The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 5, 2014

Garden journals: Reviews, tips and recommendations

By Geri Howieson
Minnesota River Valley Master Gardener

---- — Paper

Paper-based garden journals were the way people originally tracked information about their garden or landscape, and it is still very popular. There are a number of different methods from Rolodex cards to purchased garden journals.

Three-ring binders afford gardeners the ability to remove or add notes, sections, sketches, or other paper-based materials at will; an advantage over hardbound diary systems, journal-style calendar books, or compositions books. Components, such as a manila folder for receipts, pocket folders for seed packs, or index cards for quick notes, can be added to the system. Archiving is easy and stable, compared to the other two options, and some people enjoy the thought that their garden journal could be a legacy to other family members sometime in the future.

The disadvantages of paper-based systems include time consuming searching, running out of space within the system, loss of notes or other papers, and lack of flexibility in terms of moving individual pieces of data (e.g. one plant entry) around within the system. Some gardeners report being overwhelmed by all the different pieces of paper that needs to be managed. Inserting photos into some forms of paper-based systems can also be challenging. Finally, sharing the information in a paper-based system, especially remotely, is neither quick nor easy.

Computer

Like paper-based systems, there are a number of different options from spreadsheets to dedicated gardening management software. Garden journals can be created using Excel spreadsheets and Word documents. Purchased software programs have the benefit of rapid data aggregation, increased flexibility, better reporting functions, and superior search abilities. It also allows the creator to share information rapidly and remotely.

For simplicity sake, the focus of this section will be dedicated to software packages for garden management. User-created electronic garden journals (using spreadsheets, Word documents, etc.) would be similar to paper journals.

As with the paper-based system, there are a number of drawbacks to the software model. First, the software is tied to the developer. If the developer stops supporting the software, goes out of business, or stops upgrading the software, there is no recourse. All the years of data you have put into the system may be jeopardized, especially if there is no way to export the data. In addition, the software is molded to the developer’s way of thinking and gardening. It is unlikely that any software package will have all the components that you want and in most cases you will be unable to change this. Software garden journals also require hardware, so they are more limited and less mobile than paper-based journals. Data entry can be time consuming depending on the interface and the user’s typing skills. Finally, archiving and data corruption are significantly larger and more difficult issues with a software solution.

Some software garden journals currently available, include:

Garden Tracker: Offers worksheets, database, reports, to-do lists, ability to organize photos and videos, and ability to create markers/labels/seed packets. This system may be useful for someone with only basic needs. The program offers no way to pull out or compare weather data, for example, and comes with only limited plant information. There is also no built in backup function. Developer has been supporting product for 8 years and is responsive to email inquiries.

Premier Gardens by Pleasant Lake Software: Billed as software for home garden, professional landscape, and master gardener, Premier Gardens has fair number of components: plant catalog provided by a bulb company, ways to track multiple gardens, plant inventory, planning list, grids, weather, and various reports. The developer offers a 30 days free trial and is responsive to email inquiries.

The program has some quirks. For example, the Plant Catalog has an area to put in the botanical name, but no column that shows it in the grid below, so you are limited to searches by common name. Plants cannot be put into the Garden Plants sections directly; they have to be imported ("planted") from the Plant Catalog.

The Garden Plants section offers common name, cultivar, primary and secondary color, pattern, flower date, information on purchasing, etc. There are no input areas for light, moisture, dimensions, soil type, pH, botanical name, etc. unless you use the comments area, which does not appear to be searchable. The program does have a Planning section for tracking plants you may want to acquire and a Transplant tracking function.

Online

A new form of tracking gardening information is to store it online, either on a dedicated site or via a blog. Online gardening journals enjoy many of the same benefits as the software option: rapid data aggregation, increased flexibility, ease of sharing with others, and superior search abilities. Archiving is still an issue, but there is less of a problem with data corruption.

The biggest drawback with the online gardening journals is that your information is on someone else’s server. If they decided to discontinue the site, your information could be lost as well. Access can be a problem if you are not at a computer or if your online connection goes down. In addition, sharing is different in this environment; instead of sending the information itself, users typically send the URL of their blog or online data. If at a future time you do not want people to have access to this data, or if you only want them to access to some of it, things become more difficult.

Example of a dedicated online gardening journal: Green Thumb Journal.

More tips

■ You may find it helpful to divide your garden journal into sections. As with all the other choices you'll make regarding your journal, your choice of sections depends on how much information you plan to keep. Think about the gardening information you currently keep, and why you might consider a change. Then consider how to achieve this. You can record as much or as little as you want, in your garden journal. Just make sure it's a fun activity, rather than a chore. A pdf garden journal may be found at Garden Journal-Homestead Harvestsite (wayzata-homestead-harvest.com/GardenJournal.pdf‎).

■ Some suggestions for the kinds of information you may want to include are:

Garden calendar; budget and spending ecords; to-do lists; garden maps; plant profile; soil preparation and maintenance; seed started indoors; planting dates both direct seeding and transplanting; plant propagation, cuttings and division; fertilizing and side dressing schedules, weed control, pest control, disease control, wildlife sightings such as animals, birds and insects; daily/weekly/monthly observations; harvest reports (amount harvested, disbursement of harvest and seeds saved); reflections and reminders for next year; wish lists for seeds, plants and tools; references, clippings and online articles.

■ Also, to create a garden map, begin with a rough, hand-drawn garden plan of your yard. If you have a large yard, it is easier to break it down into sections. Transfer individual beds on your main plan to separate drawings on graph paper; the beds can be measured if you desire accuracy. Map the plants either individually or by groups. If you plan to keep records on each plant or type of plant, create a separate page for each plant. An alternate method is to use a spreadsheet to assemble the data with columns for botanical name, common name, date planted, source (purchased or propagated), mature size, garden location, leaf and bloom color and any other information you may want. Take pictures of your garden and of the individual plants. Record your activities.