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In the Garden with Terese

Keeping a Garden Journal

I don’t know about you, but these warm temperatures and spring-like rainfalls have me longing to start digging in the garden. Over the last several days, I have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of all the seeds and supplies I ordered in preparation for this season, which for me begins soon as I start most of my seeds indoors.

This year I was inundated with an overwhelming amount of seed catalogs, and while I love combing through them all, there is no question that at times the task can be intimidating. There is so much to consider when selecting which varieties I would like to grow. Questions such as what do we like to eat, what does well in the market stand, as well as, what did and did not do well in prior years, all need to be answered before I can even begin to think about ordering seeds. There is a lot to remember from year to year.

Thankfully, I don’t have to rely on my memory. Instead, I can turn to my garden journal, where I gratefully refer to the copious notes I have been taking each year since the day I started gardening. Using my journal as my guide, I can confidently browse through all the seed catalogs with the wisdom that comes from the experiences I recorded in prior seasons.

Yes, I know, you are probably saying to yourself, “Who has time to sit down and write notes in a journal during peak harvest?” I get it, as there are days, after spending numerous hours digging, weeding, planting, and picking, the last thing I want to do is write in a journal. But, I assure you, the few minutes you spend recording your notes, will be more than worth your while the following year when you are trying to remember when you picked your first tomato the prior season, or when you saw the first cucumber beetle.

If the task still seems daunting and you are unsure how to even start that journal, here are some highlights of what I like to document in my notebook:

Garden Sketch

A garden sketch is a helpful visual

Each year I sketch out my vegetable beds so that I can plot out where everything will be planted for the season. As an organic gardener, I rely on crop rotation and companion planting to help enrich my soil, prevent diseases, and deter pests. Having a diagram to refer to helps me to thoughtfully map out where each plant will have the greatest opportunity for success in the coming season.

Monthly Calendar & Tasks

Once I order my seeds, I turn to this section of my journal to start scheduling when I need to begin sowing my seeds, both indoors and out. Additionally, I record fertilization schedules, transplanting dates, and soil temp changes. I like to also take notes on weather &emdash; recording frost dates, temperature changes, and extreme weather events. Having this detailed calendar to refer to helps me to make decisions as to when it will be the safest time to transplant, remove row covers, feed my plants, etc.

Seed Catalog

garden journal

This section is where I keep all the seed packets for the current season’s vegetables and herbs. I staple each packet to a page and use the remaining space to record sow dates, germination dates, transplant dates, and any other useful information. Additional details you may want to include are first and last harvest dates, information related to diseases and pests, and production notes.

Notes

The information I record in this section is more general than the notes I keep in the seed catalog. This is where I chronicle information on the season itself. I reflect on a number of things including how wet or dry it was, how often I had to weed, new organic fertilizers I tried, what was doing well, what was not performing the way I had hoped, what was overly abundant, and what we wished we had more of in the following season. Essentially, I record any information in this section that I feel will help me during the next seed selection time.

Market Stand

We run a small market stand that we stock with a variety of vegetables from our garden each year. I like to record information on what was popular, as well as what was skipped over. This is especially helpful when deciding how many plants of one particular vegetable or variety I should grow when plotting out the next season.

Expenses

This is where I store all the receipts from the garden including seed orders, irrigation supplies, soil amendment costs, and any other expenses associated with the maintenance of it. Having this information from year to year helps me to understand where the money is being spent and analyze how we can take steps towards having a more self-sustaining garden in the future.

These are only a few ideas of what you can record in your notebook. There is no question that keeping a journal can be time consuming, but I assure you, it will be invaluable to you year after year, most especially when you sit down to start perusing through those seed catalogs scattered all over your desk.

Priceless Advice of the Heirloom Variety

January is often a time of reflection for me as I ponder the experiences of the prior year and make plans for the season to come. As the seed catalogues start filling my mailbox, I can’t help but spend some time going through my garden journal from the prior season, reflecting on the successes and failures. During this time, I find myself smiling as I recall all the wonderful advice and support gifted to me by those more experienced than me, leading me to contemplate word heirloom and what it truly means.

According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, an heirloom is “a piece of property that descends to the heir as an inseparable part of an inheritance of real property; or something of special value handed down from one generation to another;” or in the case of gardening, “a variety of plant that has originated under cultivation and that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals,” for example, “heirloom tomatoes.”

Yes, we all know the textbook definition of heirloom; however, I believe it runs deeper than this. In my opinion, non-tangible things such as the knowledge, guidance, experiences, stories, and advice passed down from one generation to the next also has “special value” and often is the result of the efforts of “several generations.” Just like the plant varieties, heirlooms of this variety are priceless. Without it, I would not be where I am with respect to gardening.

Though I am still a novice with respect to my experience with heirloom gardening, I am very proud of one particular plant that was passed onto me by a very special person. She was instrumental in helping me get started with my garden in the early years. I fondly recall spending an entire afternoon at her home, sorting through all her seedlings, in awe as to how many different varieties she grew — all of which she started from seed, many of which were heirlooms. While she was so generous with the fruits of her labor, there was one particular gift that remains to be my most cherished crop: garlic.

garlic bulbs

As she handed over the head of garlic to me, she casually mentioned that it had been in her family for multiple generations, its early beginnings rooting back all the way to the rural countryside of Italy before making its way overseas to the United States. Each year, she tended to and cultivated a beautiful crop of garlic to share with her family and friends, often in the form of her fantastic Italian cooking, and I was lucky enough to be given a head of garlic to begin my own crop.

My first year turned out okay — out of the 12 cloves I planted, a few of them never produced a plant, a few were damaged in the harvesting process, and the remaining were harvested without injury. (Having never harvested garlic before, it took me a while to figure out what I was doing wrong … but that is a story for another time.) I decided to save two heads to plant for the next season, and was blessed with 15 beautiful heads of garlic. Now, several years later, I am happily digging up 30 or more heads of garlic that I too can happily share with friends and family, not only in my cooking, but also as a gift for them to add to their own gardens.

garden

I am beyond grateful for the stories of successes and failures, tricks and tips, knowledge and experiences, and most especially the family heirloom plants that have been passed down to me over the years. Sure, I can find valuable information through researching the Internet, read all the “how-to” books, and purchase viable plants from the local greenhouse. However, I can’t put a price on the gift of advice, acquired through the hard work and efforts of our ancestors, and passed down from generation to generation.

Putting the Garden to Bed

I don’t know about you, but I was still picking vegetables from the garden as late as the middle of November. The weather was still so warm that I still had peppers and tomatoes growing! And while I was grateful for the luxury of being able to enjoy the bounty of my garden at such a late date, I must be completely honest and share with you that I was also getting a bit weary, especially knowing that there was still so much to do before putting my garden to bed before winter arrives.

vegetables

Just as we grow tired and require rest, I believe that our gardens demand the same, so I work hard in the fall to clean it up so that it can get the rest it needs over the winter and be fresh and ready to provide a home to all my seedlings come spring. Here are some of the tried and true steps I have taken each fall in order to ensure my garden is refreshed and renewed for the next planting season:

  1. Cleanse: My first priority is to remove all dead plant material, adding it to my compost pile as long as it is not diseased. Clearing the debris from the beds helps to prevent disease and eliminates the feeding ground for overwintering pests.
  2. Till: Although there is a strong argument for no-till gardens, I still subscribe to the old school of thought and have had great success with lightly tilling my garden in the fall before it goes into hibernation. I choose this method for two primary reasons: first, I usually add organic compost to the soil at this time, so tilling helps to incorporate it into the existing soil. Second, tilling in fall helps to bring any late season pests, trying to make the depths of my garden their home, up to the surface where they can freeze.
  3. Feed: Once all of the beds are prepared, I want to make sure the soil is provided nutrition for its winter hibernation. While some subscribe to spring composting, we prefer to till organic compost into all of the beds in the fall. This provides ample time for soil organisms to break down the compost into usable nutrients come spring.
  4. Reflect: After closing the gate to the garden for the season, I take a moment to reflect on all of my successes and failures. Turning to my garden journal, I make comments next to all of my seed packets, noting what worked and didn’t work, not only in the garden, but also in my kitchen. Did I plant too many of one vegetable or variety and not enough of another? How did a certain variety hold up in the garden versus others? And, most importantly, I highlight the varieties that I want to grow again in the following season.

garden

Although I will appreciate the rest from a busy garden season, it will be short, as come January, I will be anxiously awaiting the arrival of the first of many seed catalogues. It won’t be long until I am dreaming of digging in the dirt once again!