Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book
Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
For years and years, I’ve been extolling the virtues of keeping track of what you do in your garden. What do you do to, or with, your plants and, on a grander scale, your entire landscape? When do things happen? Who and what chews on this, takes a bite of that? What survives and what doesn’t? Where did this come from, who gave you that and what did you give to Samantha in Vermont?
And now, as we begin a new year, what a perfect time for a New Year’s resolution to start that garden journal that you may have thought about or even started one or 10 times before. I’m here to help.
And so is Thomas Jefferson.
Over 250 years ago, Jefferson began to write down just about everything he did in his gardens and orchards. He recorded information on the weather, when and what type of peas he planted, what other planters had told him were the best varieties, how many cucumber seeds needed to be planted to provide for a family of four, and where and why he planted certain fruit trees and the locations and varieties. And he was the consummate correspondent, exchanging garden and farming ideas with others in the states and across the big puddle.
Jefferson was only in his early 20s when he started this magnificent journal, and he kept at it for another 40 years. His notes go on and on, and for an ever-curious gardener his writings and musings make for an astounding horticultural journey that’s captured in his “Garden Book,” which is still widely published and easily available.
Jefferson had a purpose. Primarily, it was to keep a record of what he had done, so he could track his progress and learn from both his failures and successes. His meticulous recordings and tracing of his thought process and planting became a written memory that he could rely on year after year as his plantings grew and expanded.
But, just as important, he left us his history: a horticultural history that planters and gardeners have been able to look back on for insight into any number of teachable moments.
And this is what your garden journal can do for you and those who we hope will learn from you. What you learn should not only be saved but shared.
But—let’s be practical. Our journals can’t hope to stand the test of time that Jefferson’s has. Nonetheless, our journals can contain pertinent to seemingly insignificant information that can really come in handy next year, 10 years from now and even a half century from now. It’s not easy for me to admit, but I’m using gardening information now that I collected nearly 50 years ago—and I’d be lost without it.
Garden journals used to be kept in bound books filled with blank pages. Each entry would be dated and, if your
memory was sharp, you could go back to previous years’ entries to look up information like planting dates, varieties planted, or how many of this or that yielded how much of a crop so many days later.
Some still enjoy keeping a journal like this as a narrative of the garden, and more than a few have been published. But in our electronic age there are other ways to keep a journal that are simple and easy, still giving us much more information in a second than Jefferson could have gleaned in a lifetime.
If you have a computer, tablet or smartphone, chances are you have used or created a Word document. A single document can be a garden journal that you can use for a single gardening season, or for years on end. All you need to do is make regular entries that include the date of the entry.
Let’s say you plant snap peas (Burpee Sugar Snap Pea) on March 23, 2019, and you used a half ounce of seed to plant a 20-foot row. Once you enter that information and save it, even in a narrative form, you can search for it in two months, two years or 20 years from now by simply searching within that document for “Burpee Sugar Snap Pea,” or just “pea.” The document may grow to hundreds of pages, but with a few keystrokes you can find that March 23, 2019, entry in a flash.
As the season progresses, you’ll continue to add information, and—as long as you include the date in the same format—each time you search for “Burpee Sugar Snap,” or just “pea,” each one of the references will pop up.
The more disciplined you are about making entries, updating them and being consistent with your information or format, the more you’ll get from your journal as time goes on. Even if you just do an ongoing narrative in a single Word document, it will still be searchable and a record of what you’ve done and what you were thinking, or not. It can be your garden diary or, if you want to step up your game a notch, your garden database.
With nearly 800 different plants in my personal garden, I could be writing day in and day out from early spring to early winter. And if someone gave me enough money so I wouldn’t have to work for a living, that’s probably what I’d be doing.
But that’s not the case, so I put all my information into a database. Don’t be intimidated by the word “database,” as it’s pretty simple but very functional. But first I have to tell you that my particular system works only on the Apple platform, so if you’re a Windows or Android person, this may not work for you, but there are other, similar avenues.
Prior to using Tap Forms (www.tapforms.com), each plant in my garden had its own page in a 3-inch looseleaf binder. At the top of the page was the plant’s name (genus, species, variety) and, as long as I remembered the genus, I could always find the right page. The information was free form and inconsistent, but better than nothing.
It was getting out of hand, though, and the binder was a bit much to lug around the garden. Pages seemed to get ripped out; the binder would pop open at inopportune times, spewing looseleaf pages over the floor or lawn; and the whole system just wasn’t giving me the information I needed when I needed it. I still had to rely on my memory when I was at garden centers and never knew if I really had Hosta Pure Delight or Hibiscus Peppermint Pink until I bought it, yet again.
I needed a better system. I (and maybe you?) needed some kind of program that kept track of all my plants, where they were, when I planted them, what I paid for them, where I bought them, and, best of all, what they looked like.
I’ve got it now. It wasn’t painless, and I’m a bit database challenged, but one cold January I bit the bullet and went to work. January’s a great time for work like this. Now, I have everything I need, and it’s on my desktop iMac, my laptop, my tablet and my phone. They share the information seamlessly via “the cloud.”
And how much does this remarkable program cost? Fifty bucks. So, if you’ve got some time on your hands and you want an indoor gardening project, come back next week and I’ll give you the details. A digitally gifted son, daughter or other cooperative relative can also come in handy, but is not totally necessary.
Next week, setting things up either on paper or on the screen. Get your data ready—and keep growing!
To see what’s new, click “Start the Tour” to take a tour.
We welcome your feedback. Please click the
“contact/advertise” link in the menu bar to email us.
One fine body…