Spring – it’s what we, as gardeners, eagerly anticipate all winter long. Yet, when it arrives, it can be so overwhelming. The spring season moves quickly, and there are lots to accomplish. No matter how I try to prepare, each year comes with a renewed sense of overwhelm.
So, how do you stay organized in the ever-changing world of the garden? I asked my email subscribers how they are managing their information, and I received a fantastic response reflecting a lot of diversity.
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Why Those Details Are Important
Gardening is part art and part science. Each season brings the unexpected and new variables to reckon with. Like me, many of you enjoy the experimental aspect that is just a fact of life in the landscape. Each season brings new joys and a few heartbreaks too. Noting what works, what doesn’t and why can make all the difference.
I always tell myself that I will remember those garden lessons when next year rolls around – and I’m always wrong. Yes, I never forget those big mistakes that I make along with everyone else (although I sometimes wish I could). It’s the little things that blur together as seasons pass, so I’m constantly striving to do better at keeping daily notes.
A record-keeping plan must be easy-to-use and accessible. If it’s not, we’ll be caught up in the moment and won’t take the time to make a note. Pest issues, favorite new vegetables, what grew well where, heavy periods of rain – harvesting all the details of your experiences will make you a better gardener as seasons progress.
Here, I cover methods being used by subscribers in all walks of life and with diverse preferences – from paper and pen to hi-tech. Let this pique your curiosity to explore what might work (or work better) for you.
Just a taste – Take a look at screen shots of a method used by Debbie LaGattuta using Microsoft® Powerpoint:
Organizational Tools That Work for Me
I’m a digital kind of guy. I don’t like the clutter of paper floating around. I always have my phone on me (of course), and I often need to access my notes while in the garden or from across the country when I travel. So if information is locked up at my office, it’s just not going to work for me.
For those reasons, I love any app or type of software that gives me access from my phone or my computer – or from any computer, if need be. Multi-platform and Cloud-based. That’s the life for me.
One of my favorites is an app called Day One. It’s a journaling app to note my gardening experiences. It sends me a reminder – every day – to post an entry, and all of my posts are searchable.
If I need to look for all my notes about pruning, I can search my entire journal for “pruning” and, since I’ve put those keywords and tags in place, everything related to pruning is suddenly at my fingertips. It doesn’t get much more convenient than that.
Journaling is cathartic – a way to capture my joy of gardening. I note frost dates, expenses, pruning notes, pest issues, moments to remember and so much more in my Day One app. I also like to include an image about my post topic or just to remind me of the day. I’m able to snap a photo with my phone and jot my note – all at the same time, while I’m standing in the sunshine with the dirt on my shoes.
Evernote is another favorite. This versatile app allows me to store information in many different formats. I scan a lot of different items – so I don’t have to deal with that paper clutter. I can categorize my scans and refer back to them from anywhere.
I’m also big on keeping a “to do” list. Between my show – Growing a Greener World®, my garden, my animals, my family, my business, and my blog and podcast – believe me, I would not survive without keeping to-do lists. It’s also just incredibly satisfying to be able to mark items as complete. I love that reminder that I am getting things done.
My favorite app for to-do lists is Nozbe. Since my lists are digital, none of the items will fall through the cracks of my busy life. Each item will remain on my list until I cross it off as complete. Sigh.
I can access the information on all of these apps from any computer too, so I’m never hamstrung by distance. Unless the power goes out. If that happens, let’s hope the batteries hold!
I also love spreadsheets. I often use Google Sheets to keep track of all sorts of things. Microsoft® Excel is another great one, and many of you are keen on the almighty spreadsheet to keep a handle on all the important little details from seed to harvest and beyond.
Getting a Hold of the Tangible Things
Organization isn’t just about information. We all have tools and supplies, and the easier they are to access at the moment, the more pleasurable our time in the garden.
For me, I love having a pegboard in my shed. I’ve taken the time to outline all the tools that hang on that pegboard, and believe me, the time it took to set that up has paid dividends in time savings every year.
If I forget to put the shovel back at the end of a long day, I can’t help but notice the gaping outline when I’m in the shed the following morning. It’s a visual reminder to get that shovel and put it away to be available for its next assignment.
I’ve been known to loan out a tool or two – voluntarily or involuntarily – and those outlines always remind me what I need to rein back in. This also helps me to take better care of my tools. A good tool, properly cared for, can last years.
For those smaller items that I constantly need at my fingertips, I’ve enlisted some different containers – including a re-purposed mailbox. Whether it’s gloves, sunscreen, pruners, twine, Velcro strips, bandages, etc. – I want those items close-at-hand when I’m “in the zone.”
Plant tags can be another tricky business. As I add to my landscape and garden each year, I don’t remember the specifics of each plant – like each member of my Japanese maple collection. You don’t need to either. But the tags that come with the plant aren’t exactly good looking, and they definitely won’t stand the test of time.
After a fair amount of searching, I found copper strips designed to be used as tags. They’re soft, so can I write the description of the plant with the tip of a hard pencil or pen. The copper strips age beautifully and don’t take the attention away from the plant itself. Every time I plant, I include a copper tag.
This last one is simple but often overlooked: Just having a place to set things down can make a world of difference as you work in the landscape. I’ve always loved my potting bench, so much so that I now have four of them at the GardenFarm™. Number five is on its way.
Sure, I use these benches for potting plants, but I also find them invaluable – when placed around my garden – to set down items like a flat of seedlings or my tool container (or sometimes a frosty beverage).
If you have any mobility issues, having a place to set things at waist level can really be a lifesaver.
It has taken me years to discover and develop systems of physical and information storage that work for me. We all have different quirks and pain points, so accept and embrace them to find what works for you.
Organizational Tools That Work for joe gardener Members
So much variety! So many options. As would be expected, my email subscribers are as diverse in their record-keeping approach as they are in their life experiences. Here’s a list from traditional to high-tech:
- Index cards: Before the days of digital, the index card was king. Little 3”x5” snippets of key information that some of you still love to run your fingers through. They are inexpensive, eminently re-shuffleable, and certainly portable. If you choose to use index cards, take a cue from some of the joe gardener members and make a point to review those cards during the hushed days of winter. The information you keep is only as good as your ability to put it to work for you later.
- Physical calendar: Be it a glossy bought-it-over-the-holidays 12-month job or a blank weekly planner found online and printed; some gardeners want to look back to specific points in time, and they use a physical calendar to note important items by date.
- Notebook: Some backyard warriors love the simplicity of an old-school notebook to keep lists of key details, to-do lists, topical information, etc.
- Binder: A good three-ring binder can offer quite a bit of storage diversity. Paper for notes, photo sleeves for pictures or seed packets, sheet protectors for memorable clippings or pressed flowers – everything can be all in one place.
- Microsoft® Word and Google Docs: These are popular options that can be accessed from any computer or smart device. Use them just like a digital notebook to journal, manage to-do lists, import digital pictures or scans, and more. They are easy to use.
- Microsoft® Excel and Google Sheets: These tools led the class for the most popular digital record-keeping tool. Many joe gardener members rely on their spreadsheet format for all kinds of details like seed inventory, wish lists, planting timelines, and harvest schedules. These applications can be pretty amazing when formulas are incorporated – simply enter your first frost date, and formulas can calculate and fill in the planting times for all your plants. Powerful stuff.
- Microsoft® Powerpoint and Apple Keynote: These applications are being used by some gardeners for diagrams of their garden, including supply needs.
- Microsoft® OneNote: This tool is used by some subscribers to enter drawings, add pictures, and plot the garden.
- Day One: This is the one I use too. One subscriber copies joe gardener show notes straight from the website and copies them right into her DayOne application. Nice to see the information in these show notes being put to good use! Gold Star for you, for sure.
- Microsoft® Visio: This software is typically used in the design, but it can also work well for plotting out the garden and landscape.
- Smart device applications: There are so many apps available with many different features. Some are garden-specific, while others are designed to organize any type of information. There’s simply far too much to detail here, so just as you do in the garden, experiment. Do a bit of “digging” into the world of apps to find options you might like. Many of them are free, so there’s certainly no harm in trying. Many, but not all, are multi-platform – meaning the information you store in the app can be accessed from any smart device as well as your computer. Here are a couple of smart device tools worth mentioning:
- Smart device reminders: Whether through the calendar or alarm clock that was built into your smart device, putting automatic reminders to work in the garden is about as easy as it gets. Some subscribers set annual reminders for key dates. For example, they set up a “time to start seeds” reminder and set it to go off once each year. After that, they never have to think about it again. It’s like having a digital assistant to keep you on track.
- Notes app: All smart devices come with a basic note-taking application. This, too, is an incredibly easy way to take your garden planning to a digital level. Keep a digital journal, manage to-do lists, and keep key notes all from the notes app on your device. Some gardeners take it a step further and copy their notes from the app and paste them into another software, like Word, for review or to build reminders for the following year.
- Burpee’s Garden Time Planner: Some members are using this free application from Burpee, and they love the built-in garden resources as well as the functionality to incorporate checklists and other notes.
- If you live in Alabama, this one’s for you: The Alabama Coop Extension Service developed an application called SOW. One subscriber shared with me some of what SOW does for him, and I have to tell you – I was impressed. Sadly, this isn’t available to the rest of us, but if you live in Alabama, be sure to check out SOW.
Going Above & Beyond
And the winner of the Super Fancy Organization Award is Chad Devers! Okay – the truth is, none of this was a contest, by any means. The whole point is that we are all so different, and none of us will be successful at keeping notes until we each find the method that fits us individually. However, Chad’s system was so detailed that I simply had to feature it in this episode.
Chad traced the Google Maps aerial view of his property and plotted it out digitally – allotting one square of the grid per foot of his suburban landscape. He can print his blank garden diagram to draw out different succession plantings each year. Since the whole thing is to scale, he can begin every project knowing what he’s working with before he even steps outside. Nicely done indeed, Chad.
Chad is admittedly very tech-oriented, but his concept could be useful for anyone. You could achieve the same effect using graph paper, colored pencils and the will to take those measurements accurately.
If you’re like me and you love a gadget or two, there’s a world of digital opportunity that you’ve probably already explored, but maybe this list has given you fresh ideas.
There are many of you who aren’t exactly comfortable in the digital realm. None of this technology is out of your reach. It is all very easy to use, once you know a few basics.
I encourage you to visit Udemy or Lynda.com to check out free or inexpensive tutorials that are available for the digital options listed here (and many more). Those and other training websites offer lots of short and easy-to-follow videos and instructions to walk you through things. Although you may prefer paper now, you might find that the convenience of having all this information on your phone will win you over.
No doubt, you’ve conquered more difficult challenges in your life than how to use a spreadsheet. So, give it a try.
Speaking of learning, consider taking advantage of the off-season with an important garden fundamentals refresher or to re-boot your approach to managing garden pests, diseases and weeds. I’ve created online courses as a response to requests from so many in the audience who wanted an organized and structured format for learning garden skills.
The courses walk you through what you need to know in a logical order. You don’t need to be “techie” for these – modules can be watched from any browser on your computer or a smart device – and at your own schedule. Plus, you can ask me follow-up questions there about your specific garden. I’ll continue to update the course information and bonus materials, because students get ongoing access.
Feedback from the gardeners at all levels, who are students in the joe gardener Online Gardening Academy courses, has been even more positive than I had originally hoped. Like it did for them, the course information will definitely help you feel more organized and prepared for the seasons to come. So, I hope you’ll join us there.
The Common Denominators of Good Organization
I can’t stress it enough – the method you choose to organize your records must be a good fit for you. Convenience is key. This should be habitual, or life will get in the way. Commit daily or weekly, but don’t rely on remembering at the end of the month or the end of the season. Whichever method you choose, it should meet these criteria:
- It’s simple and suits your style – know yourself enough to decide if the method is sufficiently appealing that you will commit to using it.
- It’s always accessible – The ability to add to or retrieve from your notes at the moment is the ideal. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll jot it down after dinner or once the kids have gone to bed.
- It’s easily reviewable – Once you’ve made a point of keeping it, make sure you can get to all that amazing information you’ve gathered. Whether you need to review it with fingers stained from the soil or while sitting by the fire in December, you should be able to find what you’ll inevitably be looking for.
A huge thank you to all the email subscribers who took the time to share their methodology and materials on organization. I am grateful for each one of you, and I look forward to continuing to learn more from our shared experiences.
If you aren’t part of the subscriber list, I invite you to join by clicking the red “Get Free Updates” box at the top of this page, and I encourage your comments at the bottom of the page as well.
If you haven’t already done so, I recommend listening to this podcast recording – in particular – to hear many specific examples of joe gardener subscriber record keeping. This group has some great, specific ideas for organizing and reviewing all their information. I guarantee this podcast will seed plenty of ideas for organizing your gardening life.
Links & Resources
joegardener Online Academy: Master Pests, Diseases and Weeds – my newest online course! Just $47 for lifetime access.
joegardener Online Academy: Gardener Fundamentals – my first online course!
Milorganite® – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com