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?

Simple Ways to Start a Garden Journal

So goes my garden journal entry for May 28, 2013:


“…The rain broke long enough this afternoon for me to do a little gardening for about 90 minutes. The dogs were as delighted as I was to be outside for a change. I cut back a lot of the lady ferns that were blocking the paths, and pulled the sweet woodruff from the paths in the wood. There is a still lot to do but it was only a short window of time before the rains came again. No sign of dahlia growth on any of the new tubers yet. I am hoping this rain hasn’t rotted them. The weather was so nice earlier in May that I thought I would be safe. Ha.

At least the two Japanese maples that I had moved earlier this month look happy and I haven’t had to water them since they were transplanted….”

Keeping a Garden Journal Should be Fun!

I try to write something every day that I am able to be in the garden. It’s a little easier for me to have my journal on my computer than in a notebook. I sit at my computer desk in front of a huge window that allows me to look out onto a courtyard in my yard. (The only drawback to this is that it allows me to see more weeds that need to be pulled!) But there are as many ways to keep a garden journal as there are gardeners.

The first hurdle to get over is to avoid looking at journaling as a chore or an assignment. This is not a composition to be turned in for Mrs. Miller to grade for a 7th grade English class. A garden journal is, instead, a tool to be used as best fits the gardener who wrote it.

If just the details are for you…

Some gardeners may want only to record details. In this case, a tablet of graph paper may be all you need, with columns set up for dates, high and low temperatures, weather conditions, and maybe even barometer readings. This is a more scientific approach than I enjoy, but that’s the beauty of journaling: it’s your journal so you get to keep it the way you want. You will want to include columns that are interesting and relevant to you.

If making it reader-friendly is for you…

I prefer to create a reader-friendly form of journal. I include my opinions as well as my observations. If there is something strange going on, I am sure to include that. For example, in June of 2005, an albino goldfinch visited our garden feeders for about six weeks and then disappeared, never to be seen again. This was something I recorded every day, even to the point of naming her “Marilyn.” (What better name for a platinum blonde?)

If tracking changes with photos is for you….

Another plus of having my journal on the computer is the ability to insert photographs of the garden as it progresses each month. And because photographs have been taken over several years, this has become an invaluable tool. It not only allows me to see what is planted and where for the current garden, but it gives me a good comparison from year to year, season to season. I must admit, it is also fun for me to go back and see what the beds looked like when I first planted then and how they look today.


Carla's garden in June
Carla’s garden in June, 2008

Carla's jounral
Same garden view in Carla’s garden, 2013!


Reviewing Past Journals to See Patterns in My Garden

My journals are not only fun and interesting to read, they are valuable from a gardening perspective, too. I just today reviewed my journal from 2012 and found that it was rainy at the end of last May, too. So that intrigued me. Has it been rainy at the end of May in other years?

Once the year is over, I print out my journal and place it in a binder so it is easy to reference.

On May 22, 2008, I wrote “Still cold and rainy. Will summer ever come?” But in 2007, I wrote “A day of rain after many nice days in the last couple of weeks.” So I can see a pattern beginning to form. Early May is often nice; late May, not so much.

In looking through the most recent journals, I am finding that June is often rainy and/or cool, and it’s not until July 4th that we start to see nicer, warmer weather. That is also reflected in the vegetables and their harvest times. In fact, when we first moved to Oregon my early journals are almost blank for May and June, indicating a time of no gardening.

Recognizing the Decline of my Japanese Maple ‘Shiraz’

Of course, not all changes are positive. One of the loveliest Japanese maples I have had the pleasure to own is a ‘Shiraz’, a gift from a dear friend.

The first year it thrived, the second, it did less well, and the third, it was struggling. This is one of the trees I referred to in my May 2013 journal entry above as having moved. The photos let me see the decline in more graphic terms and so I was prompted to action.

#3 Acer palmatum 'Shiraz' 2010
Acer palmatum ‘Shiraz’ 2010
Acer palmatum 'Shiraz' 2013
Acer palmatum ‘Shiraz’ 2013

Finding ‘Your Way’ to Journal

There are many dedicated gardening journals on the market, but a notebook or even a composition book can be just as effective.

If you like to draw, you may want to start out with a sketch book and make quick, informal sketches or draw plans of the beds.  There are also books with blank pages that are water-resistant in case they get splashed. These are a little more expensive but can be found online.

Garden Journal
My Garden Journal

Even a calendar with large spaces for the days can work if you are a minimalist. You can be as brief as you like (planted peas in NW veggie bed) and yet record all the necessary information in one place. A calendar could also be a means to record a quick reminder for a day when you have the time to sit down and detail your observations.

As I mentioned, I take notes on my computer, then, print out my journal and place it in a binder so it is easy to reference.

The important part of starting a journal is to be as consistent as possible in your entries. That spring when I had no entries for May or June wasn’t really helpful. Subsequent years certainly have been.

Have you started a garden journal yet? How did you set up yours?     

~ Carla Albright, Tillamook County Oregon Master Gardener


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