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Varieties of Garden Record Keeping

April 2, 2017

This is the second post reporting on results from my small study of garden record-keeping. In the first post (see Gardeners’ Record-Keeping: Some Preliminary Results), I presented an overview of record-keeping based on responses from the 72 gardeners who completed an online survey about their record-keeping habits. Here I want to focus on what I learned from four case studies of record-keeping gardeners.

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Examples of records from the four case-study gardeners, clockwise from upper left: Theda’s garden notebook, Harriet’s calendar based garden almanac, Jana’s electronic garden journal, my garden spreadsheet.

First, let me introduce my four case-study gardeners:

  • Theda does both vegetable and ornamental gardening, and she represents the one-third of gardeners in my survey who keep records by hand only. Theda records all the garden information she wants to keep in a simple spiral-bound notebook.
  • Harriet, like Theda, grows both vegetables and ornamental plants. Like most of the gardeners who completed the survey, she uses a combination of handwritten and electronic records. In Harriet’s case, the primary method is a daily calendar-style almanac that she writes in each day that she does any garden-related activity. Her electronic records are a supplement to this.
  • Jana is an ornamental gardener who does not grow vegetables, and her garden records are primarily electronic with some hand supplements. Jana is a graphic designer and uses graphic design software, Adobe’s InDesign, to create a narrative-style garden journal. Like Harriet, she writes in her journal each day that she does any garden-related activity.
  • I used myself for the fourth case study. Like Jana, I do not grow vegetables, and I represent the small minority of survey respondents (13%) who keep electronic records only. In my case, the primary record is a garden spreadsheet, with some additional information kept in other electronic formats.

What have I learned from these four case studies of garden record keeping? First, that although gardeners who keep records begin doing so for a variety of different reasons, they all seem to keep on with the practice because they have found it makes them better gardeners. Second, record-keeping systems evolve and change. I began my record-keeping by recording what’s in bloom in my garden from one week to the next; over time, I added other pages to my spreadsheet for a variety of other records (garden notes, phenology, plant lists). Harriet also began record keeping with bloom times; but this has become less important to her over time, and she no longer records bloom times in a systematic way. Jana began by keeping her garden journal on paper and later moved to the electronic format. Harriet’s earliest records were on loose pieces of paper gathered yearly into a pocket folder; she later rethought this and changed to the calendar/almanac system she uses today.

The third, and most important, lesson learned from my case studies is that there is no “right” way to keep garden records; record-keeping strategies are as varied as the gardeners who use them. Lists were the most common form of record keeping reported by the gardeners in my survey (86% used lists), and the case studies illustrate a great deal of variety in the format and content of lists. Theda has lists sprinkled throughout the pages of her garden notebook – for example, garden to-do lists and seed-order lists. Harriet has weekly to-do lists in the left-hand column of her garden calendar, seed-order lists on loose pieces of paper tucked into a pocket on the inside cover of the calendar, and a list of temperatures at which tender plants need to come indoors on a blank page at the beginning of a calendar month. Harriet also keeps a spreadsheet with lists of her plant “collections” – iris cultivars listed on one page, daylily cultivars on another page, rose varieties on yet another page, etc. Like Harriet, I keep plant lists in my spreadsheet, an alphabetical list of all plants in my garden on one page and a wish list of plants I’d like to acquire on another. Jana keeps a whole set of lists together in one place at the end of her electronic journal; these include a wish list of plants she’d like to add to the garden and a list of fall garden chores.

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Varieties of lists in gardeners’ records, clockwise from upper left: Two types of lists from Harriet’s almanac, Theda’s seed order list, Jana’s list of fall garden chores, and part of my list of plants in my garden

Maps or plans of garden areas were the second most common type of garden record reported in the survey (65% kept such records). Once again, the case studies show that this common type includes a great deal of variety. Maps of garden areas are particularly important for vegetable gardeners, who need to keep track of what was grown where so that they can properly rotate crops. Both Theda and Harriet record this information in hand sketches of their raised vegetable beds. The case study gardeners also keep another kind of garden map, a map of what was planted where (often as an alternative to using plant tags in the garden). Harriet uses hand-drawn sketches for this purpose, while both Jana and I use computer graphics (InDesign graphics and the drawing tools in Microsoft Word, respectively). Gardeners may also use plans of garden areas as part of a design process. Theda uses hand sketches with notes for further design, while Jana and I use computer graphics to keep these plans electronically.

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Varieties of maps and plans, clockwise from upper left: Theda’s sketch of what’s planted where in raised vegetable beds, Harriet’s sketch map of a mixed planting of irises and daylilies, Jana’s InDesign map of a succulent planting, and my Microsoft Word graphic of the design for a new garden area.

The variety found in records kept by these four case study gardeners leads me to the following tips for those who might be thinking about beginning some kind of garden record-keeping:

  1. Record-keeping is worth doing because it improves the practice of gardening and enhances the experience of gardening.
  2. Don’t try to do everything at once; start small with one or two types of information that you want to keep a record of.
  3. In choosing a record-keeping format, consider your personality, skills, needs, and constraints.
  4. Be flexible with your garden records, allowing them to evolve and change over time.
20 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    April 2, 2017 10:22 pm

    Do you know of any apps that might be good to use for gardening journals? I am just starting out, so like the other people just starting, I’d like to record bloom time and have some to do type lists.

    • April 5, 2017 4:57 pm

      Amy, I hope to identify some good online resources as part of this research project, but haven’t gotten to it yet. I did a quick search in response to your question, and most of what is outthere seems to be designed for vegetable gardening. One source recommended Evernote as a good app for garden journals, so you might want to check it out.

  2. April 3, 2017 9:42 am

    Perfect timing… and so many wonderful ideas here, Jean! I’m very grateful for all four of your helpful tips for garden journaling. Heartfelt thanks for inspiring me to document this year of joy in my garden! ♡

    • April 5, 2017 7:28 pm

      Dawn, One of the benefits of record-keeping that came up in my interviews was the ability to relive the joy of the garden season at a later date (like during the winter!).

  3. April 3, 2017 11:26 am

    Good ideas. I should review our garden documentation. The problem I have is I would rather be in the garden than documenting it!

    • April 5, 2017 7:31 pm

      Steve, It’s seems that a system like Theda’s or Harriet’s — a paper notebook or calendar that you can take out into the garden with you so that you don’t have to choose between being in the garden or documenting it — would work best for you. Theda is also flexible about the timing of when she writes in her garden notebook. She tends to neglect it during the busiest parts of the garden season and then takes time to reflect and make notes as the garden season winds down.

  4. April 3, 2017 1:53 pm

    An interesting study, Jean. I’m good at recording new purchases/plantings in my electronic spreadsheet but not at updating my record (to account for plant deaths, or significant findings). My blog itself has perhaps become my best recordkeeping tool.

    • April 5, 2017 7:47 pm

      Kris, It never occurred to me to record plant deaths until it came up in the survey. I’ve now adopted the simple expedient of going through my plant list and striking through any plant listed there that no longer survives in my garden. That way, I have a record that I once (at least!) planted it, where I planted it, and that it didn’t survive there. Useful for not repeating the same mistakes over and over.

  5. April 3, 2017 4:37 pm

    Hello Jean, I think I’m at the poorer end of record keeping as I have my blog but it doesn’t systematically have plant lists, border maps or task lists, it’s mainly a collection of observations, thoughts, comparisons (then and now) and sometimes instructional. I’m not sure whether the blog is for myself, or for other people?

    • April 5, 2017 7:51 pm

      Sunil, Maybe your blog is both for other people and for yourself. One of the gardeners I interviewed, Jana, described her garden journal as a conversation with herself that helps her discover what she’s thinking about her garden.

  6. April 3, 2017 5:54 pm

    I got burned out on documentation when we grew usda certified organic seed garlic. I’ve been winging it ever since. I’m thinking about a planting log I can do on my iPad this year.

    • April 5, 2017 7:52 pm

      Mrs. Brown, I learned from one of the gardeners I interviewed about the extensive documentation required for certified organic crops.

  7. April 4, 2017 4:41 pm

    Jean, I may have missed this in your previous posts, but I’m curious if your research showed what percentage of people don’t keep records at all?

    • April 5, 2017 7:54 pm

      Brenda, I didn’t do the right kind of research to answer this question. I would have needed a fairly large random sample of gardeners to get a reliable estimate of what % do and don’t keep records. Instead, I studied a small non-random sample of record-keepers only.

  8. debsgarden permalink
    April 6, 2017 9:37 am

    I was going to ask the same question Brenda asked. My own record keeping, except for my blog, is pitifully poor. I keep tags of all the plants I buy and have a journal waiting for me to list all the plants in different areas of the garden. I confess I have had that empty journal for several years. It is my conscious, nagging at me.

    • April 7, 2017 10:38 pm

      Deb, A couple of possibilities here: (1) Why do you want a list of all the plants in your garden? Maybe your difficulty in getting it started is just because it doesn’t seem very important to you. (2) Maybe a paper journal isn’t the best way to keep such a list. An online list (in a word processing file or a spreadsheet) would be much more flexible in allowing you to add plants later, move them around in the list, etc. Watch soon for a post that will include some suggestions about how to organize those plant tags into a “list.”

  9. April 8, 2017 6:21 pm

    Started on paper, but I much prefer the possibilities on the laptop.
    SO much easier to search for something online in the blog.

  10. April 11, 2017 2:07 pm

    I’m really terrible at record keeping. My blog is my garden journal, but it’s not set up very well for looking up practical information.


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