Garden journals

Sunday, 04 May 2014

My very first and my current garden journals

I have been trying to declutter my house in recent months, throwing out a lot of accumulated possessions that are of no use to anyone. However, one particular crate of apparent 'junk' had to be kept: that containing 30 years of my garden journals. A motley collection of assorted exercise books, hardback ledgers and spiral-bound notepads, they tell the story of my gardening odyssey.

Pansies were one of the first plants I grew

When I began the first book, in April 1984, I'd had a garden for about two years and it was comprised of plants bought from the local nursery along with cuttings from my parents' Blue Mountains garden. I solemnly recorded every plant I had growing - a medley of annuals, along with a few shrubs and perennials, with no rhyme or reason to their planting. At that stage, anything that actually grew simply enthralled me, but I loved annuals because they grew quickly and didn't take too long to flower. I pompously opined my 'theories' of gardening - which make for entertaining reading three decades later!

Billbergia vittata from the garden of my parents in the Blue Mountains

I knew few plant names, and plants in the journal were referred to as 'blue-flowering shrub' or 'groundcover thing'. I knew no other gardeners at that time, but shortly afterwards I joined a local garden club, and soon the journal entries included references to some of the people I had met and the plants they gave me, and gardens I visited with the club. There were a number of very experienced and knowledgeable gardeners in the club and they very kindly took me under their wing and taught me much. Very gradually, I began to learn the proper names of some of the plants - this eventually led to an obsession with correct Latin names, all recorded faithfully in my garden journals. Gardening tips and techniques that were passed on to me or which I read about were all jotted down: how to sow seeds, how to take cuttings, how to mulch ... Later I joined other groups and met gardeners who have become dear friends over the years and whose plants have enriched my garden beyond measure.

Campanula poscharskyana, one of the first plants I learned the name of; still in my garden today

I began to read a wide variety of gardening books, and I wrote down useful information I had gleaned from these books in my journal, even quite lengthy quotes from some of the books. I drew endless diagrams of how the garden looked and how I wanted it to look in the next year. I recorded what new plants I had put in, plants I wanted to get one day and plants I had promised to give other people. I was desperate to have an English-style cottage garden - all the rage in the 1980s. Many of the plants I wanted to grow were - in retrospect - hilariously unsuited for the Sydney climate, but try most of them I did, and reported back to my journal on how they had performed. As the years rolled by, I eventually worked out what thrived and what didn't, and had some epiphanies - such that plants from warmer climates did better in Sydney than plants from cold climates! This should have been pretty obvious from the start, but when I began gardening, the ideal was the cool-climate garden and many of us tried to emulate this. In the 1990s, there was a burgeoning interest in tropical-style planting and this helped me explore many plants I had never grown before, with greater success.

After a few years, I found I was looking beyond the individual plants and wanting to combine them together to form pleasing garden pictures, and realising that the structure of the garden is equally - if not more - important than the plants themselves. I noted in my journals planting combinations that I liked in gardens that I visited, design ideas, colour pairings - sometimes just a scrawl, but enough to remind me of what it was that had taken my eye. I laboriously recorded what flowers were out each week - these seemingly dull lists became a mine of information for planning plant groupings (to have things in bloom at the same time) and for finding out which flowers go on valiantly for ages and which are over with in a very short time. The diagrams and planting lists document the development over 10 years of our first garden, and over 20 years of our current garden.

There are garden journals like this available to buy

My current garden journal follows pretty much the same pattern as its predecessors - lists of wanted plants, plants I have promised to give people (ticked off when done so), interesting garden-related places to visit, ideas for planting ... It is probably those fleeting ideas that are the most valuable - jotted down when they appear in my mind. It may take years, but one day I might put them into practice. I still try to record every plant purchase - now I stick the plant labels into the journal itself. I seem to be using the journal more like a scrapbook at times - pasting in all sorts of things, such as pictures of plants torn from magazines, photos of plants and gardens, empty packets of seeds I have planted, even cards sent to me from other gardeners. I still note the date and place of planting for each new specimen - an essential reference for when forgetfulness strikes! I also keep rainfall records every year in my garden journals.

I believe all gardeners should think about keeping a journal. It may be of interest to no one but ourselves, but it is a wonderful record of our pursuit of our engrossing hobby.