7 Steps for Keeping a Consistent (and Useful) Garden Journal

I have been journaling this summer; have you?

Some days it isn’t as easy as others to sit down and write what was going on in my garden, and on those days I take a lesson from the Extension Master Gardener Blogs’ “Wordless Wednesdays” and add some photographs I have taken. In these cases, a picture is worth a thousand words!

Using a computer to expedite journal entries

Other times the words just fly from my fingers onto the keyboard. And this is why I prefer to do my journaling on the computer. Gone are the days when “Ladies of Leisure” had the time to sit and write their thoughts in a beautifully bound, lovingly designed paper journal, perhaps with a quill pen and some perfumed ink. Who has time for that in 2013?

So the computer comes to the rescue because – even as slow as I type – I can type faster than I can legibly write.

The computer has some other benefits, too. I can add my digital photos right into the document. They can be sized to what I need to make my point, or they can be deleted and replaced if I take a better photo tomorrow. Besides, if you are reading this blog, you are computer-literate enough to create one of your own.

Garden Journal, Entry August #6
Garden journal entry , August 6

Garden Journal entry
Garden journal entry,  August 7

It’s simple.

Step 1) Start by opening a new document and saving it as “Garden Journal, 2013” or whatever name you choose.

Step 2) Optional. Add a header and use some clip art to jazz it up (if you want to get fancy)

Step 3) Set a page aside for each month. This is another benefit to computers: if you need more pages in any one month, just keep typing. The computer adjusts for you. Some months I have as many as six pages; in the winter that may dwindle to a half a page instead. I do try to add something each month, even if it’s only rainfall amounts or a plant I saw in a catalog that I want to try next year.

Garden Journal Entry
For July, I added some clip art and a header. I also set-up this page to prompt me to add drawings and notes.

Step 4) Be sure to include the date and year in each entry. This helps keep you organized.

Step 5) Add some photos by using the “insert” tab. When you are finished writing for the day, add photos. You can use the formatting tool to adjust the size, crop the photo, wrap the text around it or add a caption. Captions can be helpful to identify the plant in the future.

Step 6) Save the document!  It should go without saying to be sure to save the document when you are done!

Step 7) Print when you have completed each month or year.   At the end of the year, I print my year’s journal entries and keep it in a three-ring binder for future reference.


3 Ring Binder Garden Journal
My 3 ring binder garden journal

Using tabs to mark the years is a helpful organizing tool, too. And I bought some photo sleeves so I can add pages with my plant labels as well as some hand-drawn maps of plantings, too.

Garden Journal page
Garden journal with plant tags,  August 3

Garden Journal Page Aug. 5
Garden journal with more plant tags,  Aug. 5

Other pages of gardening information from magazines or newspapers can also be included. It’s your journal; include what you need!

In a few years, you will be amazed at how much information you have been able to gather by being the least little bit organized on a daily basis.

~ Carla Albright, Tillamook County Oregon Master Gardener

Have you started a garden journal yet? What are you including? What format do you use?

Garden Journaling Phenology Events Can Help Grow a Garden

I love looking out our kitchen window in April and seeing “thirty shades of green.” Everything is starting to look so lush and alive and it makes me feel better about the possibility of warm weather arriving at last. The hostas are unfurling their variegated leaves. Luckily, the nights have been cool enough that the slugs haven’t been very active yet, so the hosta have a head start.

A view from my kitchen window - April 15th
A view from my kitchen window – April 15th (Photo: Carla Albright)

When spring arrives each year, I note the changes in my garden journal. I know I am not the only one who does this. In fact there is a whole science based on the relative changes in nature called phenology.

In formal terms, phenology is “the study of how the biological world and its naturally occurring events are timed with seasonal and annual variations taken into account.”  But this is a longer way of saying its how natural things relate to each other and to the climate surrounding them.

Recording Changes in Plants Can Traced to the 8th Century!

When we stop to think about it, we know that throughout history people have been studying natural relationships. Ancient tribes of North America, for example, would schedule their crop plantings according to a variety of signs in nature, be it the phases of the moon or the leafing out of the maple trees. Other early cultures worldwide knew of the signs that indicated that the plants and animals were taking their cues from the local climate. Think of the cherry blossom festivals in ancient Japan and China whose dates can be traced to earlier than the 8th century. Vintners in Europe have been keeping climate records for over 500 years, which gives them a nice, long baseline to work with.

The father of Modern Phenology is considered to be Englishman Robert Marsham when, in 1736, he started systematically and precisely recording the signs of spring on his estate in Norfolk. This tradition of meticulous record-keeping continued for generations in his family until 1958 when Martha Marsham died. As you can imagine, a long-time record that spans 200 years would be really helpful in a lot of crop plans.

Garden Journaling Helps Me Grow My Garden

Epimedium 'Bandit'
Epimedium ‘Bandit” makes an appearance  in the early spring garden. (Photo: Carla Albright).

In our current times of climate upheaval, a science like this would also be advantageous in noting specific changes.

In my own small way, I have been doing this for about 10 years in my garden journal. Ten years may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the dedication of the Marsham family, but it has been useful to me just in my garden plantings as well as interesting to see the year-to-year progressions. I know when the Hellebores start to fade in March, the Epimediums will start to sprout and the hosta will poke through the soil.

What to record?

Traditionally, the three main factors in the study of phenology have been sunlight, temperature and precipitation, all of which – of course – are the basis of climate.  These are the factors that work together in determining the timing of natural events. One example would be the bird migrations that base their flying times on the amount of daylight, leaving their wintering grounds as the days become longer. In a reverse order are the bloom times of poinsettias, which cue in to shorter days.

It helps me to record low and high temperatures in my journal as well as rainfall. This way, if in mid-summer certain plants aren’t doing well, I can look back and see what might be a factor in that failure to thrive. Perhaps it will even allow me some insight to correct for that factor next year.

Get Recording With Citizen Science Projects or Your Own Garden Journal

There is now an organization dedicated to phenology. It offers gardeners and amateur scientists an opportunity to record data and have it compiled with the data of other researchers. It is called the United States National Phenology Network and can be reached at www.usanpn.org/ . I kind of liked their description of phenology as being “Nature’s Calendar.” The website offers lots of ideas of keeping records and is looking for volunteer record-keepers from around the country so a larger cache of information can be gleaned. But even if you are not interested in joining other gardeners in keeping track of nature, keeping a record for your own use can be invaluable.

Because the world around us changes so quickly in April, it is the perfect time to begin record keeping. Birds are migrating, leaves and buds are swelling on the trees, perennial plants are poking through the soil, bees are out on warmer days, frogs are singing. Of course the first robin is a good climate indicator. But summer, fall and winter bring their own changes, with flowers blooming and leaves changing colors and eventually dropping.

Project Budburst, Project Feederwatch, or Frogwatch USA are also some good citizen scientist programs to check out. Find them through your online search engine. For a first-hand experience from other Master Gardeners, check out Edy and Pat’s story in their Nature’s Notebook and Master Gardener A Tool for All Seasons blog post  from this past January at to see how valuable a notebook can be. Then get yourself a garden journal, make one from a 79 cent notebook, a three-ring binder, or keep records on your computer, and become an amateur phenologist.

Do you keep a garden journal? What kinds of things do you record?

Would you like to compare notes with other Master Gardeners this fall? It might be a fun way of creating our own MG phenology research guide for our own geographical areas.

Garden Journal
My Garden Journal (Photo: Carla Albright)


~ Carla Albright, Tillamook County Oregon Master Gardener


Earth Day in the Garden – Be an Earth Friendly Gardener

(Photo: Deviantart, v-collins)
(Photo: Deviantart, v-collins)

Today we celebrate Earth Day, where we take a look at the earth and our place in it.  Though we must remember that every day is really an “earth day.”  It is not what we do on one day in April that makes the difference – it is what we do every day that makes the difference.

  We take pause to celebrate the goodness of the earth, the bounty that it provides, and the quality that it brings to our lives.  We celebrate the fertile soil, the life- sustaining waters, the cycle of life and of death, and all the plants, animals, fungi and other life forms that form the webs and networks and cycles that keep us in balance.

Earth Day is also a call to reflect upon our place on earth and our contributions to the goodness of earth and our impacts on the natural resources on which we rely and which make the earth the grand and glorious place of which poets speak and from which artists find their inspiration.  It is also a  call to action to evaluate our activities and practices as gardeners and make sure that we are following best practices that benefit the environment or at least cause the least harm to the earth and the environment.

By being good stewards in the garden, we take care of the resources that have been entrusted to us.  We also invest in the earth and the environment, rather than use or abuse those resources.  We can make a difference in our local environs, which, in turn, are a part of the larger global environment.  We are, afterall, taking care of the place where we live.

So, what are some things that you can do to be an Earth Friendly Gardener?  There are many simple practices to consider in the garden that will either be beneficial or decrease negative impacts or our direct interaction with nature.

1. Compost

By composting our yard wastes and kitchen scraps, we reduce the amount of wastes added to landfills and make one of the best soil amendments you can add to your garden.  Good compost also encourages a thriving micro-ecosystem of fungi, bacteria and other little critters that are good for the soil and the plants.  You can take it one step further and practice vermicomposting- a worm bin in or near the kitchen to eat those veggie scraps.  Cornell has more info than you can digest on composting in this handy guide.

A bee pollinates a flower.  Photo: creative commons via Mauro Moroni
A bee pollinates a flower. (Photo: Photopedia, Mauro Moroni)

2.  Feed the Pollinators

Pollination is vital to the health of the world food supply – estimates show that at least 75% of the food crops in the world require pollination.  As we have seen issues with honeybees in recent years, it is as important as ever to make sure that we have a healthy population of native pollinators (plus we can also help feed honeybees).  Pollinators such as native bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and even bats can benefit from a good food source and other needs.  Check out www.pollinator.org to find a pollinator planting guide for your area.  They even have a pollinator gardening app!

3.  Conserve water

Water is one of our most precious, and most limited, natural resources.  Some areas of the country have water in abundance, while others are severely lacking.  Looking at water consumption in our vegetable gardens, landscapes and lawns is important, no matter where we are.  Some practices like mulching, using native plants, selecting water-wise plants, using drip irrigation instead of sprinklers and collecting irrigation water in rain barrels are all ways to help.  Be sure to find ways to conserve water in your vegetable garden and your landscape.

Teapots and mugs make fun recycled garden containers.  (Photo: Flickr, Vilseskogen)
Teapots and mugs make fun recycled garden containers. (Photo: Flickr, Vilseskogen)

4. Recycle

While composting is nutrient recycling, there’s room for recycling other things in the garden.  My favorite veggie garden mulch is newspaper, and some of my favorite seed starting containers are recycled plastic cups and takeout containers.  There is no limit to recycling in the garden.  There’s lots of garden art that can be made from recycled materials, and you can make a planter out of anything you can drill a hole in.  Check out this nifty list of garden recycling I found from the University of Florida.

5.  Be a Climate Friendly Gardener

There are many steps that we can take that reduce the carbon emissions of our gardens and their potential impact on the climate.  The Union of Concerned Scientists has a nice booklet on practices such as choosing low-impact products, choosing trees and shrubs, proper lawn management and more.  You can download the booklet or read the basics at their site.

6.  Practice Integrated Pest Management

IPM focuses on reducing or preventing pest problems, rather than reacting to pest problems.  Practices like using row covers to exclude insects, proper plant spacing, reducing overhead watering and using mulch to reduce diseases are great ways to prevent diseases.  IPM uses the least-toxic pesticides as a last-resort for pest control.  The National Pesticide Information Center is a great resource for IPM in the home, garden, lawn and more.

7. Love your soil

 Great gardeners know that you start with the soil – it is one of the most important things in your garden.  The first step is testing your soil, but it doesn’t stop there.  Adding organic matter to improve structure and rotating crops with different root depths and shapes can be great ways to affect the soil.  The Conservation Technology Information Center at Purdue has some good background information on what to do.  You can find out more about your soil using the NRCS Web Soil Survey.

8. Use least-toxic or organic pesticides

We know that there are problems that arise that do need treatment from time to time.  When making choices on disease, pest, or weed treatments, gardeners should always make the least-toxic choice to handle the situation.  Many gardeners also choose to select organic controls for pests.  Organics are usually produced from naturally-occurring sources, though safety precautions should always be followed – they can have some of the same impacts on health and the environment as their non-organic cousins.  I found a good list of least-toxic and organic pesticides from Oregon State University.

A wonderful backyard vegetable garden. (Photo: Flickr, Laura K. Gibb)
A wonderful backyard vegetable garden. (Photo: Flickr, Laura K. Gibb)

9. Grow Your Own Food

By growing your own vegetables, not only do you know what you are eating, but it can also reduce the amount of fuel used to get your food from farm to plate.  You can also practice edible landscaping and grow fruits, veggies and other tasty treats among the flowers.  The estimated travel distance for an item on the grocery shelf is 1200 miles, which could vary depending on where you live.  To find info on growing your food, check out the Ready, Set, GROW! section of my county extension webpage.  You’ll also find handouts from some of my workshops, including “The Sustainable Garden,” “Food Among The Flowers,” and more.

10.  Share your love of gardening

There’s nothing better than sharing the joys and benefits of gardening with your friends and neighbors.  Show your neighbors how to grow your favorite plant, adopt a school garden, help patients garden at a nursing home, or just find your own way to share your love of the earth.

John Porter
Extension Agent, WVU Extension Service
Charleston, WV

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