Garden Journal Series: Plant Collections

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner


Garden Journal Series: Plant Collections

A garden is a living museum of plants, and the gardener is its curator.

Keeping up with the inventory — the plants that come and go from the collection — can be part of the fun. This bit of rainy-day bookkeeping reveals a lot about both the garden and the gardener. A record of your developing plant collections shows clearly which plants you really specialize in; it helps you keep up with the many kinds of daylilies, hostas, and daffodils in the garden, and gives you a place to officially note their colors and bloom times. It also helps you remember when you planted what and how the plants performed over the years. The notes on plant collections in your journal may even include reminders of plants you intend to buy, creating a record of your ambitions and good intentions in the growing life of your garden. Your journal can be tremendously informative.

native plant list with plant label and snips

Galen Gates teaches graduate-level courses in perennial plants at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and worked for almost 30 years as director of plant collections at the Chicago Botanic Garden. He took his professional habits home with him, too: he created a spreadsheet to keep track of the plants in his own back yard.

You don’t have to get fancy, Gates says. “I write down what month and year I purchased it, what I paid, where I got it,” he says. When a plant dies, he makes a note of that, too. “I want to know — and it’s helpful to know how long things live.”

 spreadsheet showing shrubs

My own inventory is more idiosyncratic than the Gates’s computer spreadsheet, but I basically follow his example. On my working list of native perennials, I write down each plant’s Latin binomial name (Iris virginica, for example) and common name (Southern blue flag), along with the height of the plant and its requirements for sun or shade, and moisture. Then I note where I planted it. My list is typed up, annotated in ink, illustrated with a sketch of the four flowerbeds near the front porch, and smudged with dirt. Some of those plants are just memories now, and, like Gates, I need to add a symbol or category for plants that just don’t make it in my garden — along with observations about what went wrong.

When my husband and I decided to consolidate our notes on the trees and shrubs in our garden into spreadsheets, I flipped through old garden journals, extracting details, while he typed. Our spreadsheets brought home the extent of our collections of boxwoods, roses, witch hazels, hollies, magnolias, and oaks. In addition to the basics, we recorded each tree or shrub’s size at the time it was planted, and left a space for comments. The printout— which, of course, is tucked into my garden journal — is annotated by hand on odd occasions. The trick is to also update it in the computer.

vegetable planting spreadsheet

Formal lists and spreadsheets can help you organize the succession of blooms in your flower beds, keep up with the varieties of peas and beans you have planted over the years, and help you remember which of your dozens of kinds of daffodils is which. Spreadsheets will probably never replace thoughtful notes about great plant combinations and the proliferation of butterflies in summertime, but they are a useful tool. In your role as curator, you’re creating a formidable record of your garden that you’ll be glad to have.