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Record-Keeping Tools

May 7, 2017

This is the third in a series of posts that draw on my recent study of garden record keeping. (See Gardeners’ Record-Keeping: Some Preliminary Results and Varieties of Garden Record Keeping.) In this one, I want to look at how gardeners can use some readily available record-keeping tools.

imageOne under-utilized tool for organizing garden records is the computer spreadsheet (e.g., Microsoft Excel). Among the 72 gardeners who completed my online survey of their record-keeping habits, only 38% reported ever using spreadsheets and only 13% used them often. But for anyone with a basic knowledge of a program like Excel, spreadsheets are a very useful way to organize any information that lends itself to rows and columns. I use a spreadsheet to record what is blooming in my garden, with each row as a week in my garden season, each column a flower bed, and a separate spreadsheet page for each year (which makes it easy to compare the current year with previous years). Spreadsheets are also a great way to organize lists. In my case studies of four gardeners’ record-keeping strategies, Harriet used a spreadsheet to keep lists of her special plant collections. imageShe had separate pages for different types of irises, for daylilies, for hostas, for shrubs, for roses, and for clematis. The image above is of her spreadsheet list of Siberian irises. Each row is a variety of Siberian iris in her garden (listed in alphabetical order), with columns to record the date she acquired each variety, where she acquired it, a description of the flower color, who hybridized it, and how tall the plant is. I recently added a page to my spreadsheet with a list of spring chores. The chores are in the rows, organized by month, with a column for each year where I can check off chores as I complete them.

imageThe greatest power of spreadsheets, however, is not just their usefulness for organizing information in rows and columns, but their ability to do calculations. This is particularly helpful for vegetable gardeners and those who grow flowers from seed. Even better, some seed companies have created spreadsheet calculators that are easy for gardeners to download and use. The website of Johnny’s Selected Seeds has a particularly useful set of such calculators. The image above is of their downloadable Excel spreadsheet for calculating succession planting dates. The spreadsheet comes with very clear instructions for how to fill in information for your garden (e.g., your average date of last frost) and for the vegetables that you would like to grow. It will then automatically calculate planting dates for each vegetable.

While relatively few gardeners use spreadsheets as record-keeping tools, there are other tools that gardeners readily have available but have trouble figuring out how to use effectively. One of these is photographs. Although more than 80% of gardeners who completed my online survey reported that they keep photo records of their gardens, the case study interviews revealed that gardeners sometimes have trouble organizing these photographs in an effective way. I confess that, although I take a lot of photos of my garden, the only time I use them as a systematic record is when I do a sun study as part of the process of designing a new garden area. This involves taking photos from the same vantage point once an hour from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. (usually in late May, just after the trees have fully leafed out) and gives me an accurate record of how many hours of sunlight each part of my garden actually gets. One of my case-study gardeners, Harriet, uses photos to diagnose and solve garden design problems. In the series of photos below, we first see a spring planting of daffodils and red tulips that Harriet was very happy with. The second photo shows the same garden area ten years later; we see that the red contrast provided by the tulips has mostly disappeared. Harriet used the comparison of these two photos to identify where she should plant red tulips in the fall; the third photo documents the successful result the following spring.


Another of my case-study gardeners, Jana, keeps an electronic garden journal. The electronic form makes it very easy for her to embed digital photos into her journal to illustrate problems, plans, ideas, or inspiration.

imageNursery plant tags are another potential record-keeping tool that many gardeners save but that most never find a way to use effectively. I saved tags for many years, but eventually threw them out when I realized I wasn’t using them. One of my case-study gardeners admitted that her plant tags were all just tossed in a drawer without any system of organization. Jana, however, has devised an effective way to organize plant tags. She has them organized in alphabetical order, inside envelopes, and stored in boxes. imageIn the photo above, she has pulled out the envelope with tags for hostas in her garden; it would be simple matter to add another hosta tag to this envelope or to find one when needed. For Jana, these tags provide a simple alternative to keeping a list of all the plants she grows. After I saw Jana’s system, I realized that it would also be easy to organize plant tags in the type of portfolio files that I use for household finances. I would probably organize them by garden area, but the same type of portfolio could be used for an alphabetical filing system.

Learning about available record-keeping tools and how they are used by other gardeners makes it easier for us to develop record-keeping  systems that work for us.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2017 11:59 pm

    I use a spreadsheet (LibreOffice’s version of Excel), which I consult frequently – most often for simple things like verifying a cultivar name or a plant’s projected size at maturity but also to determine things like when and where a bought a plant when I decide I’d like to hunt down another of the same species. However, the hardest thing for me is making time to record new information on a timely basis (e.g. before I lose the tag). And the biggest deficiency of my “system” is my failure to include data on plant failures for future reference.

  2. May 8, 2017 6:26 pm

    Today I planted Brabejum stellatifolium in the gap outside the livingroom window.
    Wrote that into my Rose Patio page – and the info is there, and searchable.

    I would use spreadsheets if I needed to sort a mass of information. Growing vegetables, or from seed, or a collection of … I use the month end garden blog post to keep a record of what blooms. Not an exhaustive list, but the eyecatching stuff.

  3. May 9, 2017 7:08 am

    I use a list in word of all the plants in each of our borders. Very useful when writing blogs and trying to remember the variety. Also use spreadsheets for planning planting times fro the veg. and lists of bulb purchases etc. As I also coordinate the purchase with other gardeners in our village this proves very useful.

  4. debsgarden permalink
    May 14, 2017 6:59 pm

    I am one who saves all the plant tags but does nothing with them, except search through them when I have forgotten a plant’s name. I love Jena’s idea; so simple. Why didn’t I think of that?!

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