Our farming grandparents knew that a record of growing experiences kept over the years would show patterns and reveal truths unique to one growing area. In fact, people used to pass on such information from one generation to the next to help weed out mistakes and perpetuate successes.
Record keeping can help you discover what works and what doesn't. For instance, most of us gardeners get so carried away by the sheer joy of spring planting that we seriously oversow. As a result, we end up with zucchini sprawled all over the pathways, unharvested beets that have turned into woody baseballs and scads of spinach that's bolted to seed. But if your garden records make you stare your past overindulgences in the face, you may well sober up and learn to plant a more realistically sized plot the next year.
But you have to keep your record-keeping system simple, because if you don't, you won't stick to it.
Unfortunately, there is no standard form (that we could tidily reproduce on this magazine page) for keeping records because of this basic premise: What you record should depend on what you want to learn. Your record-keeping system will be a lot more useful (and less work to maintain) if you first decide what you're trying to find out.
For instance, Mr. A. Count may want only to keep track of his expenses through a year to see if he's getting his produce for less than he'd pay at the grocery store. Ms. X. Tinct, on the other hand, is trying to help save 50 heirloom plants and wants to master their specific cultivation needs. Both gardeners will need records, but completely different kinds of records.
Your own evaluation goals may depend upon one or more of the following purposes:
Food Preservation: Would you like to quit planting too much squash and too few peas?
Good Varieties and Their Sources: Which tomato grew best in your backyard, and where did it come from?
Timing: Did you plant too early and watch your crops get set back by frost or too late and hit the peak of the annual pest infestation?
Crop Rotation: Want to give your plot a balance of root, fruit and leaf crops? Can't do it unless you know what went where in past plantings.
Succession Planting: Like to maximize your space — or keep your produce from all coming in at once — by creating an orderly progression of crops?
Fertilizer Records: What compost and soil amendments have you been using? How much? Where? Have they helped?
Garden Areas: Are some sections of your plot drier, wetter, colder, etc., than others? Which crops do best in which areas?
Different Growing Techniques: Do raised beds work better for you than rows? Does mulching help some (or all) of your crops? Which companion-planting combinations work? Does planting at different soil temperatures — or by the moon — have an effect?
Costs: How much have you invested in fertilizers, tools, seed, labor, etc.? (Such records are essential if you hope to do any market gardening.)
Etcetera: Greenhouse culture, seed inventories, water use — your record goals are limited only by your needs and imagination!
Methodical Garden Planning
Just as you'll develop your own specific record-keeping goals, you'll also have to develop your own record-keeping methods — to discover the note-taking system that will work best for you and that you'll be most likely to stick with. Here are some ideas from my own experience to help get you started.
The Notebook: The classic tool for the job. A notebook is easily portable and highly adaptable to individual purposes. Some folks recommend not using a three-ring binder notebook — they say if you can take a page out and lose it, you will! I like to live dangerously, though, in exchange for the luxury of shifting pages around at will and of adding graph paper for charts.
Each year, I draw my garden outline on a notebook page and staple two sheets of tracing paper over it. I write down my first plantings on the original page. Then on the first sheet of tracing paper, I record the harvest date of the initial crops and the next plantings that went in. The second tracing sheet is used for any third crops. This way I can see at a glance what plants I grew in each bed.
Another advantage to a binder notebook is that you can add three-holed manila folders to it. You'll be surprised what you can stash in these: photographs of your garden, copies of useful articles, the information on empty seed packets, etc. (I've even been known to tuck away a bluebird feather or autumn leaf in mine.) You can label folders by the vegetable or by the month.
Index Cards: The index card is also a very versatile record-keeping tool. You can set up a chart system on the front and use the back for additional notes. Index cards come in a variety of colors for convenient reference, are easy to shuffle around as needed, and stay orderly and safe in their own box. I keep a separate section, divided by vegetable headings, for writing the location of helpful articles and books on the different crops I grow, along with useful cultivation facts I've learned over the years.
Chalk or Felt-Tipped-Marker Board: Great to have in your toolshed or greenhouse for writing notes when you have grubby fingers. Just remember to transfer the information to paper later on!
Calendars: When people first see the scrawl-filled draft-horse calendar on my wall, the first words out of their mouths are, "Is this your diary?" I do write a record of each day's events in its blank spaces; I guess it's the closest thing to a personal journal I have the perseverance to maintain.
But a calendar can serve a more important purpose for the conscientious gardener: Every winter I sit down with one and write in my upcoming "garden duty" dates: approximate days for starting vegetables, when to add bonemeal to the blueberries, etc.
I also write down — in a set-aside recordkeeping space — notes to add to the next year's calendar. Here I record important reminders and lessons learned. For instance, last March when the spring winds blew away a day's work of adding leaf mulch, I wrote that event down for next March — to remind me not to make the same mistake twice!
The arrival of the first firefly, robin, swallowtail, and goldenrod bloom are notable events, as well. Keep track of those and someday you may be able to plant by the signs of nature as our forefathers and foremothers did: "When the oak leaves are the size of squirrel's ears . . ."
I find being able to look over a calendar of the year to come — and seeing all those jotted-down bits of hard-won wisdom — is indispensable to my efforts to become a better gardener. In fact, I urge you, if you try no other note taking, do keep "year ahead" notes this annum for 1987! If you do just that one step, I'm sure you'll begin to discover for yourself just how useful and important good record keeping can be!