The Power of Observation Garden Notes for Future Growth
by Bill Shores
GARDENING IS CERTAINLY one of life’s most enjoyable activities. Working with plants, soil and the natural environment is endlessly fascinating and rewarding. Gardening can also be demanding and, at times, frustrating when we are challenged by rodents, insects and diseases and extreme weather events that damage or even undo all our hard work. What we need is a way to see the bigger garden picture, to understand all the various factors influencing our garden and find ways to exert some control over them.
I have found that keeping good garden records and practicing daily garden observation along with research and learning are, by far, the most effective methods to improve one’s growing skills and overall gardening success. Ongoing attention to these three methods will, over time, lead to significant improvements in plant vigor, health and productivity, pest and disease control, succession planting, garden planning and design.
Observation and Note Taking
As an intern at a ⅛-acre intensive food garden many years ago, the first thing I was taught was to start off each workday with observation and note taking. I would walk around the entire site, studying, in turn, each of the 20 or so raised beds we were tending. This practice was probably the most valuable takeaway from this position and has stuck with me ever since.
Observation forces us to take a closer look at what is happening in the garden and note taking helps us by providing a chronicle of events over time. Both of these are extremely valuable as we learn more about the growing process. We begin to identify garden problems at a very early stage—when we can more easily control them—and we have notes that can be referred to in the future for planning and dealing with seasonal changes in the garden.
Note taking can take many forms including journal or notebook, smartphone, tablet or PC. The key to success is to pick a system and faithfully keep up with it all season.
Photos are a great way to document your garden as well as other gardens and designs for inspiration and ideas for future plantings. A set of garden notes and photos on hand in fall and winter will greatly speed up and improve the garden planning process.
Is the garden season over? Not a problem, just start by writing down notes on the previous season, what worked really well and what was not as successful. Outline challenges with pests and diseases that you dealt with, then consult reliable sources for ideas on effective control methods. Now start gathering the required materials for pest and disease control. Consult seed and plant sources and extension websites to find out which plant varieties are best suited to growing in your area. You’ll be better prepared for the season ahead.
Garden observation at work
Volunteer or rogue plants growing in unusual spaces are sources of information for us. For example, I was having mixed success at growing garden sorrel as an edible crop even after experimenting with areas of different light and heat exposures. One day, as I walked through the alley, I noticed a volunteer sorrel plant growing happily in a pile of gravel, fully exposed to the hot afternoon sun. I realized that this plant thrives in sunny, hot conditions with moderate moisture. The following season I planted sorrel in the warmest area of the garden, adjacent to a gravelly herb area. The plants have excelled ever since.
As anyone who has grown squash in the Midwest can attest, squash leaves and stems will, at some point, become covered in a white, powdery fungus called powdery mildew. Through observation, I realized this fungus is seasonal, persistently showing up in early August. The following season, I began a program of weekly spraying of the squash leaves with an organic copper fungicide in mid July, before the fungus had appeared. This proactive approach to disease control is far more effective than a reactive approach where no action is taken until the disease is in full bloom.
Garden insect pests, while excellently adapted to their environment, are creatures of habit. Take note of pest insects that tend to damage particular plants as well as when you typically see the onset of this damage. Again, you can be proactive in the next growing season, scouting the most favored plants of this insect early in the growing season and applying an organic repellent to affected plants at the first sign of insect activity. For example, I have controlled thrip damage on nasturtiums with great success for many years using a weekly hot pepper wax spray.
I have a particular interest in edible plants that thrive in shady conditions. This is useful in the urban environment, given the abundance of buildings and trees surrounding our gardens. Over a number of years I have performed many tests of edibles in full to part shade, noting the results. I have learned much about different types of shade and the plants that thrive in them, allowing me to grow edibles in shade with confidence. Performing these types of mini experiments and paying attention to results is a fantastic way to significantly boost your growing success.
Notes and Photos for Garden Design
Garden design takes a lot of mental energy. While I enjoy the process, it is always helpful to have some shortcuts to speed up the work. My first smartphone was a huge boost to my design process, as I now had a high-quality digital camera and a digital notebook in my pocket at all times. I take great advantage of this amazing device in my gardening work. Here are just a few examples:
I take photos of all my garden designs through the growing season. I edit and catalog these photos for easy reference, come winter when I am designing and planning the next garden layout. I make sure to overcome the tendency to only take photos of the designs I like because photos of less spectacular designs, or just areas that need attention, will remind me to make necessary improvements the following season. Designs that are successful can be duplicated from year to year, greatly speeding up the design process.
Photos, while a huge boost to design, are not adequate on their own. Be sure to also keep notes on planting designs and layouts so you know how many plants to start or purchase in spring. For example, for a window box planting, I note the number and type of plants used in each box. This is best done at planting but can also be done in fall when the window boxes are taken down. The point is to have a reference so you don’t need to “reinvent the wheel” each spring.
Finally, use your camera and garden notes to document plants and designs that you see around town or in your travels. Borrow ideas from others and use them in your own garden. Learn new techniques and come up with a wish list of plants you would like to try.
Information and ideas are all around us. We just need to be open to them, and we need to get in the habit of documenting them as inspirations are fleeting, and if not captured, will disappear—perhaps never to be experienced again.
Bill Shores is a master gardener and manager of Chef Rick Bayless’s backyard urban farm that grows a variety of the specialized ingredients used in Bayless’s restaurants. As a specialist in ultrahigh-yield production, he is also a speaker and consultant for highend restaurants and the home gardener. For more information: urbanedible.net.