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Garden record keeping

A little bit of record keeping can have long-term benefits!

If you know me, it’s no secret I’m a pretty big fan of Thomas Jefferson. (I’m drinking tea out of my Monticello mug as I write this, and waiting eagerly for spring so I can plant Monticello heirloom lettuce)! In addition to Jefferson’s roles as statesman, architect, inventor, and educator, he was also very interested in science, taking daily weather observations, and keeping detailed records of his garden, which include planting dates, horticultural notes, when flowers began to bloom, and when vegetables were brought to table. So apart from the fact that Jefferson did it…

Why should I keep records of my garden?

My philosophy is that every gardener should be part naturalist and ecologist, especially if you are following organic growing methods. The better you understand the ecosystem of your garden, from the microbes in the soil, all the way up to your (uninvited) mammal visitors, the better (at least in theory!) you will be able to grow food. The role of the organic gardener is to gently encourage this ecosystem to be the very best one for cultivating food. This may consist of planting flowers that invite beneficial insects, adding compost and organic matter to improve soil health, or handpicking squash bug eggs off of your cucurbits. But understanding the ecosystem in the garden starts with careful observation.

The purpose of record keeping is simply collecting data to help you remember details of your garden from one year to the next, and to give you a baseline to (hopefully) repeat your successes and avoid repeating your failures. In 2012, I grew pole beans, a variety called ‘Speckled Cranberry,’ which is supposed to mature in about 90 days if grown for a dry bean. I planted the beans on May 19, and they didn’t flower until August. Because I wanted dry beans (or at least some seed to save for next year), I left the plants in the ground until they were killed by frost in October. After 120+ days, I only had a couple of seed pods with dry beans. While I suspect the plants had atypical behavior because of our hot, dry summer, I will have to pay close attention to how many days the plants take to mature if I grow the variety again. Maybe they took so long to mature because of the weather, but then again, it’s possible that the variety is not well adapted to our conditions here in the mid-Atlantic. Or perhaps someone had inadvertently selected for long maturation when saving seed (I got the original seed from other community gardeners at a seed swap). With detailed recording keeping, it may be possible to answer this question, and to get a good yield of Speckled Cranberry beans in the future.

Other reasons to keep garden records include crop rotation, managing pest and disease issues, cataloging plant vigor and yield, and developing new plant varieties – either by selecting for desirable traits, or breeding for specific characteristics.

How should I keep gardening records?

That’s completely up to you! I really didn’t keep many records the first couple of years I gardened, apart from some notes from one year to the next – what grew well, what did not, and things I wanted to change the following year. Last year (2012), I kept a spiral-bound notebook cataloging the varieties I grew and the planting dates. However, I did not keep careful records of when seeds germinated or when crops were ready to be harvested.

This year, I purchased a hard-bound notebook that will serve as my gardening journal (see the photo above). I’m hoping to be more systematic with my recording keeping, and to record observations when I’m out in the garden that can later be transferred to a spreadsheet. Each year I also make a map of my plot – both to maximize my yield from a small space, and as a guideline for crop rotation the following year.

But, many other methods for recording keeping exist. You may want to keep all your plant tags in a shoebox or in a 3-ring binder. Some gardeners prefer to keep a journal in calendar format with planting, germination, and harvest dates. The possibilities are endless!

What should I keep track of?

Again, this is up to you, and depends on your time, goals, and level of commitment. This year my spreadsheet will have fields for:

  • Seed/plant source
  • Planting date
  • Germination date
  • Date harvested
  • Days until harvest
  • Horticultural traits such as appearance, size, and yield, especially if I am growing a variety for the first time
  • Any pest or disease problems, how they were treated, and whether the intervention was successful

Because one of my goals for this year is to save more own my own seeds, I am planning to keeping track of that in the spreadsheet as well, including information such as:

  • Plant/variety
  • Original seed source and year
  • Date seed was collected
  • Any criteria I used when selected plants to save seed from, such as late bolting, pest/disease resistant, and exception productivity or vigor
  • Other notes, such as whether I hand pollinated, or possibilities of outcrosses

I also will have tabs in the spreadsheet to track seed catalog orders and transplants, and orders from Seed Savers Exchange members.

Well, there you have it… Garden recording keeping can be as simple or detailed as you want it to be. Hopefully my records will be something Mr. Jefferson would be proud of!