Jotting down notes about the weather and keeping track of when your flowers bloom will help you enjoy your landscape more.
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As the seasons change, you've probably heard some variation of, “Can you believe the daffodils/redbuds/rosemary are already blooming?” Whether I’m asked that question in an excited voice or with a worried expression, my response as a Master Gardener is always the same: “You should write down what you’re noticing in a garden journal.” That's because our lives are busy, and it’s hard enough to remember recycling day, much less when the neighborhood daffodils appeared. But when you start recording these botanical events, you’ll notice natural patterns from year to year. This info can help you choose plants and figure out when to time gardening chores, such as when to jump on those spring weeds. Here’s what you need to know about creating your own garden journal.

woman writing in journal
Credit: psphotograph/Getty Images

Why Keep a Garden Journal?

You’ll make smarter plant choices.

Whether you’re choosing a flowering tree or a tomato seedling, you want a plant that will thrive in the home you’ll give it. You need a variety that succeeds in your soil, responds well to the available sunlight, and can get all the water it needs to grow. And just like our indoor homes, our garden homes are unique.

“Every garden has microclimates,” says Scott Aker, a research horticulturist at the U.S. National Arboretum. “If you figure out what they are by recording patterns and studying them, you can use those microclimates to get the most out of your plants, and maybe even grow a fig tree when the catalogs say you can’t.”

lilac and garden journal
Credit: Marianne Willburn

For instance, when you notice leaf buds sprouting on a lilac near your front door after the winter but the same type of lilac in the backyard is still dormant, you’re recognizing a microclimate. Observing and recording these events is called phenology in academic terms. From leaves changing color to flower buds opening on a daffodil, phenology simply means the study of observable phases in plant and animal life, called phenophases, and anyone can learn to do it.

You will better time your gardening chores.

You've probably already noticed phenophases in your garden without realizing it, but those observations soon become hazy memories without recorded data. Was the last frost at the end of April or in the middle of May last year? Have the aphids been worse in April or in June? When you record these events over time, you’ll begin to notice patterns even in the midst of unpredictability.

Armed with this information, you can prevent heartache by playing it super safe with your last frost date, maybe waiting an extra week before planting out those tender tomato seedlings for example. Or maybe you can set yourself a reminder to start scanning for an aphid problem around the same time you noticed they showed up last year.

You can share your garden with others.

Home gardeners are sharing more information than ever these days. We’re excited about our first tomato of the season or our new dogwood tree bursting into bloom, and apps like GrowIt! and Instagram allow us to communicate those proud plant parent moments in seconds.

But with just a little more effort, we can go deeper and help everyone gain a better understanding of how the changing climate is impacting the natural world. Nature’s Notebook, from the USA National Phenology Network, is an interactive site where citizen scientists can contribute to a national database so your data counts toward something bigger. Researchers and scientists use the information you submit to predict important events like invasive pest emergence, allergy outbreaks, and the start of spring all over the United States. They also track historical data to aid organizations concerned with the effects of climate change, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

flowering dogwood kousa cornus treet
Kousa dogwood begins flowering in spring.
| Credit: David A Land

The database helps you recognize specific events in your location and record them. The site will even send you personalized reminder emails to help you look for easy-to-recognize cycles, such as your lilac leafing out or your dogwood blooming. You’ll end up with an informative snapshot of your own garden over time, and that information can then be used to create predictive, informational maps to help navigate climate change.

You can better keep track of what you’ve planted.

At its core, a garden journal is the story of your garden. What was amazing, what was meh. If you want to repeat your successes with specific varieties of flowers and veggies, you have to remember what they were! With hundreds of thousands of plant names out there, it’s easy to lose track of which flowers bloomed beautifully last year, or which tomatoes didn’t perform as expected. Keeping records stops you from repeating past mistakes just as much as it helps you repeat your victories.

What Should You Record in a Garden Journal?

Temperatures.

At first it’s best to start simply, recording high and low temperatures in your garden. The beauty of remote digital thermometers is that you can do this while you’re making your coffee in the morning. Look for digital thermometers that not only tell you the current outside temperature (which you can check against the current temperature on your weather app), but also record the high and low temperatures for the previous 24 hours. Thermometers that have two or three remote stations are even better. Within a week, you might notice that those temperatures are as much as two to three degrees off each other, and off of what your weather app was predicting for your region.

Then, record it. This is the first step in realizing that your garden truly is unique. Those few degrees can make a big difference when trying to decide whether to cover your tomatoes against a forecasted frost.

Easy-to-recognize phenophases.

A phenophase is a recognizable stage in a plant's or animal's life cycle. When looking at plants, observe a mixture of trees, shrubs, bulbs, and perennials, including perennial weeds. Examples might be: the dandelions beginning to flower, the lilac leafing out, the first Japanese beetle on your rose bush, or the oak tree beginning to redden with new leaf buds about to break open in spring.

Stick to just a few, maybe five to ten, to keep things simple when recording and help you see patterns over time more easily. Nature’s Notebook has a handy online primer that can help you get more familiar with the stages in each of these cycles to watch for.

Plant lists and planting times.

As journaling becomes a habit, you might want to add a chart of what you’ve bought, where you’ve planted it, and how well it’s done. These lists are most helpful in the winter if you're struggling to remember what you already have, or even what you've tried without success, so you know not to plant something again that won’t do well.

seeds planted garden journal
Credit: Marianne Willburn

If you start seeds, don’t rely on memory to remember which ones you're sprouting. Record the date you started each seed as well as the variety. This information will make it easy to make must-have seed lists for next year.

How To Create a Garden Journal

You’ve got a lot of options when starting your garden journal. Work with what makes you happy, and what will encourage you to take notes. It could be a beautifully bound leather book or a plain old binder filled with hole-punched papers. Or you might prefer an app that you could always have in your back pocket. It’s about figuring out what works for you, your schedule, and of course, your observations.

“Just jotting down a few key notes on a blank calendar is a great way to get started,” says Aker. “It’s accessible and makes it easy to go back and look at specific dates for key indicators like bloom time and insect emergence.”

Hand-written journals allow you to insert extras like typed lists, plant tags, magazine clippings, and catalog details. There are lots of choices, but I’ve found my happy place in an Arc Notebook System. It allows for inserting or removing sections, inverts for easy writing or lies completely flat, and comes in a range of durable cover options. Dividers separate years, and annual plant lists are kept in a centralized section for quick scanning.

If you’d rather go paperless, several mobile apps offer you a way to use your smartphone to track what’s happening in your garden. For example, Gardenize is a highly rated free option for entering details and photos of individual plants in your garden as well as specific areas like your front flower beds or backyard veggie plot. You can track tasks like planting and pruning, and even set reminders for when you need to complete to-do items. You can also connect with other users of the app to share what’s happening in your gardens. MyGarden Notebook is a paid app ($4.99) for iPhones that allows you to enter plants and garden areas you want to keep track of, and also allows you to map out where your plants are in your garden. Both apps allow you to export data if you want to print or save it.

Daffodils with country house
A garden journal can help you keep track of when daffodils bloom in spring.
| Credit: Jacob Fox

What To Do With Your Observations

Your journal doesn’t have to be perfect. The most important thing is developing the habit of observation. When the forsythia buds start to swell in spring is a great indicator of when to plant your pea seeds. Or your notes may help you see that your raised vegetable beds are usually warm enough every year to plant your tomatoes two weeks before Mother’s Day. You might not even be surprised anymore when you notice the daffodils or redbuds appearing early in the season because your journal will show that they’ve been blooming this same week for the last few years now.

At the beginning of each new growing season, reading through your journal from the previous year will help set you up to create an even better garden in the year ahead. You’ll be reminded of the plants you tried, the experiments that worked (or maybe didn’t), and the joy you experienced. Then get ready to notice and record what you see going on around you through whatever challenges a changing climate sends your way.

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