a lot of data to make use of later. You may only harvest a handful of strawberries a couple times a week, but when you add it up in pounds and ounces at the end of the season, you might be surprised at how big your total harvest actually was.

Try keeping a garden journal for a season and see what you learn from it. I think you’ll be surprised at how helpful it can be.

Claire Splan is an award-winning garden writer and the author of California Fruit & Vegetable Gardening and California Month-by-Month Gardening.

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Writer/editor. Author of "California Fruit & Vegetable Gardening" and "California Month-by-Month Gardening."

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