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 . 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


Nature’s Notebook and Master Gardeners: A tool for all seasons

Sonoran Desert in August, monsoon season
Sonoran Desert in August


Lush green mountains and creeks filled with rushing, crashing water – not exactly what one thinks Arizona looks like.  But this is the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona in August during monsoon season.

Summer wildflowers spread cheerfully across open patches between cholla and prickly pear ripe with brilliant burgundy fruit.

Just the Beginning – Phenology Training and a Citizen Science Project

My friend Pat and I are treated to these glorious sights as we travel the rocky dirt road up to the Florida Canyon ranger station, part of the Santa Rita Experimental Range, in the Santa Rita mountains south of Tucson to do our observations for Nature’s Notebook, the citizen science program sponsored by the USA National Phenology Network.

Pat , Pima County Master Gardener Participating in Nature's Notebook

Edy, Pima County Master Gardener Participating in Nature's Notebook

Phenology  – Observing and studying plants leads to a lot more!

As part of the Master Gardener class at the Pima County Cooperative Extension though University of Arizona in the spring of 2012, LoriAnne Barnett, the Education Coordinator for the USA National Phenology Network based at the University of Arizona, taught a class on phenology.

What is phenology?

Phenology, we learned, is a branch of science that deals with the relationship between climate and periodic biological phases of flora and fauna.  Okay.  But what did that really mean to us as Master Gardeners?  To find out, Pat and I volunteered to observe and monitor four plants in the Florida Canyon of the Santa Ritas.Tucked away in this remote canyon is a ranger station where scientists from all over the country can come to conduct research.

Our work becomes part of long-term studies

At the station, LoriAnne had tagged the plants we were to watch – two velvet mesquite trees, an ocotillo, and, unbelievably, a very old lilac bush!!  This particular lilac is part of a historic long-term USDA cloned plant phenological study begun in the 1950s, which provides over 50 years of consistent data for scientists to study.  Lucky, lucky us!

Lilacs in spring 2012 - We recorded its bloom time this year.

Lilac in Winter 2013 - As part of Nature's notebook, we'll record when they first bloom again this spring.

Observing 4 plants leads to lots of new questions and beautiful scenery!

As the months have passed, we have observed the mesquite trees flower and develop pods (no pods on the small one, despite the bloom – something to wonder about) and marveled at the gorgeous color of the ocotillo flowers and the continual drop of leaves and regrowth after a monsoon storm.

Observing the flower on velvet mesquite, Prosopis veluntina, during the growing season.

Velvet mesquite, Prosopis veluntina (January)

But our true joy was the heavenly scent of the lilac in bloom in the spring.  Those tiny purple flowers filled the air (and our noses!!) with their delicate fragrance as we would return again and again before reluctantly making our way back down the canyon towards home. As a Midwestern transplant trying to learn about desert flora, this activity opened my eyes to life in the desert in a way I could not have imagined.

Each week Pat and I would delight in the changes we were seeing so very up close and personal.  We also were treated to sightings of fauna that made our trek even more amazing – javalina scurrying along the dry creek bed, a bobcat strolling across our path, snakes and a frightened gila monster running for cover, deer dashing after each other in a panic as we approached, and birds.  So many birds.  Fortunately, Pat is an extraordinary birder and can identify birds by their calls, shapes, and flight patterns.  I’m in awe!  Hummingbirds abound in the canyon while red tail hawks soar over head looking for lunch.

Nature’s Notebook – An Opportunity for Master Gardener Volunteers & Science

Master Gardeners are already in tune to blooms and buds, planting times and zones, emergence and migration.  Having an opportunity to observe and record these events in a program like Nature’s Notebook helps us to remember the how and when of each season and encourages us to create our own hypotheses about what may be to come.

Our data also contributes to a valuable ongoing study about how species and ecosystems are influenced by environmental changes.  

No, this is not work.  This is pure pleasure.  Phenology, it seems, is much more than the science of the seasons. To be with a friend out in the midst of the wonderful place just to monitor and observe the flora and fauna is something I am so very happy to be able to do.

Opuntia engelmannii

Arizona poppy, Kalistoemia grandiflora

Prickly Poppy, Aremone platyceras

Participate in Nature’s Notebook Through Your Local Program

While we participated in the phenology training through our local Master Gardener chapter in Arizona, Nature’s Notebook is a national program. Master Gardener chapters around the country are adding phenology to their list of volunteer projects so check with your local coordinator to find out if your state is participating.

If not, encourage your chapter members to join in tracking phenological changes. You will find all of the resources you need to get started on the USA-NPN website: For information about how you can be involved with Nature’s Notebook, or how to add it to a Master Gardener training course, contact LoriAnne Barnett at

-Submitted by

Edy Alderson, Pima County Cooperative Extension, Green Valley Master Gardener Chapter volunteer
Pima County Master Gardeners on Facebook
Pima County Extension on Facebook

LoriAnne Barnett
Education Coordinator | USA National Phenology Network