Garden Journal – Do You Have One? How to Make One – and Why?

One of my main goals for the garden this year is to do a better job of tracking things. This post is about ideas for a garden journal, and I would be very interested in hearing from my readers as to what works for them.

It seems that garden journals fall into two categories: those that are more like Planners and serve as guidelines, schedules, and a means of recording results for production gardens and small farms – and those that are more like Art Journals that document not only observations but also a spiritual journey, sometimes with a bit of flair and whimsy thrown in for good measure.

In the past, I have been on the practical, production side of things – make that, borderline fanatic about recording stats on the garlic crops. I mapped them out in explicit detail; I recorded who sprouted up first and how high; I recorded when I first started seeing yellow tips; I knew exactly what went into the soil and when I applied fertilizers, what kinds, by which methods, and how much; at harvest time, I measured every single bulb, calculated percentages, averages, and means of each variety (and at one point, there were 27 varieties), and graphed the changes over the years. I even made pie charts – I was THAT nerdy. That’s what working for the government will do for ya, but I learned a lot in the process.

As for everything else, though… it has been kind of a mish-mash. I have yellow lined pads of to-do lists and spiral notebooks of ideas everywhere. I typically begin with calendars, moon charts, and notes on what to start when, but then things get really busy, and all the good intentions fall to the wayside.

One of my problems has been not having a central place to record things. Most years, I have used a combination of something electronic and also a paper notebook – but the paper notes have only sometimes made it into the electronic version – and then the frequency of both kind of trickle off. My camera does a fair job of keeping track of things, but has also been inconsistent and without the needed data.

Electronic Solutions: Excel, Inkscape, Calendars, Electronic Journals, Word, Tape Recorders, Phone Apps, Evernote???

I like Excel, obviously, and have used it to create a database of my plants, now topping 300. It is ideal for sorting through various growing requirements (sun, water, soil) to see what combinations work best in creating guilds. Last year, when I was starting seeds of over 100 different kinds of plants (umm, yeah – obviously a rookie with a new greenhouse), I created a plan that delineated 8 rounds of planting and other activities. Some seeds required a pre-chill period for weeks or even months; others needed to be direct-sown after the last frost; and then there was everything in between. My columns identified seed treatment, germination expectations, plant and transplant dates relative to expected last frost, best growing conditions, and additional notes. Obviously, it took a lot of research for every single plant, and I filled in the cells the best I could based on seed packet info, seed company websites, websites such as Plants for a Future, garden forums, and books. There is no way I could keep all that info in my head, so having a cheat sheet to refer to was quite valuable.

Excel Seed Starting Planner

Excerpt of my Excel sheet used to help me plan seed starts – Invaluable!

Of course, such enthusiasm can quickly lead to problems when you feel compelled to nurture every single little seedling that germinates. Get real, here! I created SO much work for myself! What was I thinking? Let’s just say I had a lot of losses, but I prefer to look at the successes. That is for a different post. But the point is, I wish I had written more of it down.

I have also used Excel to map out the garden and different guild ideas by converting the columns and rows to little squares, like graph paper. What I have realized, though, is that I often garden in circles, ellipses, and trapezoids. I like spirals and swooping contours that flow around central features. Sometimes there are squares and rectangles in there, too, but my garden is not laid out in straight rows like a production farm.

Enter Inkscape. Inkscape is an awesome electronic drawing program that allows you to incorporate Google maps on the base layer for accuracy in delineating your property and then create multiple layers on top. The drawings look very professional, you can outline buildings and shrubs with ease, you can depict phases in your plans and turn selected layers on and off — but there are no doodles. For me, crayons on paper is sometimes so much easier – just not easier for making changes. Inkscape is great for planning and mapping, not for journaling.

Other years, I have used a simple computer calendar. Calendars are, by nature, limiting. “Just the facts, M’am.” No expounding on inspirations from the universe. Maybe the phases of the moon, if there is room. Short, sweet, to the point. Mini-journals are good. On my Mac, the Calendar program allows you to set up categories with various colors, so you can see at a glance when you sowed seed, transplanted, watered, etc. You can also schedule your time and give yourself alerts to remind yourself what you should be accomplishing. I like telling myself what to do, but I am not very good at following rules or meeting deadlines. I also don’t do tweets. But some folks like that structure and forced brevity.

On the opposite spectrum are the electronic journal programs, which allow you to wax philosophically for pages on end, a real danger zone for me. It is so much faster to type than to write in longhand, especially with these arthritic fingers. Inserting photos is easy with electronic journals; scheduling, not so much.

Word – or other word processing programs – is an obvious choice – and I do a lot of writing in Word, but have never made a garden journal with the program. It’s just so blah.

Are tape recorders beoming antiques? I have been known to walk around the garden talking into a little recording device, because talking is what I do best. Then all you have to do is transcribe it. Voice recognition software is making transcription a thing of the past – along with tape recorders. (What is tape?)

The Notes app on my phone has proven to be a quick way of dictating a few thoughts or reminders, which it then miraculously translates into written form (even though it doesn’t comprehend things like Echinacea and Ashwagandha) that can be sent to my computer.

Evernote, in some ways, is the best of both worlds. I use it to collect ideas, but confess, have not used it for journaling. It has lots of formatting options and allows you to insert tables, pictures, and Internet links. You can create To-Do Lists with little boxes you can check off, which is always a motivator. You can use it from your phone, and it transfers to your computer. It records dictation. You can set reminder notifications. What’s not to like?

The thing is, all these electronic programs are great – I love technology (although I admit to being klunky with the phone). Being able to search an electronic program saves a lot of time – “When did I plant those peas again? And how did that compare with last year?” Bam. There’s your answer.

But I often wonder, are we a bit too wired? Have we lost something in the process of needing to get it all down right now and move on to the next thing? The image of walking all around the garden texting into my phone like you see people crossing the street in downtown Manhattan just seems a bit disturbing.

Of course, technology is just a tool.

Hand-made leather journal

This is a journal I made a few years ago. Something about the feel of leather and the pages sewn together by hand…

In our desire for the latest gadget, whatever happened to good ol’ pen & paper? Not much profit in those antique instruments, I suppose. But I can’t be tapping my grubby little fingers on a keyboard out in the greenhouse while I count and measure every little sprout. The truth is, though, for whatever reason, I don’t always get it written down in a notebook, either, or get around to transferring whatever notes I do make into one place. I have notes here and there and a bit all over the place.

So what is the solution here?

Whatever method we choose, being consistent is key (which I strive to be). I do pretty well with using the computer for gathering information and planning, but somehow it lacks that creative flow of insights that happen when I slow down a bit and write things out by hand, taking time to sketch, doodle, and think outside the text. Scrolling is not the same as being able to flip through pages.

Which brings up the distinction and the question: What do you want in a garden journal, exactly?

We are back at the beginning. Do you need a Planner with a set of instructions and a brief recording of accomplishments? More like an accounting – an aid to greater productivity? Or would you prefer a Diary, with a place to record observations and impressions – a process that reveals a bit about yourself and what you see beyond what is physically there? Or maybe a combination of the two?

I ask because another one of my goals this year is to include more art into my garden. When I started incorporating permaculture ideas into our landscape, I envisioned a garden that would eventually take care of itself – almost magically – with little input from me, leaving me more time for art and other creative pursuits. That might still happen, but so far, I remain a slave to my garden, and the more I plant, the more abundance there is – the more there is to harvest, put away, and share – I can hardly complain! But I have come to the conclusion that the garden IS my art form – I don’t need to “make time” for my art, as in something I do someplace else, in another space and time. If anything, I need to bring more art into the garden, into the Here and Now. Art is a form of play mixed with meditation; imagination manifested into something you can touch and feel.

Double rainbow behind the old treehouse in the maple tree

It’s a good day to look for rainbows.

Another important goal this year is to try to S L O W   D O W N a bit. I want to create more places in the garden to make this happen. Certainly, the Willow Room and the Willow Throne are two places that invite one to sit down, have a cup of tea, maybe read for a while. Perhaps this marks me as retired. I do not have a production farm, although I admire those who do. No, this is a garden – a highly productive garden, but a garden, nonetheless. It is not supposed to be all work; it is also a place for rejuvenation.

Yes, it requires a certain amount of effort, but when you define that effort as part of your art, the “work” concept fades away.

I love being able to create something out of mere dirt and a few teeny-tiny seeds – I love rescuing something that is struggling, and thanking the plants for giving so much in return. The garden – at least, my garden – is not all about food. It’s also about wildlife. It’s about all the different interactions between plants and animals and sun and shadows and rock and water or lack thereof. It’s about listening to birds and frogs and bees. It’s about finding something new out there and taking a few moments to really look at it up close and be amazed. It’s about nurturing and being nurtured. It’s about experiencing cycles.

I would like to share that. Yes, in a garden journal.

“Ah, but creative journaling takes so much time,” we all say. Hey – it needn’t be a daily art class unless you want it to be. Include daily notes to get down the nuts and bolts of what is going on – but then once in awhile ALSO tell the story that ties it all together. How do we do that?

We begin by sitting and observing. It is the first permaculture principle, to observe and interact. We need to take time to be in the moment. Be still. Stop. Look. Listen.

Oh sure, there are other things we “should” be doing; there is always a lot of work to do and never enough time, and these days, it is all that much more important to be more self-sufficient and grow our own food. The new government order is eroding confidence daily in a secure future. If anything, recent events are even more of a motivator to NOT rely on any established systems other than the networks within our own communities. It motivates me to work even harder.

But wait. That is just the kind of thinking that precludes garden journaling. We gardeners tend to be relentless workers dawn ‘til dusk and oh, so controlling. We are, after all, creating our sense of beauty, purpose, and function. It requires hard work. And I would add, manipulation.

Or does it?

In the words of Masanobu Fukuoka (The One Straw Revolution), “I do not particularly like the word ‘work.’ Human beings are the only animals who have to work…[they] work like crazy, thinking that they have to in order to stay alive. The bigger the job, the greater the challenge, the more wonderful they think it is. It would be good to give up that way of thinking and live an easy, comfortable life with plenty of free time…A life of such simplicity would be possible if one worked to produce directly his daily necessities. In such a life, work is not work as people generally think of it, but simply doing what needs to be done.”

Doing what needs to be done.

Stop. Breathe. Observe. Interact.

Perhaps Fukuoka had it right. “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” Maybe all we really need to do is to throw a ball of seeds out there, let the rains come, and see what makes it – and then focus on what is important.

Yes.

“The greening of the desert means sowing seeds in people’s hearts and creating a green paradise of peace on earth.” ~Masanobu Fukuoka

There is obviously much more to gardening than just growing plants. Even a die-hard market farmer would agree with that.

And so – the garden journal can be many things: a planner, a documentation of activities, a means of getting more done and of assessing what works and what doesn’t, a tool for learning, a description of interactions in nature, a work of art (even a dirty, messy work of art – in fact, Especially a messy, smudged-up work of art), collections of tidbits and thoughts, a glimpse into the inner mind or out to the far-reaching workings of the universe. It can be fancy or plain. It can be all things.

Bees on cleansing flight in January.

Jan. 18, 2017: Bees are out! All hives alive! Hive #5 a bit weak; hive #6 going strong. Photos are handy in a garden journal.

That is what I want. Something that keeps me on track as to what I should be doing, that records what I did, and that takes note of what is happening – the wind and rain and all of natures cycles. I also want a place to describe the sheer beauty of what is around me, as well as to note my little successes and perceived disasters (that might still be turned into something positive). I need something that I can add pages to – printouts from Excel or other electronic programs, pressed flowers, glued in pictures from seed catalogs (“You are supposed to look like THIS, see?”), and pockets for seed packets or other things. I want the space to draw outside the lines and occasionally write a quote in my finest calligraphy. And yes, I should probably record what I spend along the way, where I last watered, a map of all the many guilds and their neighborhoods, what I harvested when – in addition to the regular “Plant this in early April…” and monthly to-do checklists. I would prefer something compact – but being able to add pages means it would probably need to be in a 3-ring binder – or else have a spiral binding large enough to accommodate pages with sticky tape, staples, pockets, glued-on things, fold-outs, and assorted embellishments. Dividers would also be nice. I would like to create something to refer to – but also just browse through.

What holds me back? Time? Or is it fear of failure? The fear that I might put a lot of work and my heart and soul into something that turns out to be just – so – lame. (?)

Let it go. It needn’t be an heirloom passed down through generations. This is for you. It is whatever you want it to be.

We live in an interesting period of history. I am seeing now how important it can be to keep a journal. We are so very privileged, and yet how easy it is to lose sight of that amidst all the chaos, conflict, and uncertainty of our times! A garden journal allows us to slow down, align our feet with the earth and our minds with the sky, and be a conduit for the positive energy that emanates from all of Gaia, regardless of what all the little people do around us. We understand the connections – the passing of the Equinox, the tufts of seeds scattering across the fields, the leaves turning crimson in the fall; we see the intricacies of her works – the melting of an ice crystal, the prism of a rainbow reflected in a drop of rain, a bumblebee foraging in a flower and emerging so covered with pollen, she can hardly fly….

Through our art we can convey truths we cannot possibly tell in a table of numbers.

Now more than ever, a Victory garden – no matter how small – is indeed a grand victory! Having a means to connect with what is real and disconnect from what is not is imperative to creating that green paradise to which Masanobu Fukuoka refers. This is the energy that nurtures us. We can harness it through a journal. Our mind is the greatest instrument for envisioning peace on earth and manifesting it into something that is tangible. Allow it to feed others. Now is the time to begin.

But January is half over already! How could this be? No matter. A garden journal needn’t start at the beginning of the calendar year – nor does it have to be a daily obligation. It can start anywhere and go for as long as or to wherever we carry it. There are no rules.

It definitely would be a good way to spend my time on January 20, as opposed to watching pomp and circumstance on the TV, a garish display of all that is fake – although certainly, we are destined to deal with the consequences of its reality. How? Tap into the earth – into our gardens – for our strength. Feed ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. Emanate gratitude, kindness, and the kind of richness found in the earth.

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

“The greening of the desert means sowing seeds in people’s hearts and creating a green paradise of peace on earth.”

Yes, Masanobu Fukuoka had it right.

Thank you, Mr. Fukuoka.

* * * * * * * * * *

Garden Journal & Planner Ideas:

There are so many ways to set something up. Perhaps a small calendar to see each month at a glance, followed by pages to put daily entries (certainly a purchased planner would serve this purpose).

Or at the other extreme, perhaps a notebook with blank pages – fill them in with as much or as little information as you feel like on any particular day. A spiral-bound sketchbook might be just right for taking with you, along with a nice pen and some colored pencils.

Or perhaps something that combines the two with a lot of structure but also a lot of blank space. For example, one could do a simple yearly overview at the beginning, followed by individual months with a calendar of scheduled activities, followed by daily entries of accomplishments and thoughts. Another idea would be to follow an outline to summarize observations and ideas in each month.

At the back of the plant journal, you could create an index that could include individual plant profiles and tables on which to keep an ongoing record of your stats on planting, harvesting, seed saving, etc.

Some people accomplish more with more structure, others with less. Here are some ideas of things to incorporate. Make it your own!

Yearly Overview
Yearly goals, themes
Brief monthly summary

Sections by Months:
Small Calendar to see the month at a glance
Moon Phases with dates for best activities
Or a larger calendar that can include what to plant when and big enough spaces to write in.

Goals, Priorities, Projects:
Overall priorities for the month
Garden Task Checklist

Plant Schedule: Table or calendar notes
Sow Indoors
Sow Outdoors
Transplant

Weather Notes
Precipitation – daily and/or accumulations
Temperatures – daily and/or notes on extremes
Other notes

Gardening Expenses:
Date     Quantity      Item      Price/unit      Total Price      Where Purchased      Notes

Daily Notes & Observation Pages

Outline Method:

Garden Activities:
Planted/Transplanted:
Irrigation:
Cleanup/Management:
Harvested:
Greenhouse Activities:
Creative Endeavors:
Other:

Observations:
Blooms
Animal Life: insects, birds, reptiles, mammals
Pest & Disease Issues; Remedies
Combinations that work

Bees:
Activities
Hives
Other Pollinators
Nectar & Pollen Sources

More Thoughts.

Monthly Summary:
Highlights:
Challenges / Lessons:
Needs:

Plans / To-Do List:
Top Priorities
Wish List
Additional Notes:

Designs:
Graph Paper
Plain paper

Inspiration:
Creative Pursuits / Craft Ideas
Recipes
Ideas & Sketches
Thoughts & Quotes

Photos of the Month (or include them throughout)

Additional Stuff:
Papers with pockets
Pressed flowers & leaves
Cut-outs from seed catalogs on key plants – or empty seed packets

Indexes:

Plant Profiles:
Name, Common
Name, Scientific
Size (H x W)
Zone
Requirements: Sun, Soil, Water
Propagation
How to Grow
Bloom Times
Harvest Times
Uses
Additional Notes
Source
Photo / Sketch

Seed Start Tracker Table
Plant Name
Date Planted
Germination Date
Transplant Date
Notes
Source & Date

Harvest Tracker Table: (for each plant)
Plant Name
Date
Amt.
Notes

Seed Harvest / Survival Seed Bank Inventory:
Plant Name
Date
Expected Viability
Quantity
Notes

And so tell me – what do YOU use? Do you keep a garden journal / planner? What works (or not?) Thanks!


Comments

Garden Journal – Do You Have One? How to Make One – and Why? — 4 Comments

  1. That’s what I say “Wow!” I don’t think I’ve seen a more comprehensive list of ideas for a garden journal. My garden journaling is pathetic. Over the years it has consisted of a scrap paper scribbling of What Not to Do Next Year. Then I usually lose the paper by the following Spring.
    Now that I have discovered I can raise my own garlic in the Northwest -I have a much better focus. I am getting better at making notes as to which varieties I purchased and where –as well as when planted, harvested, curing time, etc. So that’s a start, right?
    My take-away today is that I need to create a document on my computer, not count on finding my hurried scrawling on a scrap of paper turning up at the right time! Thank you for your insights and ideas!

    • Don’t feel bad, Beth! I have so many notebooks in which I begin with good intentions – and assorted papers of designs and lists of plants in trying to figure out what is a good companion with what and where to plant it…and a zillion to-do lists in various stages of being crossed off…I need to pull it all together & quit reinventing the wheel! I love the computer for a lot of things – but I like to take notes when I am out in the garden. I think I need to print out things from the computer and put them in a 3-ring binder – and then do the same with pages from my garden notebooks – and then also put together a little bag of supplies & occasionally go out and just sit somewhere & play with ideas. Organize them all together & voila! right?

      One of the more useful tables I have put together is on what plants are blooming when in the garden. It has really helped me see where I need to fill in the gaps for the bees.

      And then there was the year that every month around the 21st (to correspond with the solstice/equinox), sunshine willing, I went out and mapped the shadows from the trees and buildings at morning, noon, and afternoon so I could see how the light changes over the season (Permaculture Journey – Site Analysis – Solar Sector). I thought I already knew how it worked, but there were some surprises, and it was a real eye-opener.

      Keeping notes can be really useful – I just need to do a better job with other aspects of the garden, too. Like what varieties I purchased where & also where the heck I planted them! I tuck things in here, there, & everywhere.

      Thanks for stopping in, Beth – let me know what you end up with year! Keep up the good work on the garlic!

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