Garden record keeping

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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!

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Community garden vs. communal garden

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When I talk to people about the community garden here at Penn State, one topic that frequently comes up is the idea that a community garden should be just as much about community as it should be about gardening, and the question of how to best foster community involvement. I just ran across this article from NPR that discusses different philosophies for organizing a community garden, and attempts to tackle the issue of whether it’s better to have a truly communal garden where all of the labor and produce is shared or a community garden which is divided into plots tended by individual gardeners (as we do here at Penn State). I’ll dedicate a future post to what I believe are important factors to consider when starting a community garden, and share some of my most rewarding and frustrating experiences. But here’s a short excerpt:

And still, the debate continues. Because there are still a lot of people doing communal-style gardens. And they say it may be true that the most troublesome part of a community garden is the community. Yet if you can pull it off, the community that forms around a garden is, in fact, far more valuable than the vegetables.

The full story from NPR can be found here:
At The Community Garden, It’s Community That’s The Hard Part

Q&A, Part II

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Here’s the second part of my Q&A…

So what do you grow? Honestly, a little bit of everything. In a typical year, I grow beets, lettuce, swiss chard, radishes, beans, peas, zucchini, winter squash, kale, tomatoes, peppers, shallots, and garlic, as well as an assortment of herbs. (All in 150 square feet!) I plant a few flowers, but I generally try to fill my plot with vegetables, since it’s such a small space. I’ve tried growing brussels sprouts to limited success (we really don’t have the optimal climate here), as well as eggplant and cabbage (which had major pest issues), and decided the space would best used for growing something else. Cucumbers are also frustrating. I always have problems with cucumber beetles, and the plants eventually get a wilt disease and die. But I’m reading up on disease-resistant varieties, and planning on starting my cucurbits under row covers this year.

What’s your favorite thing to grow and to eat? That’s tough… I like anything that I grew myself! But I’m a big fan of kale. And I have a definite obsession with winter squash, even though it takes up a ton of space, and always seems to have pest and disease issues.

Any tips for beginners? I remember the first year I had a garden plot – I worked the soil, planted seeds, and then I was a nervous wreck until they started to germinate! But seeds are really good at growing. That’s what they do. And I’m often amazed at how well my garden does in spite of me. If you’re just getting started, don’t be afraid to jump into gardening. Read a lot, and maybe find an experienced mentor for advice. It also helps to spend a lot of time in your garden observing. Keep an eye on how your plants look, and whether you have any insects on your plants. In time you’ll learn whether they are pests or beneficial bugs. There is no need to overcomplicate things. And although you can analyze the chemistry of your soil and spend $$$ on gardening tools and implements, you can have a very successful garden with only a few tools and a limited budget. Finally, don’t be afraid of failure. Major seed companies often have several crop failures in any given year. Even Thomas Jefferson experienced many failures in his vegetable garden at Monticello.

garden_2012

2012 garden plan

Any advice for gardening in small spaces? Planning, planning, planning! I manage to grow more in my plot than many in the community garden, just because I plan things out carefully. I sketch the layout of my plot before I ever put seeds in the ground, and sometimes go through a couple of iterations until I decided on something I like. In addition to try to maximize my space, I also try to follow succession planting in time. When my spring-planted lettuce starts to bolt, and if I’m not saving seed from it, I will tear it up and plant something else.

A selection of this year's seed catalogs

A selection of this year’s seed catalogs

Where do you get your seeds/plants from? I buy most of my transplants from Tait Farms, a CSA/greenhouse/Christmas tree farm/basset hound breeder just outside of State College. I get my seeds from a variety of sources. I order quite a few seeds from Johnny’s, a co-op out of Maine that has many varieties that are adapted to the climate of the Northeast, and from Seed Saver’s Exchange, a nonprofit out of Decorah, Iowa. Seed Savers was established in 1975 to help gardeners preserve and share open-pollinated and heirloom seed varieties. In addition to the Seed Saver’s catalog, which anyone can order from, they also offer a membership to the seed exchange. Each year, members receive a yearbook of 10,000+ heirloom seeds offered directly by members around the world. I joined SSE last fall, and I’m hoping to start saving more of my own seeds from year to year. This year I’m also planning on placing an order from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, which has many interesting varieties I haven’t seen anywhere else.

Q&A, Part I

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ImageHey y’all! I’ve been gardening for several years now, and I thought it might be helpful to share some of the knowledge I’ve picked up over the last couple of years with others. Or maybe you’re like me, and wishing it wasn’t February so you could grow something. At any rate, here’s a bit about me, in Q&A format.

Who are you exactly? I’m a graduate student at Penn State. I’m working on a Ph.D. in atmospheric science, and I research atmospheric turbulence. I’m almost a mechanical engineer in terms of education and the research I do, but I’m mostly interested in environmental problems. Here’s the link to my professional website, in case you’re interested in that sort of thing.

How did you get started gardening? I was planning to grow some tomatoes on my patio the summer after I started grad school. (I live on the first floor of an apartment complex at the bottom of a north-facing hill. Not exactly prime growing conditions). In the winter of 2009, I heard about a community garden that was starting on campus. Even though the only thing I had experience growing up to that point was houseplants, I signed up for a plot. Despite some frustrations the first year, I actually managed to grow some of my own food. Things just grew from there…

What are your qualifications? None! Well, at least not from an academic standpoint. But I am trained as a scientist, and I’ve learned a lot from my mistakes, from talking to other gardeners, and from reading online.

What USDA Zone are you in? Officially, zone 6a. But there are many microclimates in this area because of the topography (interesting example: the Scotia Barrens), so it’s difficult to say for certain. We certainly have a longer growing season than in Michigan, where I grew up.

Where do you garden? As mentioned above, I have a plot at the Penn State community garden. And, as you may have guessed from the title of my blog, it’s 150 square feet. It may not seem like a lot, but even in a bad year, I grow far more that I can eat myself.

Why garden? I garden for several reasons. First, I’ve always loved the outdoors, ever since I was a little kid. I like to spend as much time outside as possible, and in addition to other activities (running, hiking, cycling) that I enjoy, gardening is a great way to do that. Secondly, when I garden I have control over what is and what is not going into my food. The community garden requires members to use only organic growing methods, so I don’t have to worry about the safety or health risks of what comes out of my garden. The final, and perhaps the biggest reason is variety, freshness, and quality. I can grow the exact varieties of crops that I want to, the majority of which aren’t found in stores, and many of which never turn up at my local farmer’s market (e.g. Lacinato kale, Chioggia beets, Kabocha squash, just to name a few of my favorites). Freshness is also a huge factor. I can stop by the garden on my way home from work and pick my salad for my dinner. It doesn’t get much fresher than that! Finally, there is a huge difference in quality. I guarantee if you eat homegrown carrots, you’ll never look at (or maybe even eat) a store-bought bag of carrot sticks again. And ultimately, there is an immense sense of pride of eating something that you grew yourself.

Describe your gardening methods. The community garden is actually part of the Center for Sustainability at Penn State, and it was developed with sustainability in mind. We’re completely organic, so no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers are allowed. When I first got the plot in 2009, it was full of Pennsylvania clay, and it took me several (not very fun) hours to turn over the soil. I’ve added a healthy dose of compost each year, and over time the soil tilth has improved drastically. I occasionally use organic supplements like blood and bone meal, especially when I’m transplanting.I planted a cover crop mix for the first time this fall (mostly triticale and clover), and I’m hoping this also have benefits for the health of the soil. I try to use as few sprays as possible (even the organic ones), but sometimes it’s unavoidable if I want to be able to control insect pests. If I need to spray, it’s usually an insecticidal soap, or Neem oil. We also planned a perennial border around the garden last year, so hopefully in time it will attract beneficial insects that will help curb some of the pest problems.

Why a community garden? As an apartment dweller, it’s the only place I have available to garden. But even if you are a property owner, I would encourage you to consider seeking out a community garden near you. Community gardens are just as valuable for the community aspects as they are for the gardening aspects. The garden here at Penn State is as diverse as the University community, and we have gardeners from many different cultures. It’s a fantastic opportunity to learn from gardeners with different styles, techniques, and philosophies toward gardening, and it’s a great way to meet people.