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If the world of gardening is completely new to you, the idea of planning can be a daunting thought. Where do you start? I'm going to suggest starting the same way I believe every gardener, new or seasoned, should start and that is from the very beginning with a journal of some sort. Keeping a record of your garden endeavors from year to year is something that will make planning in future years a much easier task. If you are a beginning gardener, you may be wondering why you would need a journal before you even have any experiences to guide you.
As a beginning gardener, your natural inclination will probably be to go to your local garden center and begin looking through seed packets for a bit. You'll doubt your ability to successfully germinate the seeds, let alone go on to nurture any that do. You'll promptly turn to the section where the flats of seedlings are sold. Then, the gardener's version of the old adage, "His eyes were bigger than his stomach," will kick in. It's just that in this case, your eyes will be bigger than your garden. You'll buy too many plants. In addition, you'll buy plants you don't have the proper environment in your garden to grow. I'm going to let you in on a little secret. It's not just beginning gardeners who do this. The veterans do it, too! That's why going in to the garden center with a plan is a good idea for every gardener. And this is where a journal comes in.
There are many ways to do a garden journal and it's really a matter of personal preference as to which is the "best" way to journal. Some people are content with a spiral notebook and only handwritten notes. Some people prefer a 3-ring binder that has loose leaf pages in it so they can add extra sheets to various sections or move things around as they begin developing a system. Still others might prefer a bound book. Some people will prefer to add photographs to their journal. Others who are blessed with artistic talent will draw and paint in theirs. It's very helpful to do an internet search for garden journals, or search Pinterest.com, to browse through different ideas looking for inspiration on how to keep your garden journal.
My preference is to not be locked into a system that cannot grow or change. I like the idea of keeping all notes together according to the type of plant so any type of journal that has a permanent binding frightens me. What if I run out of room to write notes in the lettuce section? Two years ago I went to a system of envelopes. I am one who enjoys handmaking things so my envelopes are handmade, but any envelopes will work. They could also be kept in a box instead of being bound together as mine are. The reason this envelope system works so well for me is I have a propensity to write little notes on scrap paper. I can stash my random notes in the envelopes and perodically sort through them and compile my notes. I also like photographs so I attach a photo to the front of a shipping tag and hand write my notes on the back. If I run out of space, I can continue on another tag and bind the two together.
I also suggest making a map of your garden. I start with this blank one of our raised beds every year. When I started this method, I just drew the boxes by hand. Once I realized this was a method that I consistently used, I made one in Photoshop. You can see in the previous photo that as I'm planning, I write the names of plants in the boxes where I plan to plant them. When I we first started using raised beds, I mapped out where each individual plant would go according to the suggested spacing needs, but now that I understand the spacing I'm working with, I can get by with just writing the number of plants I need by the plant name. Beneath the plant name, I add the date I planted the seed or plant. Later, I also write the date I began harvesting from each plant. I keep this map in a plastic sheet protector and carry it out to the garden with me in my tool caddy so I can write notes on it as I garden.
To determine when I need to plant everything, I like to use this planning sheet. It doesn't include every plant you may plan to plant, but it should include most of them. I like that it is simple and quick to fill out, customizable to work with any zone, and that it keeps all the planting dates in an organized fashion. This is a sheet that I throw away when I'm finished with it.
Earlier I mentioned that everyone should have a plan when they go to make their plant or seed purchases. My plan starts with a sheet of notebook paper. Many people would put this information in their journal, so as a beginning gardener, this is why even you need a journal! As I go through catalogs, I write down the plant information I need (this can be as little as the plant name or as much as spacing needs, and I write the page number it can be found on. I don't feel a need to keep this sheet so when I'm finished making my purchases, I throw it away.
So my planning phase goes like this:
1. Catalog shopping, research, and list making.
2. Garden mapping.
3. Plant and seed purchasing.
4. Note writing and journaling throughout the growing season.
If you are a beginning gardener, I hope you feel a little more at ease with the idea of planning and if you are a veteran, I hope maybe you were able to glean some new ideas from my system. Always remember that while we all have the same ultimate goal of growing healthy, productive plants, there are many right ways to achieve success. The important thing is to find methods that work for you and your situation.