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Gardeners’ Record-Keeping: Some Preliminary Results

February 8, 2017

Recently, I’ve been doing research on gardeners’ record-keeping habits in preparation for a talk I will give next month as part of the McLaughlin Garden Winter Lecture series. Many readers of this blog were kind enough to complete my on-line survey. I asked gardeners four basic questions: (1) What do they grow in their gardens? (2) What kinds of information do they keep records of? (3) Do they keep those records by hand, in an electronic format, or both? (4) What kinds of formatting strategies do they use to organize the information they want to record?


Seventy-six gardeners filled out my questionnaire, and seventy-two of those included usable information about their record-keeping habits; my preliminary analysis is based on those seventy-two respondents. Since I recruited gardeners to complete my questionnaire through my existing garden contacts – this blog, my local Master Gardener Volunteers, members of a garden club I belong to – my responses were weighted toward ornamental gardening and are not representative of all gardeners.  Only one person who responded grew food plants only (vegetables, berries, herbs, tree fruits), but more than one-third (38%) grew no vegetables. Ninety-three percent grew ornamental perennials 82% grew ornamental annuals, and 81% grew ornamental shrubs and trees.

What do gardeners want to know about their gardens? These seventy-two gardeners kept records on an impressive range of information. I asked gardeners about a list of thirteen types of gardening information and also left them space to note “other” types of content in their garden records. While one person reported recording only one of these types of content and one reported recording all fourteen, the average gardener in my survey kept records of five different types of garden information. The graph below shows the information types in descending order of their use. The five mostly commonly recorded types of information are a list of plants grown (86%), maps or plans of garden areas (65%), notes and ideas for future garden projects (63%), sources of plants (54%) and planting and/or harvest dates (54%).

imageHow did these gardeners keep their records? Most (54%) used a combination of hand and electronic records. Another fairly large group (33%) kept records by hand only. Only a small group (13%) kept all their garden records electronically. Of more interest than whether gardeners recorded information by hand or on a computer are the formats they used to organize that information. In the survey, I asked gardeners about eight different formats for organizing information and once again left room for them to tell me about other strategies not included on my list. For each type of organizing format, I asked them to indicate whether they used it often, sometimes or never.


The graph above shows that lists were the most commonly used organizing format, followed by photos. Sketches and journals or narratives were also used by the majority of gardeners who responded to this survey. Almost all my gardening respondents used multiple strategies for organizing information about their gardens; the average gardener used four different organizing formats. Not surprisingly, since hand recording and computer recording lend themselves to different organizing strategies, those who kept both hand and electronic records used more organizing strategies than those who kept records only by hand or only electronically.

This survey can’t tell me which organizing strategies were used to record which kinds of information. That is a question for the next phase of my research, which will involve a series of case studies. I will use my own electronic garden records as one case study, and I’m also hoping to conduct interviews with at least one gardener who keeps hand records only and one who keeps a combination of hand and electronic records. These case studies will allow me to look in greater depth at why and how gardeners record certain kinds of information about their gardeners.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. February 8, 2017 1:12 pm

    Always fascinating to get your wide view. And to slot mine between the lines.

    • February 8, 2017 10:42 pm

      Diana, I agree; it’s always interesting to put your own experience in a larger context. I was surprised by how unusual it was in my sample for gardeners to keep records only electronically (as I do).

  2. February 8, 2017 2:39 pm

    Congratulations upon getting all that data organized, Jean. I have no doubt your talk will be well-received. My own electronic record needs a serious clean-up as I’m much better at capturing arrivals than departures. I wish I’d captured bloom times in my spreadsheet but, recognizing that I don’t have the time to invest in such regular updates (unless I scaled down the number of plants I track), I make do with my monthly Bloom Day posts when I assess trends there.

    • February 8, 2017 10:46 pm

      Kris, I also do much better at noting a new plant (when and where I acquired it and where it is planted) but have a much harder time noting losses. I think that’s in part because we don’t usually lose a plant on a particular date. Sometimes a plant is a no-show one year and then surprises me by reappearing the following year. When do I give up on it and declare it a loss? This year, I did go through my list and strike through the names of any plants no longer in my garden; that way, I at least have a record that I once acquired this plant, but that it didn’t make it.

  3. Cynthia permalink
    February 8, 2017 10:29 pm

    When is your talk? The events page on their eebsite stops at Dec 7!

    • February 8, 2017 10:55 pm

      Cynthia, I did notice that the McLaughlin website hadn’t been updated recently — probably a problem of staff at this small nonprofit being stretched too thin. Here is the list of dates and talks for the Winter Lecture series. (Talks are at 4:00 p.m., with tea and snacks served at 3:30.)
      Feb. 22 – Harriet Robinson, “Mediterranean Flowers in Maine Gardens”
      March 1 – Sue McIntire, “New Perennials for Maine Gardens”
      March 8 – Dan Cousins, “The Botany of Apples”
      March 15 – Peter Young, “Hostas: The Friendship Plant”
      March 22 – Jean Potuchek, “How Does Your Garden Grow: Garden Record-Keeping”
      March 29 – Ellen Gibson, “Gardening Forever”

  4. February 9, 2017 10:44 am

    Very interesting to read the results of your survey. The next round of questions should be even more interesting.

    • February 15, 2017 2:49 pm

      Pat, I’m going to begin the case-study interviews next week, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they reveal.

  5. February 11, 2017 1:10 pm

    An interesting post Jean and I look forward to your follow up post. I only wish that I had kept more comprehensive garden records over the years. So much useful information at your fingertips if you do! The only aspect I excel at is keeping a wish list.

    • February 15, 2017 2:51 pm

      Anna, I got started on garden record-keeping after I heard a report on the news about a garden in the UK with 300 years of continuous records, a concept that thrilled my OCD soul.

  6. debsgarden permalink
    February 12, 2017 7:08 pm

    I admire those who are diligent with their record keeping! I am exceptionally unorganized in that way; I keep a lot of stuff in my head, which is a dreadfully unreliable system! I have plans for putting it all in a book. I keep all the labels of plants I have purchased, and I have thousands of photos, but my best intentions haven’t made it to the state of organization yet. Maybe I can count my blog posts as a record? You are a wonderfully systematic, organized gardener; you almost make me feel guilty enough to do something about my own state of affairs. Almost!

    • February 15, 2017 2:53 pm

      Deb, Several people who included an ‘other’ on the question about formats used to organize records mentioned their blogs as a primary record-keeping strategy. And one person had a filing system for her plant labels. (I could imagine one of those accordion portfolio files with a pocket for each area of the garden, and labels filed in the appropriate pocket.)


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