The benefits of keeping a notebook for the garden

The beauty of designing your own notebook means you can record what it is you care about

Fiona Coull holds a hand-drawn guide to a herbaceous border.

In 1966, the great nonfiction writer Joan Didion wrote a personal essay titled ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ in which she discusses the intimacy of ephemera and her need to record observations of life’s details. It’s a gorgeous essay, more about how we change over time than about note-taking per se, which reminds me of how gardens change over time and how we – fallible and flawed – forget.

Plant names, origins, zones, preferences. Sun or shade? Perennial or biennial?

You don’t need to know everything to be a great a gardener, but you do need to know how to find what it is you need to know. And I’ll argue that your own notebook is the best place to start.

Enter the blank page, the recipe box, a map, or the spreadsheet – whatever spurs you to record the details of life outdoors.

My garden notebook lives on my potting bench. It’s black, hard-covered – a large sketchbook, wire bound, its pages notched address book style (by me), A to Z.  Originally an inch thick, the book now bulges to an ungainly three inches given I have stapled plant tags into it. This stapling may not be the best idea given that plastic brittles with age, but the stapler is faster than hand-recording every detail and ease of use equates to likelihood of use in my life, particularly when it comes to systems of personal organization.

Given I have a penchant for botanical Latin, I organize my notebook by plant name, not location. One problem with this alphabetical approach is that one must remember a plant’s genus. Failing that, a flip through is always fun and a solid endorsement for the plant tag approach – as we all know, when it comes to memory, pictures work. (A map or a what’s-in-which-bed guide can also jog a memory.)

My sketchbook gives me the option to jot notes: I record failures predominantly – what has died and why (if I know), or where I’ve moved a plant and when. Under ‘M’ for magnolia, this sad story unfolds: “Magnolia soulangeana ‘Rustica rubra’ 2009? Front road. No go – clay/wind. In rear border, ok. 2011: Needs staking? Colour 5/10.” Four years on, my notebook reminds me the magnolia doesn’t look much better and I’m due to cut my losses. The older I get, the more I realize most gardens are too small for me.

I’ve assigned at least a few pages for each letter of the alphabet and a lengthier ‘death’, ‘dahlia’ and ‘rose’ sections at the back.

I find happier notes under ‘P’: “Parahebe perfoliata, 2008. In damp. Repeat blue bloom.” Next to this note, I’ve sketched three stars. Later, I find Pittosporum ‘James Stirling’. “Hard hit by north wind, 2011: Needs new spot. Moved 2012, but needs more shade to stay bright green…’ That ellipsis is spot on: many plant stories never end. In the case of the Pittosporum, I should add, “2015 – Happy now with drainage. Great vase life.”

The beauty of designing your own notebook means you can record what it is you care about. I’m interested in bloom time and have noted Cephalaria gigantea as: “Excellent, pale yellow, begins June 15,” or for the tall pink-blooming deer-proof perennial, Eupatorium aka Joe Pye-Weed, “August: Pink looks awful next to yellow. Move.”

Didion writes that her notebook is ‘an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.’ I hasten to agree. After six years, my book has swollen so that it can never really be shelved. It will not go down in the annals of history. It will remain dirty, accessible, and useful. A record of who I was, what I wanted for my garden, and how together we have grown.

Christin Geall teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria and is an avid gardener.