I failed to document my horticultural pursuits when I began gardening full-time. I thought I was way too busy to bother with it. Besides, since I’d fully embraced raising our farm’s organic herbs and vegetables, I was certain I’d remember essential details. That was not the case – not even close. Sure, I recalled some things, like that the previous growing season, my husband and I had harvested a bumper crop of green beans. But midwinter, when seed-ordering time rolled around, I couldn’t remember what kind of beans we’d grown. And once the growing season commenced, I couldn’t recall exactly when we’d planted the bean seeds, or where in our extensive garden plot we’d planted them. And vital green bean specifics – such as their preferred soil pH, planting depth, and lighting – had gone down the proverbial memory hole.
To remedy the problem, I began crafting a personalized garden handbook, which would become my best “guide on the side.” My handbook is custom-made, meaning it doesn’t replicate a typical A-to-Z garden reference; it only includes information about the plants I grow in my garden, which changes from season to season.
I’ve designed my handbook so the information I need readily available is organized into seven categories. Here’s a look at those categories and what I keep in each one.
I enter each vegetable and herb in my garden into a planting guide template, along with sowing recommendations, germination and growing temperatures, number of days to maturity, soil pH, planting depth, seed-spacing specifications, and light requirements. I created the guide using Microsoft Excel. If you don’t have Excel, you can use the “table” feature in Microsoft Word, which is less complicated than Excel. You can also create a template by hand on quad-ruled paper. Because my guide only contains the plants I grow, my template runs just three well-spaced pages. (See “Herb Planting Guide” below for an example of my herb plants.)
My planting guide data comes from a variety of sources, including reliable magazines, gardening reference books, seed and plant catalogs, instructions that accompany plant purchases, farm and garden websites, seed packet directions, and agriculture extension services.
I adjust industry recommendations to reflect my farm’s growing conditions. For example, it’s often suggested to plant peas “as soon as the soil can be worked.” That doesn’t work in our backyard, because we have monsoon springs that last forever. If we planted peas immediately after the soil thawed, they’d quickly deteriorate. Instead, I note in my planner to “plant peas in early spring after rain has abated.”
Transplant and Direct-Seed Checklist
I enjoy checking off completed tasks, so I created a checklist for seeds that are started indoors, such as peppers and herbs, and seeds that go directly into outdoor planting beds , such as beans, winter squash, and corn. I also identify plants that can be started either indoors or outdoors, depending on weather conditions. (See “Checklist: Transplants and Direct-Seed Plants,” below.)
We get unrelenting hot wind in our area, so I only direct-seed plants that are hardy enough to survive. I learned the hard way that transplants wilt (and sometimes die) when confronted by a toasty 24/7 breeze. But when direct-seeded, vegetable plants seem to toughen up as they emerge from the soil.
I determine which seeds I designate for transplanting and which are direct-seeded by using my planting guide research, typical spring weather patterns, and my best judgment.
Garden maps save a ton of time. With a map, I can head to my garden with a basket full of seed packets and know exactly where to plant each seed. Maps also document successful seed placement. This past season, for example, I discovered the merits of planting bush green beans so they’re partly shaded by our cherry tree. It was a scorching-hot summer, and the bean plants, which prefer cooler weather, thrived despite long-term temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Because I mapped it out, using an orchard tree for shade is a strategy I’ll remember next season when choosing a site for cool-loving vegetables.
You don’t have to be a cartographer to produce a map of your garden. I’ve drawn maps by hand on quad-ruled paper, created computer-generated facsimiles using Microsoft Excel, and snapped photos of our garden plots that I downloaded onto copy paper and labeled with a felt pen.
Seed and Supply Sources
I order most of my seeds online, and I learned early on the importance of keeping copies of every order transaction and invoice that arrives with seed packets and live plants. That way, if there’s a mix-up, I have the verification I need to resolve the snafu. Knowing what I planted from year to year is an additional bonus. I punch holes in these ordering documents and place them in my garden handbook grouped by vendor, such as Burpee, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and Pinetree Garden Seeds. It’s a good idea to keep the catalogs you ordered from too.
This past summer, we were baffled when we found yellow kabocha growing in our garden. In the past, our kabochas have only been green. We checked our vendor order and the seed catalog, and we learned that we’d unwittingly ordered ‘Sunshine’ kabocha, which is yellow at first and then turns to pumpkin-orange. Mystery solved.
By routinely jotting down garden activities and observations, I learn from my successes and failures, which in turn informs my plans for the coming season. I print monthly calendar pages from March through November for this purpose using free online sources, such as Easy Calendar 3.6. You can also purchase software programs that produce customized calendars, such as The Print Shop Deluxe 6.0. Here are a few examples of things I record on my calendar pages:
- Vegetable planting dates for direct-seed plants and transplants.
- Replanting dates for seed that failed to germinate sufficiently.
- Arrival dates for perishable plants, such as onion starts, asparagus crowns, and potatoes.
- Gardening challenges, such as severe wind, heat, rain, hail, or wildfire smoke.
- Application dates for organic pest-control sprays and plant-disease sprays.
- Thinning dates for vegetables, such as onions, beets, carrots, and greens.
- Harvest dates.
- Condition and quantity of harvested crops.
Keeping calendar pages easily accessible is essential. Because the kitchen is the hub of my existence, I keep my handbook and some well-sharpened pencils on a kitchen counter opened to the current month’s calendar page. It makes jotting down garden notes a snap.
According to dictionary definitions, “data” encompasses measurements, statistics, and numerical calculations. That works for me, so under the data category in my handbook, I file online regional records pertaining to weather temperature, hours of sunshine, precipitation measurements, first and last frost dates, and monthly snowfall levels. Knowing what to expect weatherwise and implementing necessary interventions, such as frost blankets when temperatures dip severely, increases garden productivity.
Like many avid gardeners, I’ve amassed an impressive collection of plant-caretaking references acquired from seed and plant vendors or downloaded from the internet. I three-hole punch the best of the bunch and keep them in my handbook. When I need additional information, I turn to the wide array of garden guidebooks I’ve acquired.
Make Your Own Handbook
Crafting a customized garden handbook gives you the opportunity to put a personalized spin on the final outcome. Would adding a harvesting guide be helpful? How about a pest intervention table? Or maybe a consumable supply checklist? Developing a custom handbook not only elevates the gardening experience, it’s also creatively rewarding. Plus, creating a garden handbook is simple.
You’ll need a three-ring binder (111⁄2 inches tall, 10 inches wide, and 2 inches thick), notebook dividers, copy paper, fine-tip felt pens, No. 2 pencils, and quad-ruled paper if you plan to draw your map and planting guide. Additionally, it’s helpful to have access to a computer and printer, a three-hole punch, a ruler, and a stapler.
I favor the notebook dividers that are made of sturdy plastic and have large front pockets. They’re handy for tucking in reference materials that I’m not ready to archive. I like, for example, to place the previous season’s calendar notes in the pocket of the current year’s calendar divider. It makes comparing seasonal activities and outcomes effortless.
Once my seed and plant orders are complete, I update my handbook by replacing the previous season’s documents with the current season’s documents. For example, I add the new plants I’ll be growing to my planting guide, and then I delete the plants I won’t be using that year. The good news is that I don’t have to craft a new handbook each season. The data documents, growing references, and seed and supply sources usually remain the same year to year, so all I do is insert the revised documents and then archive the old items, which go into file folders labeled by year.
Here are a few tips to help you manage your handbook so it doesn’t become unwieldy.
- Keep your handbook at a practical size by discarding documents you no longer require or seldom use.
- Bookmark lengthy internet references to avoid inflating the size of your handbook with unnecessary copies.
- Update calendar pages daily. If you miss some days, don’t fret. You’re the handbook boss – no one is going to fire you! Fill in holes when time permits.
Cathie West is a retired educator who has written professionally for publishers of educational books and magazines. She lives with her husband on a picturesque farm in northeast Washington, where they raise poultry and grow alfalfa, hay, vegetables, fruit, and nuts.
Herb Planting Guide
- Sowing Start: Indoor or outdoor
- Germination Temperature: 70-85 F
- Growing Temperature: 75-85 F
- pH Preference: 5.5-6.5
- Seed Depth: Light cover
- Spacing: 4-8 inches
- Light Preference: Full sun
- Days to Maturity: 68
- Sowing Start: Indoor
- Germination Temperature: 65-70 F
- Growing Temperature: 55-80 F
- pH Preference: 6.0-7.5
- Seed Depth: Light cover
- Spacing: 12 inches
- Light Preference: Partial shade
- Days to Maturity: 80-90
- Sowing Start: Indoor or outdoor
- Germination Temperature: 65-70 F
- Growing Temperature: 60-65 F
- pH Preference: 6.0-7.0
- Seed Depth: ¼ inch
- Spacing: 6 inches
- Light Preference: Light shade
- Days to Maturity: 75
Checklist: Transplants and Direct-seed Plants
Transplant or Direct-Seed
- Asparagus (crowns)
- Garlic (fall: bulbs)
- Greens: spinach, Swiss chard