The Essential Gardening Step You’re Probably Skipping

Turns out, a garden journal is your most valuable tool.

May 11, 2021
Photo by James Ransom

When I started my first vegetable garden, I drew everything out on graph paper, much to the amusement of my husband. As it turns out, I had the right idea. A few years later, when I became a Master Gardener, I learned that record-keeping is an indispensable first step. Because, while we think we remember, the reality is that we forget things (did I fertilize that tomato plant two weeks ago?) in the course of a gardening season, let alone from one gardening year to the next.

How you keep track of what you grow—with a garden app, notebook, monthly planner, index cards, or on spreadsheets—doesn’t matter, as long as it works for you and you record things while they’re still fresh in your memory. As with anything else, record-keeping takes the guesswork out of gardening so you can focus your efforts on making your plants thrive.

If you’ve never grown a garden—in your backyard or in raised beds—keeping track of all the details can be overwhelming. But fear not, because I’ve broken down the best practices for record-keeping into two groups: essential data (for gardeners of all levels) and advanced record-keeping (for the more experienced among us).

For Gardeners of All Levels: Essential Data

Make a Map

Make a map to scale to record what you plant where. Figure out how much space each crop will need, mark it on your map, and plant accordingly. You will need the map for your garden next year to practice crop-rotation, a very old farming practice that avoids planting crops of the same families in the same spot for at least two years in a row. For example, peppers, eggplants, potatoes, and tomatoes are all members of the nightshade family, so you should not plant tomatoes in the same spot where you planted peppers the year before.

Each vegetable takes different nutrients out of the soil, and the plants can leave disease pathogens behind that survive even subzero winters and are ready to attack if they find fresh plants of the same family the next year. Crop rotation breaks that disease cycle. If you go by the book, plants of the same family should ideally not be grown in the same spot for three to four years. But frankly, that can be difficult to implement even if you have a large garden, so I’d recommend sticking at least to the two-year rule.

Keep Track of Planting & Fertilizing Dates

Recording the dates of what you planted is especially important when starting vegetables from seed, so you’ll know the time frame in which you can expect to see growth, or whether the seeds have failed to germinate and you should reseed.

Record the dates when you add fertilizer and which type, as well as the dates when you applied products for pest or disease control. By and large, too little is better than too much, because overdoing fertilizer or chemicals can harm your plants.

For Experienced Gardeners: Advanced Record-Keeping

Make Note of Harvest Dates

Recording the harvest dates for crops like garlic is crucial because if you wait too long, the cloves will have started to separate, and the garlic won’t store well. When crops are ready to be dug will vary by variety, as well as the weather, but this year’s harvest date will give you a reliable target date to harvest in subsequent years, subject to fine-tuning.

Keep Pests Top of Mind

Note when pests and diseases pop up, such as the Colorado potato beetle. That way, you’ll know next year when to watch out for those striped pests and you can take the necessary pest control measures right away.

Know Your Favorites

Write down the names of vegetable varieties and the seed company or nursery where you purchased them. With so many different varieties of every vegetable, this will help you keep track of which beefsteak tomatoes did well and tasted the best.

Expand Your Records to the Whole Yard

The above lists are for edible annuals (vegetables, herbs, and fruits such as melons) but keeping track of what you plant elsewhere in your yard is a good idea, too. In gardening groups on social media, I often see cries for help like “Can you identify this plant? I planted this last fall and I have no idea what the heck it is.” Writing down which plants ended up where in your yard sets the whole ecosystem up for success, year after year.

What's your experience with record-keeping in the garden? Tell us how you go about it below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Cody Allen McKibben
    Cody Allen McKibben
  • JenGirlCooks
  • Tracy Sullivan
    Tracy Sullivan
  • Smaug
  • Nadia Hassani
    Nadia Hassani
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Cody A. May 13, 2021
Gardeners Supply Company has what you crave!
JenGirlCooks May 13, 2021
Creating a list of plants each gardening season and/or year is clever. Mapping out plots is helpful too since my garden space is a shared plot in my apartment complex. For years my husband and I create a spreadsheet for each ear with plant names, dates of planting, fertilizing, harvest and usage. Ex: radish seeds, lettuce, tomatoes (fresh eating or canned), cucumbers for pickling etc.
Nadia H. May 13, 2021
Glad that you are bringing up shared garden plots! Detailed record keeping like you do is even more essential when others have access.
Tracy S. May 12, 2021
One of the first things we did when we moved in to our current home (ripping out unwanted plants and putting in a few fruit trees aside) was make a diagram of our entire property.
My mom thought it was hilarious, since I've always gravitated to this sort of mapping out of things.
However, I can tell you that tree is a honeycrisp apple, that's a bing cherry, and those giant apricots are lornas. No one is allowed to look at my beloved Moore Park Apricot though!!
I also wrote first harvest dates, which my husband found amusing, but sure enough, within a couple days of it the following year, they were ready.

I've now mapped out my greenhouse so I can move stuff around without breaking my back to accommodate the winter and summer. I've labeled pots in order to keep track and rotate crops, too. I've started a journal for it, my puppies ate the first one I started last year :-( it was the first year with a greenhouse.

I'm looking forward to see what happens, and found your article beneficial for what to track. Thank you!
Nadia H. May 13, 2021
That sounds like some serious record-keeping and I can fully relate though I do not have a greenhouse (yet, still dreaming of one). While I did not have puppies eat my journal, nature messed with my record keeping in a different way this year. In January I started several plug trays with native perennials and marked every row with a permanent outdoor marker. The seeds need 60 days of chill to germinate and I kept the trays in a corner on the patio. I got a pretty good germination rate except the rows marked New York ironweed all looked like the neighboring wild bergamot, and some of the other trays have a bunch of strays too. I could not have mislabeled that many rows so I think the cycle of heavy snow load followed by thawing washed the seeds onto other rows.
Smaug May 11, 2021
This sort of thing can be helpful, though I can't say that I've ever found it anything like essential. It does bring up a point- with the onset of global warming, gardening by the calendar is becoming more and more unreliable- things like average temperatures by date compiled over decades are less and less an indication of what's going to happen this year.
On plant families- replanting of tomatoes is a particular danger largely because of some soil borne diseases they can carry, which are near impossible to eradicate. Something called "specific replant disease", which is neither a disease nor awfully specific (or familial) does exist, having to do with exhaustion of specific nutrients and harboring of certain pests in a particular location, but for most plants it's not such a big deal. For instance, I've grown all sorts of peppers with no problems with pests or diseases, and I don't worry much about planting tomatoes in spots where peppers have grown.
Food plants tend to fall to a great extent into family groups, solanaceae have been mentioned but other families have wide representation; the rosaceae (rose family) includes many popular berries (strawberies, blackberries, raspberries etc.) and fruit trees (apple, pear, quince and all of the prunus species- plums, apricots, peaches, almonds etc.). Most of the other berries are in the ericaceae (rhododendron family)- blueberries, cranberries, huckleberries etc. The soft herbs (parsley, cilantro, chervil, dill etc.), as well as carrots and parsnips, angelica, anise, cumin and many more are mostly from the umbelliferae. Common hard herbs (those that are perennial shrubs) such as rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, marjoram are largely from the labiatae, as are the various basils. So separating plants by botanical families is pretty tough in a food oriented garden.