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If you don’t keep a garden journal, start one today

DO YOU remember the first day you had a dandelion pop up in your lawn last spring? The arrival of the first hummingbird? What new plants did you put in the garden last year? What new varieties are you looking forward to sourcing this year?

If you’re like me, in past years you’ve tried to remember where you planted bulbs and perennials, but forgotten their exact locations—UNTIL you’ve dug them up. Or perhaps you have a gorgeous tulip or perennial or shrub but have absolutely no idea what its cultivar name is. If you keep records of such information, you need never stand scratching your head and glowering at an unnamed aster ever again.

Like planting a tree, the best time to start keeping a garden journal is probably 20 years ago, if, of course, you’ve been gardening that long. The next best time to start is today. A journal is a great place to record plant purchases, planting dates, weather observations, harvests and dozens of other observations. You can keep seed tags, seed packages, photos, maps of your garden, pages out of seed catalogues, articles, and other garden-related items in one convenient location. You can celebrate your successes, and mourn your…less than successful garden adventures. (How far has the goutweed extended its reach THIS year?) And if you’re moving, or downsizing, you can hand off the journal to the new homeowner, keep it as a memory of gardens past, or pass it down through your family as a source of much gardening knowledge.

Your garden journal doesn’t have to be only a book like this 10-year journal—it can include a binder or scrapbook, and a box or boxes to hold tags and seed packages.

Make your own

One of the most creative and fun aspects of keeping a garden journal is that it doesn’t have to be an actual journaling book. There are gorgeous pre-made journals available at bookstores and some garden centres, as well as online, but you can also create your own simply by using a blank journal, daily planner or notebook and filling it with all the garden-related items you want to organize and keep. If you do a Google search for “garden journal templates” you can find useful and attractive, printable journal page designs, which you print off in any number of pages as needed.

A three ring binder is an ideal basic tool for journaling, because you can add clear plastic sheets in which you place photos, packets and labels, plus add sheets of graph paper for your designs and maps, as well as articles, pages from catalogues and other items you want to keep organized. Accordion folders, often used for keeping budget/tax information organized can also be very handy. Or, you can make a journal that isn’t a book at all but a box or tote in which to keep all your garden treasures organized.

Box it up

My own garden recordkeeping is a mixture of binder and boxes with a little digital notekeeping for good measure. I confess to having a very great weakness for those beautiful storage boxes available at crafting stores, stationery shops and home décor outlets. I began using them years ago to store the hundreds of photos and negatives from the days of using a film camera to capture the garden’s beauty. Now, of course, I use a digital camera and rarely print photos, preferring to store them all on my computer. Then I discovered those boxes are great places to store many things, from camera lenses and filters to receipts to yes, garden notes and supplies. They come in a huge range of patterns, including many botanical designs, can be stacked or arranged side by side, and help me be somewhat organized with all my gardening notes and ephemera.

No matter what you use for your garden journal, there are some tips to follow for success:

  • Be regular in using or updating your journal. We are all busy people, especially in the spring and summer, but you know as well as I do if we leave all our journaling until winter, we’ll forget a good chunk of what we’d planned to include. Even if you only schedule five-10 minutes a day, or half an hour a week, it will help you keep on top of your records.
  • Keep your journal/box close at hand where you can quickly update if you do have, or make, the time.
  • Be as creative or conventional as you wish. It is your garden journal, something you can keep for future reference, or create as an heirloom to pass down to family members.
  • Don’t feel obliged to create the perfect work of art, with watercolours of your garden, handmade paper or cards, and a custom made quilted journal cover, but if you have those skills, fill your boots!
  • Be honest with your record keeping. What worked for you? What didn’t? What died yet again? (Blue poppies, anyone?)
  • Don’t shy away from botanical names of garden plants, but feel free to use common names also. Most tags use botanical names plus cultivar (cultivated variety) names to avoid confusing two plants with similar common names.
  • Remember to map or record where you planted bulbs or perennials that look like other perennials before they flower, and other plants that you might miss in spring. I can’t tell you how many tulips and daffodils I accidentally cut open with a trowel or shovel, or how many late-waking perennials I dug up thinking they were dead, before I started making notes. I’ve also “weeded” perennials that I mistook for weeds. It happens.

The Digital Gardener?

Many of us are daily users of computers and handheld devices—smart phones and tablets. You can keep a garden journal purely digital if you wish, although that obviously limits your ability to keep seeds or plant labels unless you have a shoebox or other storage box for non-virtual items such as these. I have checked out a few apps for iPhone and iPad, but haven’t really been impressed by them, despite being an extremely enthusiastic user of portable media and computers.

There are also online gardening sites where you can register for a free account (or perhaps pay a small yearly fee), which entitles you to online garden journals. These also tend to have their limitations and, of course, as with keeping a physical journal, it takes time to input everything you want to record. If you are slow at typing, you may find online journaling is less than satisfactory.

I do use an app called Evernote, which I use on my main computer and then have the data sync to my portable devices. I use this primarily for recording plant purchases: I have a “note” for each nursery and garden centre I visit, and what I purchase there (and the year). This way, when I get besieged with questions about where I bought such and such a plant, I can offer up a little information. However, nurseries can change up their inventory yearly according to plant availability and hardiness, and something I purchased five years ago at one nursery may not be available any longer. The best thing to do is get to know your local nursery, and ask for specific plants.

Some keep an online gardening journal, ranging from a private journal to an online gardening weblog or blog where they share their gardening experiences with a wider world. Some even make spreadsheets of their gardening information, arranged by various headings and searchable—so if looking for, say, Echinacea ‘Green Envy’, they can quickly find where they purchased it, where it’s planted—and whether it has survived more than the season.

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