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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.

A Hillside of Spring Flowers

April 28, 2017

hillside of crocus bloomsAs I create the new front garden for my house (a large, multi-year landscaping project), I have been trying to design for an extended garden season. To that end, after I finished planting shrubs and perennials on the large slope by my driveway in late summer (see The Side Slope: Mission Accomplished), I ordered more than 300 crocus bulbs to tuck in among the perennials. My goals were to have early spring growth to help hold the sandy soil in place on the hillside and (most importantly) to have flowers to enjoy while waiting for perennials to emerge in the spring.

I ordered my bulbs from Fedco, a Maine coop specializing in seeds and plants for our cold climate. I chose three types of crocus bulbs from their catalog: 200 bulbs of Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’, 100 bulbs of a species crocus mix (mostly Crocus chrysanthus, combined with some other small crocus varieties), and 50 bulbs of the jumbo Crocus vernus variety ‘Pickwick.’ About half the ‘Pickwick’ bulbs went at the top of the side slope, near the walkway to the front door; the other half went in by the foundation near both the front and back doors. I planted my crocus bulbs in late October, putting five in each hole. (I should note that digging holes for planting is an easy task for those of us with sandy soil). I followed Fedco’s advice to sprinkle ground cloves on top of the planting holes to deter rodents (chipmunks, squirrels, voles, mice) from sniffing out, digging up and eating the bulbs.

pickwick in bloomI have been delighted with the results. The ground cloves were a success, since all 70 clumps of bulbs have emerged. The first flower came in late March on a clump of ‘Pickwick’ planted in a protected spot by the foundation near the south corner of the house. (To understand what a big deal it is to have flowers in my Maine garden in March, you need to know that most spring ephemeral wildflowers don’t bloom here until late April or early-mid May.) In early April, clumps of crocus foliage began to emerge from beneath the melting snow on the side slope hillside. By mid-April, these had begun to flower. Each day since has brought more crocus flowers blooming on this hillside, and there are still a few clumps that have not yet begun to bloom. This means that my hillside display of spring flowers will last well into May. By the time the crocus blooms have finished, perennial foliage will have grown up around them and the floral display of summer will begin.

Ruby Giant2 I have very much enjoyed the showy striped blooms of Crocus vernus ‘Pickwick,’ but I am also charmed by the more delicate flowers of Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant.’ My favorites, however, have turned out to be the mixed species flowers. I love their many combinations of purple, white, blue, and soft yellow blooms.
crocus vernus mix2 crocus vernus mix1 crocus vernus mix3

Springing! GBBD, April 2017

April 15, 2017

side slope snow meltIt would be an exaggeration to say that spring has sprung in my Maine garden, but it is definitely springing. Most of the snow has melted; what’s left are patches of snow on the ground, piles of shoveled snow, and snow banks left by the plow. Even the huge pile of snow shoveled from the roof, which I dubbed “Snow Mountain” in February when it was up to the roofline, has dwindled to a small hillock.

In the garden, seven flower beds are now snow-free, while six still have snow remaining. (Of those six, two will probably be free of snow by the end of the day tomorrow.) In the blue and yellow border, the blue hyacinths have begun to open and the daffodils have buds.

hyacinths blooming daffodil buds 2017

pickwick flowersThe stars of my garden in this early spring period are the crocuses. Last fall, I planted several clumps of the showy Crocus vernus ‘Pickwick’ near the foundation at the south corner of my house, along the walkways to both the front and back doors. They rewarded me with early blooms. The first crocus opened on March 30 and was promptly eaten by some hungry critter. In the two weeks since, however, more have emerged and bloomed, a cheering sight whenever I enter or leave the house.

serenity crocus In the Serenity Garden, a smaller variety of crocus, Crocus vernus ‘Flower Record’ has just begun to bloom. These provide a preview of still more crocus blooms to come. Last fall, I planted 300 crocus bulbs, in 60 clumps of 5 bulbs, on the Side Slope. As the snow melts from this hillside, crocus foliage emerges from beneath the snow. As of today, half the 60 clumps are visible, although none have begun to bloom.

In the weeks to come, as the crocuses finish their display, trees will flower, lilacs will bud, spring wildflowers will appear, and spring will truly have sprung.

side slope crocuses emerging

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens, providing an opportunity for bloggers to share what’s happening in their gardens. Go to her blog to share your own blooms or to see what is happening in gardens from many different climates.

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.

Waiting for Spring: GBBD, March 2017

March 16, 2017

In many parts of the United States, March is a spring month. In Maine, although we may enjoy occasional spring-like days, March is still winter and a time of not-so-patiently waiting for spring.

Feb 18This week’s blizzard provided a sharp reminder that March is a winter month and forced us all to put dreams of an early spring on hold. The mountain of shoveled snow by my front porch, which under a regime of warmer than average temperatures and the strong March sun, had dwindled from this in mid-February

to this in early March, March09
snow mountain March15 got a new lease on life with almost two feet of new snow.

white hyacinth detailWhen my potted amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulbs finished blooming at the end of February, I found myself bereft of flowers for March. Outdoor blooms are still weeks away,  and my normally faithful potted cyclamen have gone on strike. In the first week of March, I stopped by a local nursery looking for an indoor flower fix. I brought home some potted hyacinth bulbs whose heady fragrance has been gracing my life for the past two weeks. I was also smitten by a large, intensely purple, potted Pericallis and brought it home, too. (The photo below does not do justice to the color of the flowers.) The hyacinths are almost finished and will be planted in the garden after the snow melts. I’m counting on the Pericallis to get me through until spring arrives in Maine next month.

cineraria blooms

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see what is blooming in gardens where spring has already arrived.

Searching for Signs of Spring

March 10, 2017

signs of spring bare groundI’m a winter lover; but even winter lovers can grow weary of winter after several months. In March, I begin to search the winter landscape for signs of spring.

March is typically a weather roller coaster here. The saying is that “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” This year, the lion arrived a day late. The first day of March was mild with a feel of spring. On the second day, a blast of arctic air roared in on strong northwest winds. By mid-week, cold gave way to mild air again, with Wednesday’s temperature rising to about 50F (10C). For the past two days, temperatures have been falling and the weather has featured strong winds and alternating blue skies and snow squalls as another cold front arrived. Tomorrow’s high temperatures are expected to be below 10 degrees Fahrenheit (about –12 Celsius). Meteorologists are forecasting a major snow storm with a foot or more of snow for the middle of next week.

The March roller coaster can make me feel impatient for the arrival of spring, but I know it is coming. I can see many signs of spring outside my windows. First is the rapidly lengthening hours of daylight as we approach the spring equinox. This weekend we will adjust our clocks as we “spring forward” into daylight savings time; next week, the sun will not set until almost 7 p.m.

March’s stronger sun and days of mild temperatures have been rapidly melting our snowpack. Only four weeks after our 4-foot “snowmageddon” snowfall, most of that snow has melted. Even the huge pile of shoveled snow by my front porch that I dubbed “Snow Mountain,” has already diminished by more than half.

Feb 18 March09
The snow is almost gone from the part of the back deck that I never got around to shoveling. deck snow

And patches of bare ground have been spreading along the foundation of the house and under the trees.

bare ground foundation bare ground under trees

And in those patches of bare ground, I can see new foliage of strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) and hardy geraniums (Geranium x cantabrigiense).

strawberry foliage geranium foliage
crocus foliage In the fall, I looked forward to spring by planting hundreds of crocus bulbs. The first foliage of those crocuses has begun to appear, promising that March’s roller coaster will give way to flowers in April.

Winter Interest

February 26, 2017

snowy woodsThere’s a great deal of discussion in gardening circles about what gardeners can plant in their gardens to provide “winter interest.” I wonder if this is primarily a concern of those who live in climates where winter dormancy is combined with a bleak winter landscape and drab, gray winter days.

Where I live in northern New England, winter is itself interesting – and beautiful. Winters here are normally snowy. The primary winter interest in my garden is provided by the white of snow contrasting with the deep green of conifer trees that grow around the edges of the garden. What’s more, the low pressure areas that bring us snow alternate with high pressure areas that bring blue skies and dazzling snow-reflected sunshine. New-fallen snow transforms almost everything that it touches into a thing of beauty.

The weight of the snow gave this tall spiky seed head of Liatris aspera its graceful arc. liatris snow arc
milkweed pods in snow A backdrop of white enhances the subtle silver and gold shades of exploded milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pods and renders them beautiful.

lavender in snowI think of the beauty that snow brings to the garden as mostly visual, but this winter surprised me with a different kind of winter interest – provided, improbably, by snow shoveling. As I shoveled the narrow walkway through the Lavender Walk after each storm, I would uncover the grayed foliage of lavender (Lavandula augustifolia) that edges the walkway. As my shovel brushed against it, the disturbed foliage released its aromatic oils, suffusing the air with a swoon-inducing scent in this fragrance-deprived season.