16 February 2010

A garden journal

I love my piles of gardening books. I have a wide variety of references, and I mix and match strategies to suit what I’m growing and where. Given our steady supply of composted manure and ready access to waste straw, hay and wool for mulch, we are fortunate to have the full set of gardening strategies available to us – we aren’t reliant on chemical fertilizers to keep our garden beds in good shape, we just add manure every year, and we have plenty of it. It’s taken quite awhile to get the entire garden area ready to come under cultivation, but I think, finally, this year we are there.

I use Mel Bartholemew’s Square Foot Gardening for most of my root vegetables, and I do love planting my carrots and beets in little squares inside the big one foot squares marked off by yarn in my wood-sided raised beds. However, I also follow the advice of Steve Solomon’s Gardening When it Counts, which is pretty much the antithesis of the intensive strategies of the square foot method, for other things. Solomon’s strategies work really well for larger plants like potatoes, corn, and tomatoes, and this year I’ll be attempting the wide short row strategy he recommends for some of my other plants. I also hope to incorporate some of the season extension strategies described by Eliot Coleman in the Four Season Harvest, a lovely gift from Theresa at Pondering the Myriad Things. In addition to these major resources are the books on the medicinal uses of herbs, books on natural plant dyes, and assorted general garden reference books.

Trying to find the information I need among all these amazing resources can be a real challenge sometimes, so I decided to create my very own garden journal, combining all the key points I needed in one spot.

I sat down at the kitchen table with my piles of books and a new, untouched journal (a gift from my wonderful husband a few years back, which I’d been saving for something special: this is it). I also dug up a calendar (this one is the STARS fundraising calendar – The Reluctant Farmer has helped load people into the STARS rescue helicopter more than once in his role as volunteer firefighter), and my stash of seeds.

First, let’s talk about the seed stash. Normally, the seeds live in a lovely binder that The Boy got me from Lee Valley (where else?) that protects the seeds from moisture and keeps them nicely organized. However, come planting time, I need them out where I can quickly rifle through them to get to the ones I am after – so, I took a regular cardboard box, chopped off the lid flaps, and sliced them so that they fit into one another to divide the interior into seed-packet-sized sections. The seeds are sorted into the sections based on when I need to deal with them – the ones that are going to need stratification and indoor starting are in the first sections, those that need to go out early (as soon as the soil can be worked) are up next, and the sensitive ones that need the frost well behind us are at the very back.

This also got me started on the journal itself.

Each plant is listed at the top of a page, which is cross-referenced on a table of contents at the beginning. The herbs are all at the beginning of the journal, vegetables and fruit plants are at the back. All plants have information about where and how they need to be planted, if they need stratification and indoor starting or if they go straight outside, what kind of watering requirements they have, how much sun they want, and so forth. Then, herbs have additional information about their medicinal properties and which parts are harvested, and any plant that is useful as a dye plant has the colours and any instructions for use listed as well. The information is gathered from all the relevant sources – so, if this is a plant I put in square foot blocks, I wrote down the density per block, if it’s one that I plan to follow Solomon’s spacing guidelines, I wrote those in. I make a note in the margin to indicate which book the information came from, so I can go there for more detail if I wish.

The journal still isn’t quite complete, but I have basic information for just about every seed I have in the collection, plus the few I have still coming on order. As time passes, I can update it with specifics about what works well here, in our specific microclimate, which is why it is called the Apple Jack Creek Garden Journal. It’s specific to here. There’s no need for me to write down that carrots can be stored in the ground over the winter if you mulch well with straw … that is true in some places, I am sure, but not here, not by a long shot (even under a layer of straw, the ground is quite thoroughly frozen all winter: you’d be chipping out frozen carrots with a pick-axe if you tried that here). Most of the information about “a second planting for a fall harvest” is not relevant either – our growing season is too short. however, that might change, with climate change and season extension, so I’ll leave some blank space and add to the book as I learn.

The calendar is the piece that is most specific to this year’s plans. The ‘official last frost date’ is marked, as is the date we actually had our last frost last year (which I know because I wrote it on my garden calendar from last year, and it was a whole month after we thought we were in the clear … not a good spring, 2009). Using those dates (and the dates of the full and new moon) I work backwards to figure out when things need to be started indoors, or when we should be planting things outside. Family tradition says you don’t plant outside until the first full moon after the May long weekend, and this year, for the tender plants, I’m extending the target to the first new moon after the first full moon in May – we’ll see how that goes, and if it works, it may be incorporated into the family lore.

As each seed is documented and it’s needs are determined, that information goes onto the calendar. Several of the herbs, for instance, require stratification, some for six weeks, some for four, some for one or two. The calendar makes it easy to determine when I want to have “seed starting day for herbs” – knowing that they take about 2 weeks to poke their heads out of the dirt and need a few weeks indoors to grow and turn into actual plants before being set outside. Given a starting date for seeds, it’s a simple matter to work backwards to list which varieties need to go into the freezer when. I wrote that detail on the seed packets, too, for those that didn’t mention it, as well as making sure it’s in the journal.

The calendar is the best way to track what really happened, which will, of course, help for next year. For instance, I remember that last year that late frost killed a whole lot of things I’d put out too early (all my tomatoes, for instance) although I wasn’t careful about documenting when each thing was planted, and I want to do that this year. I also remember that I had too many seedlings indoors for too long – I started them too early, and they outgrew their little pots before I could get them in the ground – so this year, I’m trying to time things a little better. I do still have the ‘optimistic planting’ dates marked – hey, you can put a few seeds in early, and if they grow, well, awesome, and if not, well, not a huge loss. Same for the started plants – I finally put a few tomato seedlings in dirt yesterday, because I just couldn’t stand the wait any longer, but the bulk of the tomato plants won’t be started for several more weeks.

Planning the garden is a great thing to do in late winter – it makes you feel like spring really is coming, and it saves a lot of headache later on if you take the time to do the research before hand (I now know why a bunch of my herbs didn’t do anything last year – that whole stratification thing matters!)

Maybe a garden journal is just what you need, too.


  1. Wow - that sounds like a whole lot of work, but your garden is probably awesome as a result.

    I know you are out of town, but if you're interested in a seed exchange, I'm helping to put on a "Gardening and Seed Party" at the Britannia/Youngstown community league on Monday (22nd) at 7:00. It's a pretty informal gathering with food and seeds and talk of our hopes for spring.

  2. It's a bit of work, Ev, but it's the kind I enjoy - so it doesn't *feel* like work. It's more like taking notes while reading interesting stuff! And, since it saves me digging through so many books when I want to know one small thing, it's worth it.

    I'd love to come to your seed party - but I wouldn't be home until oh, eleven or so ... and that won't do on a school night. :) Hope it is a great success!


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