One of the sharpest and most useful tools I own is a garden journal. In my journal, I can find the dates I planted various seeds, or when I transplanted my tomatoes and I can track major points in their growth with my notes.
A good journal is the way to learn from your mistakes even if you have a less than perfect memory.
A garden journal should begin by answering one major question:
Why do I want to grow in my garden?
What is the purpose of this garden?
OK, I can't count. But, honestly, you have to know where you're headed or you won't know you got there, if in fact you DO get there! Some answers to that question might be: I want to eat some of my own home grown food on a regular basis; I want to have fresh strawberries; I want to feel independent of the food system; I want to grow tomatoes; I want my children to have clean, pesticide free food. Or a combination of these. But to get there or to head that direction needs thoughtful and intentional steps. Often times when I go on consultations, I am amazed that people want a “garden” and that's all they really know.
Your garden journal changes that and allows you to move towards your ideals and helps you build a base of knowledge that will change your approach to gardening. You will begin to see signs, and by referring back to your journal, you will be able to see appropriate responses to encourage or discourage an event of some kind.
Your initial entries to your journal will be fairly mundane, but they are the foundation of your garden. First, include a drawing, or comprehensive photos of your garden with measurements. Find North and indicate that on your drawing. Note: Use a compass – LA's street grids are oftentimes NOT on a N/S axis. Which is a good thing!
Track the sun's travel over your garden. Note that it will travel closer to the north in summer and closer to south in the winter. If this doesn't leave you with an appreciation of the difference, track the shadows weekly for a few months. Take a day that you normally devote to taking it easy, decide to find the shadow of something that won't move, maybe the shadow of a fireplace chimney, at the same time everyday. Track how it goes over your garden through the year.
|Just a little practice with the shadows cast from the sun, and the lengthening days of summer vs the shortening days of winter will bring a whole new appreciation of these things that happen in our world. It will also give insights to the rituals of the pre-Christian civilizations who aligned their holidays to the solstices and equinoxes that ruled their calendar, ordering their years' activities – most importantly when to plant – to their established norms.|
Now you know where your sun comes from throughout the year and you can see how much shade you have to deal with. Just because you don't have eight hours of sun, don't give up! I have learned that light colored buildings reflect a lot of light and can make up for some of your garden's shortfall. You would like 8 hours of direct light for most food plants, but a large building bordering on the north can increase the amount of sunlight appreciably.
If you have had a little exposure to my teaching, you will know the first thing you plant in your garden is a chair. And though it's a funny line, I'm dead serious. “The best fertilizer is the farmer's shadow,” and that means, being there, you'll spot problems when they are small and be able to intervene BEFORE the damage is too far gone to deal with. If you need to, find a small table or a wooden box to use as a table – which I use for my coffee and my notebooks
If this is a new garden, START SMALL. I know you want the whole 40 acres planted before sundown, but hold on, Tiger! You can do that. But I'll bet you a tidy sum that should you actually do that, you will hurt your garden to the point you may never come back to it. Take on a manageable slice – maybe 3' by 3' to start. Plant that this week. Next week do the next nine square feet.
I mean for you to clear a small patch of weeds and plant that patch. Next week, do the same for the next small patch, from weeds to planting. This will prevent you from overdoing it on the first event. Remember, this is for the long haul and I want you to be able to keep up on this, besides that pause might enable you to not make a mistake and propagating it thru the entire garden! There's more I can say on this, but this is an article on your journal.
The Journal Itself
There are two ways to do the journal.
- Artistically Inclined – Means you can write legibly and draw your garden etc. Get good at this and you can publish a book
- NOT Artistically Inclined – do the text in a word processor file and import photos from your phone or camera to illustrate stuff. If you have to draw something, you can scan it into your notebook.
In my years of teaching, I have seen some gorgeous student notebooks done by artistically inclined individuals. That would not be me. I use the computer. You can make a hybrid and print your pages from the computer to draw on them or other pages. Whatever suits you – find the one that fits with you and your abilities and lifestyle.
A sample entry:
|02 August 2018||82º/67º||Clear||Humidity: 67%|
A warm day with a lovely breeze. My flat of basils sowed on the 26th are looking cute. Out of the 6 color-packs I planted, I have over 90 little plants. I will take these home and bring them in at night to prevent predation.
Harvesting several varieties of tomatoes – the biggest producer so far (it's early!) has been Nebraska Wedding. It's a good tasting tomato on a well-behaved plant about 3' tall. Their main drawback is a really tough skin. I've also had a few of the Illini Gold. A good solid fruit, well-behaved and also a tough skin. Haven't had enough of either to make a sauce. The heat wave a few weeks back really fried some of the vines.
Set out my colored cotton two varieties, finally; Arkansas Green Lint and Sea Island Brown. Need to gather up seeds from the green beans. Harvested the last of the broccoli seeds (Nutribud). And water!
Upcoming – plant out the basil for pesto day!
Get ready to plant the two beds without broccoli – what will go there?
I have massive amounts of seeds to clean broccoli/garbanzos/lettuce
Save some of the yellow tomatoes to make sauce
Get watering help for upcoming days – August and September
A Problem Arises
So, a couple of months into this, you are concerned. Your plants don't look like you thought they would and after re-reading the ad copy in the seed catalog, perhaps you missed-read the date by which they would be producing. Checking back you might find, there was a cold snap about the time they were getting pollinated – or maybe in your notes, you refer to a very hot day when you couldn't get out to water. Using that data, perhaps you can correlate that data with what is happening now? Perhaps you allow yourself to dig up one of your plants – or at least dig near the plant to see what you can see. You find the soil is very dry. Now, why would that be? You can see in your journal it hasn't rained since Ford was President (or something, like that). Your notebook will aid you in your sleuthing. Maybe rain wasn't the problem. Maybe you find out your irrigation system was turned off when you were planting earlier in the month? The more notes you take, the easier it will be to solve the problem. On the other hand, every day in the garden doesn't warrant it's own novel!
Or maybe your journal wasn't needed for a problem. Maybe it was “what was that fabulous tomato I planted last year?” All these data points work with you for a better garden. Record the dates when you plant plants. You will soon realize that all those dates on the seed packets do not really apply to us. Partly because we plant all year round, we experience much different days to maturity. Especially in our Fall planted root crops. Those figures are computed for days that are getting longer and warmer. Our Fall crops are planted as the days get shorter and colder and they, therefore, take a lot longer to get up to edible size! Honestly, it's not your fault!
If you are using a handwritten journal that you take into the garden, consider using pencil to do your writing; pencil won't bleed or smudge. Also carry it in a bag that water will not penetrate, whether it will smudge or not. Computer journals are usually left inside the computer which usually isn't watered (we hope!). If you do take your laptop into the garden, please be careful with it. I usually have the computer near the garden, but never IN the garden. At The Learning Garden, I leave it on the patio – within sight of the garden and in the shade – that gives sun protection to me, and dry conditions for the computer when I do begin to update the journal.
I know it seems like a hassle. However, you should take breaks while working on your garden, and I feel updating my garden journal is as important as the actual planting – AND – I am grateful to be able to switch gears whilst gardening. I can dig and plant and get all dirty and sweaty. Then take a moment to rinse my hands, wipe off my arms, pull out a cold drink (I like sparkling water, myself) and do my notes right at the garden as a break from the physical labor. Ten or twenty minutes later (or more, could be much more), I go back to the blazing sun and the physical work of gardening.
Keeping your own garden journal is satisfying and it the best way for gardeners to learn and become more aware of the garden's needs and predilections of weather and the soil you are dealing with. It is the fastest way to become a garden guru!
Give it a good go!