Taking Notes: Reflect on your Herb Garden

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As long as I’ve been a serious gardener, I’ve kept a gardening jour­­nal. I use it to record not only plant names and bloom times but also my hopes and dreams for my tiny plot of land. The other day, as I was looking through one of my old journals in search of a salvia’s varietal name because its plant tag had long since disintegrated, I was immediately enthralled by the words, drawings, and photos I had carefully recorded four years earlier. I hadn’t realized how much my herb garden had changed nor–more important–how much I had changed.

Many noted gardeners have kept garden journals just as they would a diary, writing paragraphs at a time about their gardens. This is the type of journal I like to keep. While awaiting the birth of my first child two years ago, I drew up plans for a children’s garden and wrote about collecting miniature herbs such as Corsican mint and creeping thyme. Even Thomas Jefferson found time to keep a garden journal from 1766 to 1824, rarely missing an entry.

You don’t have to be a writer or a former U.S. president to keep a garden journal, though. You are writing only for yourself so relax and have fun. Your journal should be as much a reflection of you as your herb garden is.

Recording your gardening triumphs and tribulations helps improve your production–and can even offer a window into your soul. 

Getting started

There is no right or wrong way to keep a garden journal. Each one is as unique as the gardener who writes it. Some gardeners write every day; others, only a few times a year. Some keep neat, tidy books; others’ are chaotic. What matters is that the information you collect is helpful and important to you.

Choose a format

The first step is to choose a book to hold your information. Bookstores carry everything from fancy month-by-month journals specifically formatted for gardeners to unadorned bound versions with lined pages. After trying several styles, I found that a blank spiral- bound sketchbook works best for me. It lies flat when open and gives me plenty of room to glue in sketches, photographs, and magazine clippings. A very organized friend of mine converted a daily planner into a garden journal. She uses the “to-do” pages to list weekly chores and tucks seed ­packets and order receipts into the ­monthly pockets.

The power of words

Gardening involves trial and error. If we don’t record the results of our mistakes and triumphs, we are bound to waste time repeating our blunders. Each month, jot down general observations such as which lavenders had the best bloom or how long it took for your basil seeds to sprout. By all means, keep track of the weather (rainfall, temperatures, dates of the first and last frost) and how your plants reacted to weather changes. Describe any new techniques or designs you try and note the results. In just a few short seasons, you will have a treasure trove of information that is applicable to your own garden’s microclimate.

Photographs and memories

Take monthly photographs to record the seasonal progress of your herb garden. Besides taking pictures of what you like, also photograph what you don’t like; then use the photographs to make improvements in your garden plan.

Occasionally, something wonderful happens completely by accident. One year, I discovered variegated nasturtiums creeping along at the back of my cook’s garden. The combination of the green-and-white foliage against the white fence behind white-flowered oregano and silver thyme was stunning, and I photographed the scene so that I’d remember to plant it again.

For the record

How many times have you lost the label of an unusual specimen and been unable to remember what the herb was or where you got it? Or perhaps there’s a bare spot in the garden where an herb did not survive the winter, but you can’t recall what was there. A note or photograph in your journal would reveal its identity and remind you to plant something hardier next time.

A yearly garden sketch records both plant location and variety. If you don’t like to sketch, make a plant list for each bed. Record plant names in the same order for each bed (front row, left to right; middle row, left to right, and so forth) to help you ascertain which plant grew where. While you’re at it, make a list of your mail-order sources.

Seasonal information

Keep a calendar in the front of your journal to remind you when to plant or propagate each kind of herb. Use the calendar to schedule regular or occasional gardening chores such as pruning lavender, dividing chives, or spraying bee balm for powdery mildew.

Wish book

Some gardeners collect landscaping ideas from magazines and newspapers or visits to nurseries or other gardens. Mulling over this wish list is a pleasant activity during the winter and enables you to make plans so that groundbreaking in the spring can begin as soon as the weather and soil permit.

Theresa Loe is a garden writer and lecturer who lives with her family in Southern California. Whenever she has a spare moment, you can find her sitting on her herb-filled patio with a cup of mint iced tea, writing in her garden journal.

Further Reading

In Print:
Hinchman, Hannah. A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.
Mitchell, Henry. The Essential Earthman. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
—-. One Man’s Garden. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
Reppert, Bertha. Mrs. Reppert’s TwelveMonth Herbal. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Remembrance Press, 1996.
Thaxter, Celiea. An Island Garden. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
Zabar, Abbie. A Growing Gardener. New York: Universe Publishing, 1996.

Out of Print:
Carter, Annie Burnham. In an Herb Garden. New Brunswick, New Jersey: The Rutgers University Press, 1947.
Dickey, Page. Duck Hill Journal: A Year in a Country Garden. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Holden, Edith. The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977.
Rohde, Eleanour Sinclair. Gardens of Delight Throughout the Year. New York: Hale, Cushman and Flint, 1936.
Verey, Rosemary. A Countrywoman’s Year. Boston: Little Brown, 1989.

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