The Kenwood Press
: 03/15/2013

Keeping a Garden Journal

Steve Albert

Every now and again I like to pick up Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book. For nearly 60 years, our third President kept a simple diary of his garden. In the same year he penned the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson also planted a vegetable garden. From Jefferson’s garden journal we can track his garden planning and planting, his growing successes and failures, and the arc of his life.

A garden journal does not have to be elaborate or poetic. It can be as simple as noting the day in February when the daffodils poked their heads up through the soil and the day in March when their last blooms faded. It can also be a reminder to plant daffodil bulbs next fall so you can enjoy them next spring – and don’t have to look over the garden fence for that pleasure.

You can keep a garden journal in a simple three-ring binder. You can keep a garden journal on your smart phone. I keep my garden journal in one of those 9x11” sketchbooks art students carry around. (I have a collection of those sketchbooks now going back many years.) My garden journal is not only filled with jotted notes but impromptu garden maps – that can remind me next summer exactly where the daffodil bulbs are resting.

A garden journal is essentially a diary, a calendar, and a map. Each entry is dated (every New Year, I paste a small calendar into the sketchbook so I can quickly count forward or backward the number of days since a seed was sown or a plant transplanted). Many entries are sketches – so many paces from one tree to the next, so many inches from one lettuce seed to the next. I’ve found keeping track of a garden in my head is next to impossible.

A farmer friend of mine in Iowa keeps one of the simplest garden (and farm) journals I’ve ever seen; he has jotted notes on the calendars his insurance agent gives him every January and he’s been doing that for more than 40 years. There is a wooden peg in his basement with all of the calendars hanging in a row, year-after-year. He can tell you the day he planted corn in 1971.

Some suggestions for keeping a garden journal

  • Take time to write in your journal. Take a minute after each visit to the garden to jot a note or two in the journal. What did you see? What did you notice? What needs attention? What seeds did you sow? What did you plant? What was just coming into bloom? What was just going out of bloom? Did it rain? Did you irrigate? 
  • Here is a quote from Thomas Jefferson’s garden journal for March 30, 1766: “Purple hyacinth begins to bloom.” That’s simple enough. 
  • Draw a simple garden map. A simple drawing on graph paper is all you really need. Lay out planting beds or vegetable garden rows; note important details such as shade from nearby buildings or trees, breezy areas, and extra wet or dry spots in the garden. You can use trace paper set over your map to plan out new plantings. If you grow a vegetable garden you can plan succession crops and crop rotations. Your garden map and overlays can note early, midseason, and late blooms or plantings. If you enjoy growing perennials, keeping track of bloom times will help you plan an all-year garden of blooms. 
  • Planting preparation. When did you dig or till the garden? When were soil amendments added to the garden? When did you mulch? Where did you buy seeds and plants; how much did they cost, and when did you plant? 
  • Expected bloom and harvest times. If you are growing a vegetable garden, how many days to maturity for each crop and when you expect to harvest. Harvesting vegetables at the peak of maturity is the key to growing flavorful vegetables. If you grow perennials, keep track of bloom time and times when blooms fade. 
  • Watering, rainfall, weather and temperature. Keep notes on irrigation and rainfall so that you don’t over or under water. Note the extent of storms and the number of inches of rain on the garden. When did the cold weather begin and end? I am never surprised when a frost hits my garden in May – after all, it’s happened nearly every year here in Kenwood for the past two decades. 
  • Feeding and weeding. Note the type of fertilizer you used and the amount. Keep track of the weeds that grew in the garden and when. How did you get rid of them? 
  • Pest and disease control. Keep track of pests and diseases found in the garden and how you dealt with them. Note biological controls – beneficial insects – and garden practices that have worked in the garden. Pests and diseases often come in cycles – a calendar can help you anticipate future problems. 
  • Plant and harvest notes. Which plants and crops perform well in your garden and which ones don’t? If you grow vegetables and fruits, how much did each crop produce? Note varieties to plant again in coming seasons. 
  • Garden cleanup. When did crops come out of the garden and what extra effort was made to end the season or prepare for next season? Was compost or manure added to the garden? 
What’s in bloom this month: To get your garden journal started, here is a quick list of what will be happening in Kenwood gardens in the next few weeks: our native California lilacs (Ceanothus) will begin blooming and so will manzanitas and Oregon grapes; foamy-blue rosemary is in bloom (its Latin name means ‘sea foam’); flowering plums (pink blossoms) and flowering pears (white blossoms) will finish blooming and begin to leaf out; flowering quince (bright red blooms) will finish blooming and begin to leaf out; daffodils and narcissus will fade and be replaced by the blooms of primary-colored ranunculus.

Steve Albert is an author and California Certified Nursery Professional who lives in Kenwood. Follow his gardening and cooking blog at harvesttotable.com.