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Gardening: Starting and keeping a garden journal

Gardening by Mary Robson, WSU Area Extension Agent
Year's end finds many of us thinking over what habits or personal commitments we want to build during the new year. This often connects with opening a gift package containing a crisp, fresh and possibly fancy garden journal.
   Keeping a garden journal may seem sensible, and it's certainly recommended by garden teachers and writers. But often the practice gets lost in busy spring days, and the fancy journal stays untouched.
   But keeping a garden log helps advance the gardener's education, and can be a wonderful family record as the years pass. My own mother's diaries reflect her interest in gardening. Though not creating a garden log, she generally wrote two or three times a week and always included a note about shrubs or perennials in bloom, birds she'd seen, and plants added to the garden. Looking back at those short notes, I have a nostalgic record of her interests and her observations.
   What form should a garden journal take? Choose one that will be most useful for your own interests and tendencies. Some gardeners enjoy using computers to produce effective logs and charts. For others, the beautiful, hard-bound journals with art reproductions are soul-satisfying. But I need something I can pick up with a muddy hand and write in during wind and rain. I use a loose-leaf notebook, about two inches thick for the year.
   At the beginning of the year, I get a monthly calendar, without pictures, and make a divider for each month with the calendar page included. Additional pages include graph paper sheets and ruled notebook paper. I add some see-through plastic envelopes.
   The calendar pages serve for short notations: "Snowdrops in bloom," varied thrush visiting, "transplanted sarcococca." At the end of each month, on back of the page, I paste the weather chart for the month. Local newspapers often print these on the first day of the new month. After keeping these records for over 10 years, I can document the lowest temperatures, the deepest snow, and the highest winds. If your garden equipment includes a minimum-maximum thermometer and a rain gauge, you an also record unusual deviations in your own microclimate. Weather records help in diagnosing plant difficulties: Is the rainfall high or low? Did we have a late freeze that ruined the camellia buds?
   In addition to weather records, records of the time of growth and blooming and the appearance of insects and animals also help gardeners make plans. A predictive branch of science call phenology tracks climate effects on blooming and other botanical events. Keeping weather records helps with personal prediction. When the lilacs are in bloom, do the apples usually flower?
   For generations back, gardeners and farmers have used the clues offered by plant growth to time their activities. Much of this advice falls into the category of what might be found in an elderly and unscientific almanac, but it's fascinating to reflect on the relationships between plants and insect appearance. Remember, plants and animals respond to weather events, not to the calendar as we read it in our daily work.
   Other valuable journal entries include reordering new trees and shrubs. The surprising growth rates of many plants can be celebrated year by year. And if a fruit tree, for instance, isn't bearing after five or six years in the ground, its culture should be investigated to find out why. I also keep records of transient plantings: annual seeds started from year to year, which perennial cuttings grew best and bulb planting locations. (Then, when the squirrels move the tulips around, I can tell where they were intended to be.)
   Vegetable growers are particularly helped by records. In the pleasure of the chase for more garden production, timing and planning vegetable and fruit plantings must be done. The specific cultivars that perform best in your own garden may not be those recommended by catalogs or even by other gardeners. Keeping track of the yield of the plant is especially useful, since vegetable gardens are, after all, about growing food. How many salads did that patch of lettuce provide? When did the cantaloupe ripen?
   Monitoring problems in the garden can also be satisfactory. Many gardeners have heard of the concept of "Integrated Pest Management" but aren't sure how this term, which originated in agriculture, applies to their garden practices. The phrase means adopting a careful management strategy that identifies pests, figures out what level of damage an be tolerated, chooses control if needed and works with the least-toxic control. Results are monitored.
   This relates to journal keeping because records are vital for pest management. When did the aphids first appear on the rose leaves? How much of the plant is affected? Are beneficial insects present to reduce the problem? Which method of control is needed if the problem continues? What was applied, and when? Did it work? Records including this pattern of reasoning and observation will assist in helping all gardeners reduce unnecessary pesticide use and learn to use pest control methods properly.
   Other bits that may wander into the yearly journal are soil test results, addresses needed for nurseries, or garden visits and sketches of garden layouts. Informal photos are fun, but not necessary. Some gardeners get into keeping a "clean hands" scrapbook to supplement the working notes in the daily or weekly journal.
   Keeping a garden log can be fascinating and one of the most useful garden tools possible, valued right along with waterproof gloves and a sharp shovel.

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