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Keeping A Garden Record

February 22, 2010

I am an obsessive record keeper — the type who gets out a little notebook every time I buy gas for my car to record odometer reading, gallons bought, price, and MPG. (Don’t ask me why; I’ve never actually done anything with these notebooks!) I also keep meticulous household budget records in an Excel spreadsheet where I track income, spending and savings. I have other spreadsheets for retirement funds, savings accounts, health records, tax records, my mother’s financial records, etc., etc., etc.  The administrative assistant in the academic department I used to chair once teased that I’d never met a problem that couldn’t be solved with a spreadsheet.

So it’s probably not a surprise that, once my garden reached a certain size, I wanted to keep a systematic record of what was in bloom when, or that I used a spreadsheet to create that record.

Garden record screenshot

I’m not using a spreadsheet for my garden record because I want to do mathematical calculations; I just find its grid structure convenient. At the beginning of the gardening season, I pick one day of the week (Sunday, say, or Monday) when I will record what’s in bloom, and then I set up my spreadsheet with each row representing one week. Each column represents a flower bed or area of the garden, so that each cell shows what was in bloom in that particular garden area on that particular date. The use of color in the spreadsheet is an extra bit of obsessiveness on my part – each plant is listed using (roughly) the color of its blooms. So a glance at the spreadsheet shows me not only how much was in bloom at any given point in the garden season and what was in bloom, but also what colors predominated. In the image above, you can see that, during the weeks of June 28 and July 5, blues dominated on the Back Slope and in the Blue and Yellow Border, but that pinks, lavenders, and whites were the predominant colors in the Circular Bed, the Front Border, and the Deck Border.

As we scroll down a few weeks in the image below, you can see a much stronger presence of yellows in the garden, except in the Deck Border, which is primarily pink throughout the season. You can also see that there are many more plants in bloom by late July, especially in the Blue and Yellow Border, with the result that only one week can fit on the screen at a time.Garden Record Spreadsheet - screenshot

I began my Garden Record spreadsheet in 2003, the year I completed the Deck Border. It now has 8 pages, one for each year from 2003 to 2009 and an extra page for garden notes. The notes page is a place to record all those ideas and things to do for next year that I always think I’m going to remember but almost never do. The notes page has columns for each of the same garden areas as the bloom pages, plus a column for general notes (like how many cubic yards of compost or mulch I should have delivered next year). When the gardening season begins here in April, I’ll be able to look at my 2010 notes to remind myself of special tasks that need to be taken care of.

Garden record notes page - screenshot Keeping this kind of garden record isn’t as complicated as it looks. It’s fun to have a set day each week to walk around the garden and record what’s in bloom. I don’t actually retype the list of blooms each week. At the beginning of the season, I copy last year’s page, then change the dates. Each week, I can then revise the record from last year to add new blooms and remove any not in bloom.

I love having this comprehensive record of my garden. When I can’t remember what the variety of a particular plant is, the answer is here. When I think, “Things seem to be blooming earlier than in previous years,” I can look to see if that impression is correct. Do you keep a garden record? If so, what kind of record-keeping strategy do you use?

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42 Comments leave one →
  1. Sylvia (England) permalink
    February 22, 2010 8:38 am

    Brilliant, I love this record. Not sure if I could keep it up each week but it appeals to me. Possibly because I am used to using excel for notes as well as calculations. I think it works better than my current garden diary in Word – I think I will be changing very soon!

    Thank you Sylvia

  2. February 22, 2010 9:06 am

    Jean, I have been keeping my garden journal in Word/and paper. But I like this method, everything is on one page, so very easy to see where there is gaps in flowering. I am not that familar with Excel, but I think I will try!
    Deborah

  3. February 22, 2010 10:52 am

    Wow, I’m an Accountant and still don’t come close to being that organized! I like the concept of keeping a Garden Record however, and so I will follow your examle when I format my Garden Log using an excel spreadsheet. Thanks for sharing!

  4. February 22, 2010 11:06 am

    I also have a spreadsheet, some drawings, and a notebook, as well as some drawings. I like to keep track of everything too!

  5. February 22, 2010 11:12 am

    Oops, should have proofread my post before hitting submit, but you get the idea. 😉

  6. Elephant's Eye permalink
    February 22, 2010 2:48 pm

    I use folders to organise the photos. A folder for each named part of the garden – divided into seasons then months. And only then into years if there are masses of photos. That way I can see how my garden grows. So we photographed four lovely fat buds on the Kniphofia – first we’ve had. And a day at almost 40C, and 2 buds are COOKED. But I’ve got a photo!

  7. Elephant's Eye permalink
    February 22, 2010 2:48 pm

    PS and I do have spreadsheets for the roses in the Paradise Garden.

  8. February 22, 2010 3:06 pm

    I have all my plants listed in Excel. Your colour idea is interesting – I might try my own version as it would be handy to see flower colour at a glance.
    I would be lost without my plant record!

  9. February 22, 2010 3:49 pm

    Oh wow! Your color coded spreadsheet is very impressive and reminds me of a former boss who kept meticulous spreadsheets. I use spreadsheets for budgeting and plant lists, but that is all. Maybe I need to expand?

  10. February 22, 2010 4:50 pm

    You seem very organized. The garden record is a great idea. My blog has helped me some over the past year to see what was blooming different months.

    • Jean permalink*
      February 22, 2010 7:53 pm

      Thank you all for your comments and suggestions.

      Sylvia, Deborah, and Crystal, How nice that you think this is an idea you might find useful for your own garden records.

      Crystal, LOL, I once went to my first visit with a new doctor carrying a print-out spreadsheet page showing all the results for all the blood tests related to a cancer I had been treated for a few years earlier. The doctor blinked and asked, “Are you some kind of engineer?” Come to think of it, I may have some engineering genes. My older brother is a computer electronics engineer and my younger brother is a construction superintendent for a high-end homebuilder. My father was a tool and die worker, another job requiring precision. His father was a store-keeper; my father kept household accounts using double-entry bookkeeping, and I suspect that this was a skill he learned as a child working in the family store before it was lost in the Great Depression. So I may have some accounting-type genes, too. 🙂

      Rebecca and Easy Gardener, How nice to have virtual friends who don’t think using spreadsheets for garden records makes sense rather than being some form of pathology. Rebecca, I have a notebook, too — a graph paper spiral notebook that I use for designing plantings. Unfortunately, my ability to draw is almost nonexistent, so I’m severely limited as to what I can do using that medium.

      Diana, I’ve only had a digital camera for a couple of years, so I only have two years of garden photos. But, as my photo archive grows, I’m going to need some good way to organize them; thanks for the great ideas.

      Catherine, My blog is neither old enough or organized in a way to be a good record of my garden. Your strategy of taking a photo each month from the same vantage point is another great way of keeping a garden record. This is another practice I may well adopt.

      Noelle and Easy Gardener, One thing I don’t have yet is any kind of comprehensive list of plants in my garden, and I think it’s time to develop one. This suggests adding another page to my spreadsheet, with my various garden areas in the columns and plants, listed alphabetically by botanical name, in the rows. Then I could just put an x in the column(s) for where I have each plant.

  11. February 23, 2010 12:23 am

    Hi Jean~~ Nice job with your record keeping. As a garden columnist record keeping is part of the job. For me it’s more about the proper names of plants plus where and when they arrived. I staple the tag to a 5×7 index card and file it alphabetically under its genus. I also keep a list [Word document] on my computer for easy reference. It’s 12 pages, single space, size 10 font. Too many plants to remember without help.

  12. February 23, 2010 4:32 am

    Jean,
    This is a wonderful way to organize garden records. I purchased a notebook (the old fashioned paper kind) for such record keeping, but it quickly became very disorganized as I add all kinds of gardening notes. Nothing is in order. I think I may adopt your method come spring. 🙂

    • Jean permalink*
      February 23, 2010 4:35 pm

      Liisa, This system works well for me for keeping a permanent record. (I also have a little notebook I can carry around when I’m visiting gardens, nurseries, etc. for jotting down notes and ideas.)

      Grace, I’m just about to add an alphabetical plant list to my spreadsheet, and your suggestions about what kind of information should go in such a list are very helpful.

  13. February 23, 2010 6:59 pm

    What an amazing way of not just keeping garden records — but keeping really useful ones! At a glance, you can take in so much. I tried an old-fashioned garden journal and became disillusioned with it in time, since I never reread it past a few entries before becoming overwhelmed with information. I really like your idea!

    • Jean permalink*
      February 23, 2010 10:23 pm

      Meredith, When I posted this, I thought people would find it over-the-top obsessive — but I forgot who my audience was. I guess calling someone an “obsessive gardener’ is redundant!

  14. February 23, 2010 10:49 pm

    As you can probably guess from my personality online I sooo already have a spreadsheet all ready to go! Hehe. Nothing beats excel.

  15. February 24, 2010 11:48 am

    Jean – I am so impressed! I think that ANY kind of compulsive garden trait must be a good thing 🙂 and it must really help with planning. I imagine it’s also nice to pore over your files this time of year when our gardens still exist mostly in our heads…

    • Jean permalink*
      February 24, 2010 1:26 pm

      Ah, Jess, a kindred spirit! Who knew that gardening would be such a haven for those of us with obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

      Ellen, Yes, the compulsiveness does help with planning — which is good, because it helps to compensate for my poor spatial reasoning. On the other hand, some compulsive traits don’t work well in the garden. For example, I had to learn not to plant things in straight rows sorted by size and color! 🙂 Fortunately, the garden has been a great teacher in this area, since its tendency toward chaos nicely balances my own tendency to over-organize.

  16. February 24, 2010 7:21 pm

    I’m sure it’s the geek in me, but I’m a big fan of spreadsheets for this purpose too. We recently switched to using Google Docs spreadsheet online so we can share the sheet between us, and make notes as needed throughout the season. This year I set up a sheet not just to plan our planting, but also to record when things actually germinated, or were ready for harvest. I’m thinking of factoring weather/temps into the sheet, so when I compare year-over-year I can see if strange weather may have been a factor in yield…although I may be too busy in the garden to track that 😛

    • Jean permalink*
      February 24, 2010 9:33 pm

      Curbstone Valley, I noticed that very spiffy spreadsheet in your most recent post, and how clever to use a cloud application to make sharing easier. BTW, I’m pretty sure that both creating a spreadsheet like that and knowing how to take a screenshot of it are sufficient conditions for being geeks in the garden blog world!

  17. February 24, 2010 10:51 pm

    Jean, I am impressed with your records. I thought I was organized until I saw this post. That gives you a lot of information at your fingertips. I am still in the design phase and I do use the computer for that. Later, maybe I will start keeping track of everything. Enjoyed your post and your record keeping!

  18. February 25, 2010 9:06 am

    Dear Jean! I take my hat off for you! You deserve a medal!

  19. February 25, 2010 11:34 am

    Wow, a great post Jean…and a lot of helpful, usable information…in the comments, as well! Being a mental health counselor, I think ocd in the garden is a wonderful thing;-) I just decided that I am going to take some of these ideas and adopt them for my own record-keeping. I tried to locate a hellebore plant in the snow a few days ago (and finally did) but it would have been much quicker if I’d kept a record. (I do have a photo to refer to, but didn’t have it handy. Written info in addition to a photo would be most helpful in future years. I thought about this issue last year around this time & could have a year of practice by now. Oh well, better late than never. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Jean permalink*
      February 25, 2010 12:02 pm

      Amy, Ever since childhood, I have loved developing organizing schemes. I have sometimes been described as over-organized. Somehow, however, being so good at organizing things doesn’t keep my desk and study from being a mess!

      Tatyana, I don’t know if I deserve a medal for this, but I’m pleased that you think so. Of course, I can often spend a great deal of time avoiding real work by organizing things instead. Once in graduate school, at a difficult point in my dissertation research, I managed to avoid it altogether for several days by reorganizing all the books in my office by size and color. When I was done, my bookshelves looked very spiffy — but it turned out that I could never find a book unless I remembered that it was, say, “a big green book”! So I had to spend several more days of not working on my research because I was putting my books back to being organized alphabetically within subject areas. LOL

      Jan, I agree that there are some very good suggestions in the comments; I’ve already started to add some of them (like an alphabetical plant list) to my spreadsheet. It’s also very reassuring to have the testimony of a mental health professional that my borderline ocd can be considered an asset. 🙂

  20. February 25, 2010 1:33 pm

    Jean, you are an over-the-top record keeper! How do you find the time to update all those pages every week? I used to keep a record book years ago, but now find that I like taking pictures instead, since it’s faster for me, gets me out in the garden, and also gives me photos for later to use in blog posts. I think I will have to try and use your excel sheet method this year (try is the key word here). You have my utmost admiration for diligence and organization.

    Kathy

    • Jean permalink*
      February 25, 2010 5:08 pm

      Kathy, Photos seem like another great way to keep a record of the garden. My spreadsheet isn’t as time-consuming as it looks, though. I spend maybe 45-60 minutes a week updating it. The first week of the first year (2003), I actually had to type everything in, but after that, it’s mostly a matter of copying and pasting. My garden doesn’t change that much from one week to the next; so if I copy and paste the list of 10 plants that were in bloom in this area of the garden last week, I’ll maybe end up deleting one or two that are no longer in bloom this week and adding one or two that have started to bloom since last week. Sometimes, I take my laptop out into the garden with me and enjoy the garden while I make my record. :-).

  21. February 25, 2010 6:35 pm

    That is fabulous Jean I am afraid that I am in the scraps of paper and doodles on envelopes camp – although all plant labels go into a bucket marked with the year, interestingly I have spreadsheets in excel for all the seeds that I grow
    K

  22. February 25, 2010 9:03 pm

    Hello Jean, I think I’m coming from the other end of the spectrum as a very disorganised gardener! However, the more I learn about gardening, the more interested I become in my own garden and I have started to think about keeping records. It is quite sad to look at a plant and just not remember what it is!

  23. February 25, 2010 11:09 pm

    Wow! I have trouble writing a list for the grocery store. That is all very impressive. It’s nice to see you use your interest in organizing even in gardening. I bet it is so much easier when you actually know what is in your garden. I may have to start at least journaling along with my photo records of what grows where.

  24. February 26, 2010 12:12 am

    I am astounded!! That is absolutely lovely. I enjoyed seeing your spreadsheet as much as I like looking at gardens. I’m geeky like that. And COLOR CODING?!! You are awesome!

  25. February 26, 2010 4:55 am

    This is fantastic… Thx for sharing this lovely record keeping journal with us. While i am an avid plant lover / gardener / bonsai collector / i never thought of keeping a journal on whats blooming in our acre of a patch here at home. I sure do love the idea.

  26. February 26, 2010 6:51 am

    Like you , I keep spreadsheets of many things. But when it comes to my garden, it is here that I fail. I only keep my photos in folders, and plants must have names. With little time left, my blog is my only other garden journal. Your method is a good example for every gardener.

  27. February 26, 2010 10:31 am

    Hi Jean, I wish I had been so organized. I am so impressed. PS: I still mentally thank you every time I do a post with Windows Live Writer! Gloria

    • Jean permalink*
      February 26, 2010 11:44 am

      Heidi and Teresa, I’m relieved to know that not all garden bloggers are obsessive-compulsive types :-).

      Radhika, I think I was inspired to set up this garden record by a news report I heard (can no longer recover the specifics) about a garden in England that had a continuous daily record of garden blooms and weather going back hundreds of years! Climate scientists had been using this garden record to track climate change. I knew I couldn’t manage a daily record, but a weekly one seemed doable.

      Karen and Autumn Belle, Isn’t it interesting how we will keep records of some things but never think of using the same methods for other things? It never occurred to me to keep an alphabetical list of plants in my garden and where they are located until some commenters on this post mentioned it. I’m now in the process of adding that list to my spreadsheet. (I’m up to the ‘d’s.)

      Sylvana, I knew you were a kindred spirit the first time I looked at your blog. It wasn’t just the name :-). I believe it was a post on your system for planting bulbs in pots. I was instantly smitten!

      Gloria, I may be in danger here of getting a reputation as the geek queen of garden bloggers!

  28. February 26, 2010 12:19 pm

    Oh how organised you are. I’m envious. I never keep a record of anything – even the things I know I should – and live in permanent chaos. Luckily my husband is far more precise and does the important things for us – but I wish I had just a smidgen of organisation … 😦

  29. February 27, 2010 5:51 pm

    You’re very organized! I’m way too lazy for such an endeavor. LOL!

  30. February 27, 2010 7:47 pm

    Wow! My garden journal is looking very pedestrian right at the moment! I’m a bit of a tactile freak – and like to write w/ a pen, but then the grid paper keeps me ‘between the lines’! :o)

    • Jean permalink*
      February 28, 2010 11:34 pm

      Ceara and Shyrlene, Thanks for visiting. Shyrlene, I wish I had the ability to do the kinds of drawings you do with pen and paper. My graph paper doesn’t just keep me between the lines; it makes it possible for me to map out anything at all!

  31. March 1, 2010 10:39 am

    Hello Jean,
    OOOO… I love OCD ideas… errrr… organizational ideas.

    Although yours is way more than I could handle with the color coding and all those misc. spreadsheets would send ME over the moon. But my hat is off to YOU for keeping so many valuable lists and subjects on record.

    It’s interesting how you keep what’s in “bloom”. It makes sense though when that is your emphasis.

    I have an Excel spreadsheet with plant profiles (because I’m awful with names ~ but hey~ I never forget a face) and another one that tracks every detail for the veggie garden… seeds purchased, where, when planted, when harvested. I do the same thing you’ve done ~~ each year creating a “separate sheet” in the same document.

    All my photos are categorized in folders by year and month… that’s how I remember what’s in bloom and what works and what doesn’t…

    I also have a three ring notebook with tabs for the old fashioned record keeping with plans, copies of my veggie garden spreadsheet and maps of the veggie garden, pull-out mag articles, receipts from garden purchases, all my scratchy notes for planning planting beds and plant research… well, you get the idea.

    Not nearly as color-coded but LOVE the ideas you’ve presented here.
    happy day… Meems at HoeandShovel

    • Jean permalink*
      March 2, 2010 8:58 pm

      Meems, Thanks for stopping by. I’ve really been gleaning a lot of ideas from the kinds of records others’ keep. I’m in the process of adding a plant list to my spreadsheet, and I’d be very interested in hearing what kinds of information you include in your plant profiles. I also like your photo organizing and notebook ideas.

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