Keeping and organizing garden records

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

Reading Carol’s description of her plant cataloging project got me thinking about my own efforts to organize my records. When I first started gardening, I used some large index cards to catalog all my plants. I entered the same info Carol did, but didn’t include the plant tags. On the back of each card I entered the date of first bloom and date of last bloom.
My original index card file of the plants in my garden

Somewhere along the line I stopped adding cards. These days I put all the information about the plants I bought in a folder labeled with the year, in the hopes of starting back up again some day. I also have had one of those Lee Valley gardener’s journals for several years, and when I remember, I write down when plants start blooming. Sometimes I even write down when certain late emergers show up, so I don’t fret too much about them. (But I have discovered it’s awfully hard to keep track of when a plant stops blooming. You sometimes don’t notice that until days later.) Before I had the Lee Valley journal, I used a pocket calendar about the size of a checkbook, with one month on a two page spread. I could stick it in my back pocket, and I scribbled each plant’s name on the day it started blooming. Those are saved in the file folders, too.

Keep it simple

The best thing about Carol’s system is it’s simple. One reason I’ve never gotten back to a cataloging system is because back when Windows 3.1 was state-of-the-art, I got a pamphlet advertising Gardner Pardner, a gardening database program distributed by J & L Bluebonnet Plantation. This software let you track everything, including when you sprayed or fertilized the plant, transplanted it, or pinched it back. The souped-up hobbyist version let you record who hybridized the plant, when it was introduced, and any awards it has won. (Hemerocallis, hosta, and iris fanatics, the developers were thinking of you.) The more modest version sold for $45, a lot more money back then. Of course I didn’t buy it; I thought, “I could make a better one.”

Never mind I’ve never made a database in my life. Never mind I didn’t have time to keep up index cards. The idea that “one day I’m going to make a gardening database” became firmly entrenched in my psyche, complete with its own file folder. I have lain awake in bed at night, wondering how to set up this database so it could track the same plant growing in two different locations, because of course they will bloom at different times and grow to different heights. And what if you get the same plant from two different sources? One might actually be mis-identified and so should be tracked separately, don’t you think? And once digital cameras and scanners became commonplace, I added photos of each plant to my dream database, and wondered what size they should be, and what file format they should be in.

In the meantime, my card file remains neglected and my sales receipts have remained filed. And, nothing bad has happened. The plants still grow and sometimes even get weeded. When I want to know exactly when I got a particular plant, I take a guess and pick a year and leaf through that file folder. If it’s not in that one, I go to the year before or after, and I usually find it, eventually. And if I don’t find it, somehow I manage to write the blog post without that information, or my friend accepts the idea that I don’t remember when I got it. Thank goodness for understanding friends!

But now I have Carol’s example to light my path. There has never been any need to convince me of the value of keeping records. What I struggle with in all aspects of my life, is understanding that all details are not created equal. Some are worth recording for posterity, and some are not. I still believe God is in the details, but God is infinite, and I am not.

I may one day set up a system similar to Carol’s. Or, who knows? I may one day create that database. But one thing reading Carol’s post has shown me, is that you can start organizing your information at any time. You don’t have to start with the first plant you ever bought and record everything chronologically. You can take it up later and it will still serve your needs. You can even start with the plants you bought this year and add in the others later, even if you don’t have anything more to go on besides the tag. (That was an eye opener!)

And what I’ve learned from writing this post is that my file folders are actually serving me well. They are telling me what I need to know, when I need to know it. They are not my encyclopedic ideal, but they are good enough.

What about you? Are there any record-keeping or organizing skeletons in your closet?

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In its own way, frost may be one of the most beautiful things to happen in your garden all year . . . Don’t miss it. Like all true beauty, it is fleeting. It will grace your garden for but a short while this morning. . . . For this moment, embrace frost as the beautiful gift that it is.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Lisa at Greenbow July 5, 2008, 4:03 pm

I am so happy to read that you aren’t too terribly serious about the garden catalog. I have kept a journal for years. I staple or tape in tags, write what I am thiking at the moment. I have for years wished that I was more meticulous with at least remembering where I have planted something. However my garden is much like house. I am always rearranging. I move a hunk of this plant here or there where an opening appears. Or get a sale plant that isn’t labled that get plugged into a space. I think worrying about records is takes some of the fun out of gardening. Although I can see why a person would like perfect records. You can learn a lot from records. However on my quarter acre I am sure the next occupant will plow up the entire garden and maybe even sink a pool into the back garden after they remove all the trees. So…what I am trying to say is be happy and garden.

Self Improvement Advice July 3, 2008, 3:22 am

Sad to say but even if I also do gardening I don’t have any monitoring system that could manage all the details of my plants.
I just thought it now after reading your article that I might need some database for my garden records.
Thanks for the hint.


Saul Peters June 30, 2008, 2:28 pm has an excellent interactive USDA plant hardiness map that allows you to zoom in to your area and determine your zone:

Lance June 30, 2008, 9:48 am

Hi Kathy – I defninitely know how it is to not have the time to do things on the computer. I find weekends are the hardest for me, since all I really want to do is to be outside. One of the features we’ve been talking about at Greenthumbr is providing mobile integration so you can take pictures and note events (watered, sprouted, harvested, etc) via your phone. This, like most of the features we have, springs from the things we find we need at Greenthumbr. We hope it’s helpful to others too. 🙂

Cindy June 29, 2008, 10:55 pm

Kathy, you’re so right: Instead of being overwhelmed by the idea of cataloguing everything, I can pick my starting point and build from there. Using Twitter to catalogue my plant purchases and garden activities has already helped.

layanee June 29, 2008, 8:29 pm

I admire the need and the action to catalog. I just don’t have that gene!

margaret June 28, 2008, 7:47 pm

I cook without recipes and garden without records. Uh-oh. Now I am in my 50s, and though dinner is getting more creative all the time, I am wondering who in the world can tell me all the names of the plants out there I am now trying to label with my aluminum-tape Dymo?

wiseacre June 28, 2008, 3:15 pm

My original website was started to be a quick reminder of the plants I had. Since it was the very basic things like names I kept forgetting it was simple at best. Now I’m starting to use my blog to help keep track of a bit more detailed info. But since you’ve seen both you know how hopeless I am. I just can’t keep focused. If there’s any hope at all it will be with the wildflowers.

mss @ Zanthan Gardens June 28, 2008, 1:57 am

“I still believe God is in the details, but God is infinite, and I am not.”

Brilliant! I love systems but I’m often overcome by the effort required to keep them up. Whenever I latch onto a new system I struggle with just putting all the new stuff into it or trying to migrate stuff in the old system into it. Then at some point I decide if I spent all the hours I spend tinkering with my systems actually doing something, I’d get a whole lot more done.

Carol, May Dreams Gardens June 27, 2008, 7:26 pm

Kathy, thanks for extending the discussion on cataloging plants in your garden. Your points are well taken, keep it simple, start anywhere. Once you’ve started, you can build on it.

And perhaps most important, plants will continue to grow in your garden with or without a plant catalog and whether or not you remember their name!

Mr. McGregor's Daughter June 27, 2008, 2:59 pm

I really like the idea of having my own plant catalogue, complete with a photo of the plant in the garden. For now I scribble all the relevant info into my Lee Valley journal, now on book 2. It’s all there somewhere. And as for not noticing when a plant stops blooming, I write the plant “stopped blooming within the past few days,” or something like that.

Lance June 27, 2008, 2:43 pm

Hi Kathy. I’ve been using Greenthumbr to manage my garden this year. Like your dreamed-of database, I and a couple of friends built the site because we all have a real interest in gardening and we wanted something to catalog, track and manage our gardens with. We’re programmers and designers in real life, so we just built it on nights and weekends this winter.

After a while, we thought it’d be great to make it so that others could use it as well. We’re still working out various kinks and such – we’ve only had it publicly available for 2 months – but are thrilled when others find it helpful for their own gardens.

Kathy Purdy June 27, 2008, 7:38 pm

Hi, Lance. Nice to have a name to go with the Greenthumbr I see on Twitter. I like hearing a bit more of the back story behind your website. I plan on trying out Greenthumbr and myFolia, just as soon as I get caught up with my garden blog reading. For right now, the receipts go in the file folder and I go back outside to battle goldenrod, bindweed, Canada thistle . . . All the commenters have good ideas. The most important thing is to figure out what works for you so that it seems natural to do it.

Chris June 27, 2008, 1:48 pm

Kathy- I’ve started using a separate blog to keep track of information. Its set to private so I’m the only one that has access. I take photos of plant labels, seed packets, where I’ve planted things and post them. They are automatically tracked by date and tags and labels can further organize that information anyway you like.