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Plant labels and garden-shop receipts bookmark my attempts to mark my garden’s progress through the seasons. What have I learned?
For one thing, I could use a secretary. Keeping up with the goings-on in my garden requires diligence, and I haven’t always lived up to my ambitions. But everything I write down teaches me something — even if it’s something I’m still working out. When did my husband and I finish the spring job of mulching the flower beds? On July 8th. When did the hummingbirds leave for the winter? Our last humming-bird sighting was September 29th. What happened to the melons? Crop failure! The melons, my journal notes, were overpowered by the squash plants. Next year, I’ll separate these two.
Carl Klaus, an essayist and gardener who keeps a careful garden journal, reminded me, back in January, to “write about what’s on your mind,” and I have allowed myself to wander in the pages of my journal. It’s not always even about my own garden: Mr. Horsley, who farms about 100 acres in our county in Virginia, sowed soybeans in a field he rents from our neighbors on June 4th. This seemed significant, and I wrote it down right next to observations about a yellow-billed cuckoo in the red oak. My journal notes — repeatedly — that this year was a great year for butterflies (and spiders) in the garden, and that our friends Judy and Steve came to visit in early June, when we made strawberry jam. I didn’t really need to make a note of that: we do it every year.
During the course of the year, I made a checklist of the trees in the garden and sketched plans for a new obelisk, which my husband and I built in June. The rhythm of the peonies and roses didn’t earn as much attention this year as my new vegetable garden, but I took a little time for each, consolidating my records on our peony collection in May, and making a note of a big day pruning the roses in early March.
Every year is different. We seem to like to reduce our calendars to simple schemes — spring, summer, winter, fall; baseball season, football season; flowers, snow — but a journal full of observations about weather extremes (snow in May, a warm day in January) and fresh juxtapositions and changing enthusiasms, helps us shake off these colorless generalities. My observations in my journal seem unpredictable, because so much of life really is, thank heavens. A journal, taken as a whole, turns into more than notes — almost into a play, with scenes that shift from the flower beds to the apple trees to the meadow. Without meaning to, I’m writing a book about my garden, and exploring my place in the nature of my own back yard.
A long relationship with a garden journal allows you to look back, and also to plan for the future. “What shall I learn of beans, and beans of me?” Thoreau asked in an essay on his bean field in Walden. “I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted,” he wrote. My garden journal — which records a pretty good bean harvest for this year — gives me lots to think about. Some of my thoughts fluttered away with the butterflies, but I tried to capture what I could in my journal. I wonder what I’ll learn next year?