Using A Garden Journal

Seeds have all arrived for the 2021 garden! It’s time to celebrate! It was a challenge this year with so many seed companies running out of stock and temporarily closing so they can catch up with the number of orders placed. How do you choose which varieties you are going to grow?

I hope you keep a garden journal, that should be the one tool you go to when you open up your first seed catalog of the season. It took me a while to form the habit but now my journal is fairly complete. I use a word processing program on my tablet because that is the most convenient for me. Others will use pencil and paper, use a bound book that can hold multiple years worth of notes, or use loose note paper stuffed inside their favorite reference book. Whatever works for you, my only recommendation is start your garden journal right away.

Where to Start

And when you start on your journaling journey, what kind of information should you include?

Dates. Planting dates, germination dates, and setting out dates are the very least to be listed. Whenever I document an activity, I start every entry with a date. I organize the entries so that the latest date is at the top, that way I don’t have to scroll through the whole document just to write my latest entry.

I’ve included a few sample entries from my 2020 journal throughout this article. Here’s the first one…

Sample from the 2020 journal. I wasn’t counting seeds and determining germination rates in this journal but will be adding it for this year.

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Germination. Germination notes should include how many seeds were planted and how many seeds germinated. How many died after the first transplant? How many total plants of each variety survived to produce?

I tried to germinate calibrachoa seeds one or two years in a row. Out of all the seeds I started during those years, I think I only got one plant. It was enough to drive me crazy so I decided not to waste my time after that. Sometimes what works for some seeds doesn’t work for others. Do you really want to expend energy on something that you can buy from your local garden center? That was where I drew the line. I wrote notes in my journal on exactly what I did, found nothing else I could do in my basement seed starting environment, and said enough is enough.

(Need more ideas? Download the free e-book below from our friends at Botanical Interests. It has lots of information and templates for starting your garden journal. Botanical Interests has excellent seeds too! Go here to shop seeds: Shop Botanical Interests)

Growth Habit. Do seedlings grow vigorously or do they need a lot of attention just to hang on? I noted an interesting thing with my tomatoes last year. I planted two seeds only 10 days earlier than all the rest and they did so much better than the others that I’m considering changing my start dates this year. One of those plants yielded the first tomato of the season though there was a bit of a break until the next one came. It was killing me. Don’t tempt us like that!

I’ve also noted several times that my jalapeño peppers just don’t thrive. I’ll have happy pepper plants right next to them, but the jalapenos just lag behind and don’t produce as well as my other varieties. Despite this, I’ve continued to find and start different varieties of jalapenos in my attempts to hit a homerun for my growing conditions.

Fertilizer and Water. Write down if you have your waterers set to water every day, every other day, or only Monday and Thursdays. How long is the water staying on? Which sprinkler head or drip rate are you using? What brand fertilizer? What is the NPK ratio? Do you change the NPK ratio as the season progresses? How are you diluting it? How often are you fertilizing?

I started fertilizing using a spray end nozzle this year and I had all of this noted in my journal. If I forgot how much I was putting in the mixing reservoir, all I had to do was go to my journal and it was right at the top. I was still negligent enough not to list every date I fertilized, but I had a general idea that it was fairly consistent at once a week for most of the garden.

Above is another sample entry. If you write down pretty much anything that comes to mind, you should have helpful information for next year’s garden.

Weather. A good habit is to start each journal entry with the current weather. Temperature (highs and lows), sunny or cloudy, raining (how much?), snowing, windy, percent humidity—or anything else you may want to note. My journal includes the temp highs and lows at the very least. If I am updating my activities once a week, I might say that the lows have been in the 40s and highs in the 70s for the past week. Anything else is bonus information as far as I’m concerned.

What weather you decide to include is going to depend on what’s important to your growing conditions. I will always note when I need to cover my plants to protect them from frost. It’s a constant here in my mountainous Zone 4 climate (June 1st or later planting date for tender seedlings). A nearby gardener friend of mine told me that he had one growing season where he had frost every month of the year. I’m so glad that I have at least two months where I don’t usually have to worry.

Taste. I’ll taste the first tomato of each variety, have my family taste it as well. We’ll decide from taste alone if it should be taking up valuable garden space. Most every cherry tomato variety has been eliminated except for Sun Gold by using this method. Sun Gold is reliable and tastes amazing so has earned a place in my garden every year. In fact, I make sure I have at least one plant near my door so that I can snack on them whenever I come in the house. Last year not one Sun Gold ended up in a salad because I ate them as soon as they ripened.

Pruning. Any pruning you do should be noted in your journal. I prune my tomatoes and peppers at certain stages so I’ll include those dates in my journal. I’ll also take the opportunity to include when I pruned the trees in the yard. Or thinned the perennials. Consider that your journal isn’t just about seed starting, but everything you do in the garden.

Protection. When and where are you growing your seedlings? I have increased my cold frame capacity enough (and will do so again this year), that I can get all my seedlings out in the sunshine much earlier. Yes, I dream of a greenhouse someday, but my cold frames will have to suffice for a while longer. Once seedlings get 2-3 sets of leaves, I’ll walk them out to the cold frame every morning and bring them back in every night. Well, I’ll do this almost every night since it depends on the predicted low temperatures.

The first year I used the cold frames early in the season, I noted a lot more strength in my seedlings. I’ve almost eliminated the stem weakness in my pepper plants that can happen when they get leggy under lights in the basement. I’ve also noted that the cold frame protects these seedlings so well, that even on the rare night when I miss bringing them in, they are still fine down to about 28 degrees F. Not something I do on purpose, but once again, my negligence is hard to control sometimes.

Above is one more sample entry for your reading pleasure. (Anyone who is reading along, the sunflower seeds did not survive curious Bella the dog. Live and learn.)

Microclimates. Do you have that one special corner of your garden where all plants flourish? Always note where you’ve grown a specific variety. It is because of my journal notes that I’ve relegated 2-3 varieties of peppers to growing in containers at the front of my house. The area is south facing and has a wall that protects them from the prevailing winds. Even though the wall blocks out the sun earlier in the day than other places, this little spot offers protection that makes up for it. I know that here in Zone 4, our daylight lasts 16 hours or more. Taking away 4-6 hours will still provide good growing time.

RAW WILD

Summary

So when are you going to start your garden journal? If you already journal, do you include information on:

  • Germination rates
  • Growth Habit
  • Fertilizing and Watering
  • Weather
  • Taste
  • Pruning
  • Protection
  • Microclimates

I’ve continued to add more information over the years, what else do you include that I haven’t listed? Let me know by commenting below. Happy journaling!

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