*Keeping a Garden Journal: Learning from Mistakes and Successes*
20 March 2006
Keeping a garden or homestead journal is often recommended but seldom done. When we move here six years ago, this habit helped to ease the very sharp learning curve that resulted from a very difficult climate for growing food.
To start a journal, make a file on your computer, or put together a loose-leaf notebook for the calendar year. I like to print all my files, after having lost several entries due to a system crash. On a weekly or daily basis, jot down notes on what seeds you ordered, when they were planted, when watered, insect and animal damage, what ripened, what you ate and didnít eat, etc. Draw diagrams of what plants went where and where the sun shines at a given time of year. Did your back hurt? Was anyone injured on your property? How did you use stacks of wood, and was it convenient in a pouring rain or in two feet of snow?
List jobs you would like to get done in the house and garden, dreams (A greenhouse? More sun? No slugs?), and books you have read. If you come across really good info on the internet print or save the info for your book. Examples I have included in my journals are how to chit potatoes, and how many to plant per person, wild food information, how to butcher a deer, can edible ferns, and build a bat house.
As the season progresses, jot down observations. What grew well, or didnít? Did you sit out in the garden? Note weather and yields. What plants grow well in other peopleís gardens?
What can you learn? Part I
Once you start to have some data - your journal, you can begin to analyze it. I keep a special page each year for ĎLessons Learnedí.
Here are some of mine from last year:
- Donít overplant garden beds- too much seed means nothing grows well.
- The planting season is effectively over June 1. Fall starts August 15. (Johnís observation)
- Plan for the picking of fern spirals- there is a short window, and it comes at the same time as planting, which tends to take priority.
- I like planting and making new beds much better than using the products, so that is lop-sided in my planning. Need to plan for and harvest and cook the products of all this gardening!
- Keep after slugs on celery! I lost much celery because I didnít Slug-go it before going on my trip.
- M. planted potatoes in the same place three years in a row; this year she has rust on some potatoes. Rotation is important!
- Consider siting compost heaps in an area that will become a new bed once most of the compost has been moved, as it builds the new bed at the same time as making the compost.
- Back garden gets too little sun for some crops, in particular cabbage.
- Crab shell meal worked well to reduce slugs, but wore off toward the end of the season. Might need two applications per year.
- Try a smaller tomato plant, the greenhouse type took too long to grow. The container-type cuke produced a cucumber- might be worth following this up.
- The climate here really requires full sun if possible for any except the hardiest vegetables. Donít get a house in the forest if I want to grow a lot of food!
- Print garden reports as soon as finished- I lost several reports due to my computer crashing this summer, and donít really remember everything that was in them.
- Sneet (aegopodium podagraria) did not grow along opposite road bank; I thought nothing killed that stuff! Maybe deer ate it.
Using Info, Part II
Over several years, we have been able to look over the notebooks and make decisions based on experience and facts. Here are three examples:
- Two injuries on our icy driveway encouraged the building of a long stairway down the hill, with expanded metal set in the center of the treads, and hefty handrails on both sides. The expanded metal allows snow to drop through, and snow and ice melt faster there than on the wood. However, the dogs donít like rough metal, so the wooden sides allow them to use the stairs also. Results: no injuries and no shoveling of the driveway since the stairs were built.
- Yearly battles with slugs led to many modifications; growing lettuce in plastic pouches on trees, using crab shell meal, changing perennial flowers to slug-repellant families of plants (slugs donít like strong-smelling plants like sage and mint family members), and even to contributing to our decision to build a deck!
- I have moved many of the edible ferns in our woods nearer the garden, and noticed over the course of two years that most other plants did poorly near them. This led to a hypothesis that these plants are allelopathic, which means that they suppress the growth of most other plants near them, especially dicotyledons. Now ferns are planted away from areas growing vegetables or flowers.
Nothing beats personal experience in learning. However, due to natural busyness, memory loss, lack of useful detail, and many other factors, I find that having observations, facts, and ideas down on paper allows me to distance myself from daily concerns, step back, and see a bigger picture. The things I have learned in this way are truly useful, and can then be conveyed to other gardeners in an exciting way because they donít just recycle what someone wrote in a book. Facta Non Verba!
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