Basic garden journaling usually has involved noting spring planting dates, first and last frosts, and which varieties we planted. But, to better cope with warming temperatures, frequent and more extreme weather events, and new pathogens and pests, keeping careful records in a season-to-season garden journal is more important than ever.
When it comes to climate change, there isn’t any single measure for your garden’s degree of sustainability or resilience. Instead, we can track multiple data points in a garden journal. Doing so can help us to identify potential new issues and adapt our practices as needed.
Taking in New Cues
Julia Frisbie has relied on her garden journal for the last several years. “Especially in the spring when I get itchy to plant, I’ll go back and remind myself, ‘When did I plant last year and how did it go?’” she says.
Frisbie sells dahlia tubers and duck eggs produced on her microfarm in Anacortes, Washington. She’s also a contributor to the “Fidalgo Grows” blog, published by Transition Fidalgo, a local nonprofit working to help the surrounding community to be more resilient in the face of climate change.
For Frisbie, what originally began as a standard record of goings-on in the garden recently has morphed into something more expansive. “I’m definitely tracking [planting and harvest] dates. I’ve been tracking dates the whole time,” the owner and operator of Frisbie Farm says. But she began to wonder what she and other gardeners should do as traditional planting dates become increasingly irrelevant.
It’s a fair question, considering that first and last frost dates aren’t necessarily as reliable as they used to be. Neither are the USDA plant hardiness zones printed on countless seed packets. So, a few years ago, Frisbie began tracking phenological cues alongside her own garden activities. (Phenology is the study of naturally occurring cycles, such as the bloom times of certain flowers, the onset of nesting behavior in a specific bird species or, say, the emergence of a particular kind of insect in an area.)
Just what might phenological cues look like in a garden journal? Frisbie offered some of her own examples via a “Fidalgo Grows” blog post.
“‘Big uptick in birdsong, robins everywhere. Transplanted sweet peas.’ Or, ‘Wild blackberry buds with southern exposure [are now] opening. Presoaked and sowed corn.’ Dates are fine to log, too, as long as we’re aware that they’ll be less and less useful as climate chaos intensifies.”
Snapshot of an Ecosystem
By combining notes on multiple phenological cues along with more traditional gardening records, we may be able to develop a more accurate—and more actionable—snapshot of our own local ecosystems. “I get lucky some years and unlucky other years. But since I’ve been paying attention to phenological cues, I feel like I’ve had better luck just getting things off to a good start,” Frisbie says.
For instance, there are a few key species she observes for hints about her best spring planting windows. “In springtime, the big leaf maples make these really incredible chartreuse flower clusters that come out before the leaves do,” Frisbie says. “When I see those, I’m thinking to myself, ‘OK. The maples think it’s not going to freeze hard again. Probably I can assume the same.’”
But the maples aren’t the only local species she clocks. “I’m also watching the blackberry blossoms and I’m watching the size of the dogwood leaves,” she says. “Some [individual plants] might get mixed up. But I think the [plant] community as a whole is less likely to get mixed up than an individual,” she says. She is also paying attention to when the first dandelions bloom and when the willows leaf out and when the Indian plums put their little blossoms out.
“If we look to plant communities around us, we’re going get even richer information,” she says. “So, if people are going to start recording phenological information, try to gather as much as you can so that you’re not relying on a single individual or a single species.”
The Long View
Of course, the more details you can record—and particularly if you record them consistently over a long period of time—the better equipped you’ll be to adapt to the changes occurring in your garden. How much can one glean from this kind of year-after-year focus in the garden?
As it happens, a whole lot.
For example, in a 2021 New York Times article, Zach St. George tells the story of Jeff Lowenfels, a garden writer who has penned a regular gardening column in The Anchorage Daily News since 1976. As St. George explained, “For more than 40 years, Lowenfels has noted Alaskans’ successes with new plants, tracked the lengthening stretch of frost-free days and recorded the arrival of new horticultural pests.”
In the early days of Lowenfels’ column, growing crops that usually perform best in warm weather or those which require a lengthy growing season simply weren’t an option for his Alaskan readers. But, in the ensuing years, growing pumpkins, tomatoes and even okra became possible.
St. George added: “In observing the small, local experiment in fitting plants to soil and climate, [Lowenfels] has created a long-running account of climate change in the state where it is changing the fastest, providing hints of what awaits as people take part in a similar but much bigger climatic experiment, one now rearranging plants across the planet.”
You might not have decades’ worth of data about your garden recorded just yet, and that’s OK. “It’s great to be as disciplined as you can, but even an incomplete data set is better than no data set at all,” Frisbie says.
Whether you have a new baby, an injury or illness, or some other major event, occasionally life gets in the way. “There are month-long gaps in my journal,” Frisbie says. “Afterwards, I’ll be like, ‘I was pregnant and I had morning sickness and I didn’t write anything. Now it’s four months later, and here I am again!’”
To make up for lost time, she reconstructs notes as best as she can. “I’ll fill out a retrospective page,” she says. “Like I’ll go back and sort through the empty seed packets in the bin and try to fill in the gaps.”
In addition to creating retrospective garden journal sections when necessary, she also includes a few year-in-review pages. “My year-in-review [for this year] will probably say something along the lines of, ‘This was the coldest, wettest spring I can remember in this spot,’” Frisbie says. “‘Everything was delayed, and I thought I wouldn’t get any tomatoes at all. But I actually had amazing tomatoes.’”
Then, she would go variety by variety and write, “This did well. This did poorly. This would have done great, if I hadn’t planted it next to this really tall neighbor.”
Photos, Maps & More
Keep your garden records in a simple notebook or take advantage of a smartphone app. However, using a scrapbook or a three-ring binder may be more practical, since you can more easily include empty seed packets, soil test result reports and even pressed leaf and flower specimens if you choose.
Photos are another invaluable resource to include. If you’re able, take a panoramic photo of your garden on the first day of spring, summer, fall and winter annually. Add prints of these images with your annual garden records, so that you can compare your garden’s overall performance from season to season and from year to year.
You’ll also want to make room for hand-sketched garden maps. At minimum, mapping out the locations of various crops from this season will help you to know what not to put in a certain raised bed or garden plot next year. You’ll also have a better idea of the nutrients you may need to supplement and which insect pests may be lingering in the soil.
For even more detail, add a sheet of tracing paper over the top of your garden map or panoramic photo and shade areas which have lots of standing water or water runoff during heavy rains. This may help you to monitor and mitigate long-term topsoil loss.
However you choose to document your gardening successes, failures and the changes taking place around you, consider sharing your observations with others — especially those who may move onto the land after you’ve left it. “I hope to pass my journals down to my kids, but it’s probably more important for me to pass the essential information on to the future stewards of this place,” Frisbie says. “I would encourage people to treat their journals as valuable and worth passing on.
“I wish I knew what it was like to garden in this space 20 years ago. If I did, I would be able to tell you more about how it has been changing over time. People should make a plan for the information they collect to stay with their space.”
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.