For many of us gardeners in the Northern Hemisphere, January is a dreamy month during which we don cozy sweaters and wander through pages of seed catalogs and stock up for the coming year.
While we’re tucked up inside, a new year is also a good time to begin keeping a garden journal. If you already have one, great! Cold weather and short days provide time to tidy your notes and sketch new ideas for spring.
Though my own garden journals might politely be described as creatively chaotic, they have been valuable sources of information that I otherwise would have forgotten.
Garden journal notes can also be deeply appreciated by whomever becomes the caretaker of your garden down the line, whether it be a family member or new owner or renter. For example, when we bought this property, the former owners had lived here for many decades, and they were able to share valuable information about the weather patterns, that there used to be a stream through the property, what animals they kept, quaint stories of their father planting the willow trees, how the cistern was used for the preservation of eggs when it was a chicken farm — before the advent of refrigeration. I just wish I would have asked who planted the old plum trees, when, and what variety they are!
Though officials keep weather and other records, each specific location may have its own micro-climate. For example, in our location, temperatures are usually five degrees different than the nearest official recording. Bougainvillea could probably be grown up at the top of our street, but not on our low-lying spot. Your conditions are probably somewhat or very specific to your location and that’s why your notes are important. A good rain gauge and outdoor thermometer are essential to keeping these records. If nothing else, it’s fun and helpful to be able to share these observations with your gardener friends over the fence.
Here are some ideas of what you might like to keep in your garden journal.
- A monthly record of high and low temperatures, especially the first and last frosts and hard freezes each year
- Record-breaking temperatures of heatwaves and cold snaps and how long they lasted
- Other extreme conditions—like severe flooding, drought, earthquakes or wildfires
- Monthly precipitation, to be totaled at years end
- Note the sun patterns through the year—helpful for locating plants that need as much daylight as possible. In the winter, the patterns of shade will be very different.
- Note any frost pockets, or boggy areas, or other special conditions
- Changes in your gardens immediate surroundings: a nearby building renovation, a windbreak tree that came down — exposing your garden to drying winds.
- Changes in climate—for example: we used to get afternoon fog here very regularly at about 3pm in the afternoons. And we know this was the case for a long time, because the former owners told us. But about 15 years ago, the fog just stopped. Rarely do we get fog now in our particular area. I can only guess this is due to climate change, because of course so much else has changed during that time as well—higher temperature heat waves, more drought, more severe and frequent wildfires. Navigating these rapid changes in the garden is … well… probably impossible, but at least it helps make sense of why certain plants are doing worse or better now.
Blooms and Harvests
- What date did the first blooms of spring appear this year?
- Which flowers bloomed this month?
- When did you harvest your blueberries, your olives, first and last tomatoes or the season, or whatever you grow?
- What did well this year? What didn’t? Note down bumper crops and off-years, and varieties that performed well.
- Maybe you have a special interest, like birds, or butterflies? Keep notes of which kinds you spot, how many, and what time of year they migrate through.
- Any other sightings you find interesting, like when that red fox was around, or when the badger dug holes everywhere.
- Maybe footprints or scat of various wildlife, or other signs, like bobcat claw markings on trees….
- What you tried to do to discourage the raccoons from eating your ripe apples or the squirrel from eating all your walnuts. Did it work?
“Oh, I’ll remember the name of that rose.” I’ve told myself that many times. But many years later, I didn’t remember. So, it may be handy to record the varieties of shrubs and trees that you plant. Roses certainly, but also fruit tree varieties, nuts, landscaping plants. This is also handy, if, like us, you loose a pollinator tree and need to replace it, or some shrub becomes one of your favorites and you can’t quite remember the variety.
Also note down what year you planted a fruit tree, or a berry patch. In our case, this helped us discover that our gopher baskets (which protect the roots of the fruit trees that we plant), were probably rusting out in about 7 or 8 years. (So now we aim to wean them off of irrigation water as much as possible by that time, because the moist soil patches created by the irrigation, surrounded by bone-dry summer soil, seems to attract the toothy pests.)
If you install a greenhouse or get ducklings or dig a pond — these are all good things to note down. I refer back to my notes for all kinds of reasons. And even the things I forget to write down can usually be worked out based on the things I did.
Research on special topics
Jot down or print out any research you do. I have a lot of researched lists, like: drought-tolerant plants, gopher-resistant plants, and plants that will tolerate growing near eucalyptus (they are allelopathic to most plants). You may want to assemble a list of your favorite landscaping plants which do well in your area, and then replicate them throughout your landscape for a sense of design unity. Or, do research on organic methods for treating certain diseases or dealing with particular garden pests, and what time of year you need to implement such treatments. Often I will print out this information and put in a 3-ring binder by topic.
- Sketches and ideas of new garden designs that are on your wish list
- Sketch some birds you see
- Glue in some photo clippings of the flowers varieties you planted this year.
The other wonderful thing about keeping a garden journal and gardening in general, is that it encourages us to really observe our garden and surroundings in a deeper way. To notice and appreciate that so much life is happening on so many levels. For me, this creates a sense of being part of it and grounding my sense of being in this bigger life that we are part of. Are we the gardener? Or are we the garden?