YANKEE DISTRICT OF THE AMERICAN ROSE SOCIETY
KEEPING A GARDEN JOURNAL
By Kate Daniels
Ever since I moved to Rhode Island from Los Angeles in 2001, I have kept a garden journal. The inspiration came from books I had read about garden design. The authors recommended mapping your site and taking pictures, and in particular taking pictures from windows and from other natural viewing points that duplicate the way you most often see your garden. Several authors rate a camera high on their lists of garden tools.
I had never taken the time to do this in Los Angeles. Too busy to buy a notebook; too busy to measure; and too busy to take pictures and then get them developed in time to use them. However, I was not always successful with my garden plans in Los Angeles. The garden design authors often stated that keeping a journal of written observations and pictures would lead the gardener to create a more beautiful garden. When I moved to Rhode Island, I resolved to start a journal.
When we arrived in August 2001, I bought a notebook. I drew a plan of the house and garden. JD and I mapped out the compass points and I put them in the journal. I took some pictures. There was not much to see. There was very little in the way of developed garden. Instead, there were some nice trees, some lumpy grass, and little else of value. I did not use pictures very often because I found it tedious to shoot a roll of film and get it developed in time to use the pictures for the journal.
My first journal lasted from August 2001 until June 2003, reflecting the condition of the garden at various points and a chronological record of what I was doing. The more interesting aspect of that notebook is that it reflects the progression of the journal leading the gardener rather than the other way around.
I had never grown spring bulbs, but I was determined to have them for our first spring. In the fall of 2001, I pored over information on plant spacing and bloom times from bulb catalogs. Using tracing paper given to me by the architect who was working on remodeling our home, I prepared a plan of early to late blooming tulips and daffodils for one planned bed, and ordered the bulbs. This was the first measured plan I had ever prepared. I folded the plan into my journal and taped down one end. When I made the plan, I envisioned a bed two feet across and thirty feet long running alongside the south side of the driveway. This area was covered with grass. JD then dug me a bed in that space to match my plan that was close to a foot deep before I amended it. The bulbs arrived. I spread out the plan and planted.
In the spring of 2002, I graduated to digital photography. I took pictures of the results in the bulb bed. I was no longer confined to rolls of film, and could put pictures in the journal contemporaneously, more or less, with timely comments. Later, we acquired a little printer that takes photographic paper, and I was able to print at home.
In the summer and fall of 2002, I woke up to the fact that the photographs I was taking were often different than my mental picture of what was happening in the garden. I started some plants from seed that I planted in the bulb bed as the bulbs died down. In my mind’s eye, I saw the beauty of the plants themselves. When I looked at my pictures of the results, I was disappointed with the overall effect. In reality, which of course is what you see when you look at a photograph, I probably did not pay as much attention to spacing as I should have. The plants were too close together, creating a jumble rather than a nice mosaic, showing me that my planning was deficient. This was possibly the most important lesson that keeping a journal taught me: that I make mistakes, and that pictures help me to learn from those mistakes.
As a result, during the winter of 2002/2003, I went back to measured plans. The back and side garden areas of our home had been totally torn up by a remodel that did not end until mid-October 2002. Over that winter, I made plans for raised boxes that would hold roses and other plants without being overly full, and for a bed of cherry trees down the north side of our property spaced to grow to mature trees without interfering with each other. So far, those beds have turned out fairly well.
By this time keeping a journal was no longer simply a record of comments on the garden, pictures of plants, plans, the dates I started seeds or when I planted outdoors. I had begun taping all manner of materials into my journal. My journal is just a private set of notes. It is not a serious horticultural record, but is more like a kid’s scrapbook of anything I find interesting. When I start seed that comes in packets with a pretty picture or drawing of the flower or plant, I tape the picture into the journal, with the instructions. I include photos of various critters that turn up in the garden. In 2003, we had a number of visits from a very young fox bent on eating cat food, duly snapped. We also took a few pictures of the local woodchucks before running them off. The squirrels that take peanuts from my fingers occasionally do something photogenic in a funny way. Also, we could not resist snapping pictures of our cats lolling around in the catmint, getting a buzz. I also clip newspaper articles that I find interesting, like one on Thomas Jefferson’s design for his garden at Monticello, and one on Beatrix Farrand’s garden in Maine, and I tape these into my journal.
On the more useful side, when I order plant material, I tape the order into the journal. This does several things: it tells me how much money I’m spending on seeds and plants; if something goes wrong or, more happily, the plant is spectacular, I know just where it came from; and, it prevents me from ordering the same thing twice.
When I acquire a new product for plants, I tape the instructions into the journal. This way, I do not lose them, and I am able to throw away the duplicates. The first time I ordered chemicals from Rosemania, Rosemania sent me a helpful chart of how much per gallon for every chemical they sell. That chart is taped into the summer 2004 segment of my journal. Whenever we use one of those chemicals, I can turn to the chart in an instant. (And, it beats pawing through papers in a drawer!)
Keeping a journal helps me to minimize uncertainty when it comes to feeding and spraying. When I started keeping a journal, I was not particularly focused these aspects of growing roses. However, when JD and I started a program and tried to stay on it, the journal became important. When we feed or spray, I record it. If I did not, I would be dithering over how long ago we did such-and-such. This helps us avoid over- or under-feeding or spraying. Also, the written record is helpful when folding the program of feeding and spraying together. I use one spray product that comes with the instruction that it should be used only at certain intervals and also that it should be used at least five days after application of any non-organic plant food. I would never be able to follow the recommended pattern of use for this product without my journal.
Sometimes I save information for future reference without regard to when it might come in handy. In the summer of 2004, I ordered a system for irrigation and feeding. The vendor needed various items of information, and gathering it was time-consuming. My letter to the vendor, including a garden plan reflecting the measurements of the beds, is taped into my journal. I did not foresee that I would look at any of that information again, but when we needed to estimate the amount of mulch for winter protection, the dimensions of the beds reflected in the letter turned out to be useful.
I take pictures not only of the garden itself but of blooms in vases. Aside from decorating my journal, these pictures allow me to compare the size and strength of the rose blooms and their stems against pictures of blooms from the same plants when we were not feeding as much or spraying at all, and against the blooms of other roses. The pictures show what feeding and spraying will or will not do, given the nature of the plant and the length of time it has had to get established. My snaps of blooms in vases are usually taken in one of several places in our kitchen, where there is a lot of light. Because the settings tend to be similar, it is easy to make fairly valid comparisons, rather than wondering whether I am just kidding myself.
Another use for my journals is a year-end analysis of what worked and what did not. I run through my journal and list the types of seed I have started, the plants I have planted, whether the plant survived and, if so, prospered. This little exercise helps me to focus on what I need to do for the future, like moving plants, or foregoing certain seeds. It sounds like work, but I look forward to it, because I revisit my plans and ideas and look at pictures of a living garden rather than one that is buried in snow or totally brown. The pictures are helpful whether they show failure or success. The late December-early January time frame is perfect for a reality check for the coming season outdoors, and is also the time when the pictures most cheer me up.
This past February, at the Rose Society’s table at the Rhode Island Flower Show, I used my current journal for still another purpose. Many people came to the table uncertain about growing roses at all. On the table, we had catalogs that illustrated beautiful roses, and we showed these pictures. I think that everyone who visited the table appreciated that, first, catalog vendors are not home gardeners, and, second, the vendors have professional photographers. To show our visitors that the result is possible in Rhode Island, I pointed out a few roses in the catalogs that I have growing at home. Then I said, "Look at the same rose as it grows in my garden in Rumford . . . ," and flipped to the picture in my journal. Like they say, seeing is believing. When it comes to seeing through pictures, amateur photos showing the beauty of a rose grown locally may be more credible than professional shots.
I certainly would not derive as much pleasure or instruction from my journal without digital photography. Keeping a journal may not be a given for every gardener, but I can honestly say that keeping my journals has helped me improve. Also, since looking back on lovely blooms, especially rose blooms, can be such a charming experience, I truly regret that I did not keep at least some sort of garden journal while I lived in Los Angeles.
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