Get Growing: Tracking the Garden: Journals and Labels

Erica Browne Grivas

Erica Browne Grivas

Like lost socks in the laundry, plant tags tend to wander. Who knows what happens to them? Sometimes, they take a dive and bury themselves at planting, sometimes they fly away on the wind, and sometimes the tag sticks around, but the faded writing needs an archeologist to resurrect. Whether it’s happenstance, a mischievous raven or spirit having a little fun, it leaves the gardener at a loss as to how to proceed. Knowing what you’re growing is a basic building block for your horticultural efforts.

Garden Markers and Tags

Naturally I’d prefer to use less plastic in the garden overall, and there are a lot of tags each year. I’ve seen some lovely but pricey slate markers that I’d consider as a gift or to use in a small herb garden, for instance. There are also soft copper tags that can be etched with a pen that lasts basically forever, but they are not as easy to read. I would likely use these for long-term garden players like trees and large shrubs.

It doesn’t help with the hapless burying or puckish sprites, but to help with the fading of names, I’ve taken to marking wide and short black “chalkboard” plastic tags with a white waterproof “paint” pen. My second choice is pencil on a white plastic tag – pencil lasts better than Sharpie markers, though sometimes I’ll do both so I can read it from afar until the Sharpie layer melts away with watering.

This is one of the many times when a garden journal saves me. If I can’t name a plant, I hunt through my garden journals before I plant in its spot or dig it up.


Journals help you to remember what you planted. Some people simply keep ring binders with plastic pages to hold plant tags like baseball cards – I would probably alphabetize them.

A great thing about this is it subverts the user error I’ve encountered when I plant the plant, come inside having left the tag outside (probably to be soon blown away or buried), and then write down the wrong name. I know a lot of plant names, and often I’ll conflate two similar names or categories. This is why I can’t be sure if I have ‘Arnold Promise’ or ‘Primavera’ witch hazel – both yellow Hamamelis x intermedia cultivars. I’ve considered but never tried making an index card for every new plant to add notes to over the years, like a recipe card holder. Which would work for me if alphabetized until it gets so big I can’t lift it.

You’ll also want to note where the plant was put, because of the tag issues mentioned above – more on maps later.

For bonus points, consider including notes about how it performed amid onslaughts of rain, heat, slugs, and rabbits. You might note the date it was planted, when it emerged and what it looked like (very helpful when weeding in spring), and when it bloomed. How long did it bloom? If you fertilized it, what you used and when, and how it responded. How is it as a cut flower? Keep notes about unusual weather, if spring came late, or frosts came early. This helps you know when your plants bloom in varied conditions in your yard, helping you better plan new additions. Knowing that your allium bulbs bloom the first two weeks of June, at the same time as your groundcover rose is much more helpful than the catalog’s promise of “early spring”.

From Analog to Digital 

Years ago I journaled the analog way, freeform in a blank notebook. I found the act of creating a handmade testament to my gardening efforts rewarding, just looking at the stack of seasons past with an often-smug sense of satisfaction. However, these journals had no index. So if I wanted to look something up, it was impossible, without rereading every page, sometimes over multiple seasons, to find it – and sometimes even then.

There are premade journals, but I have yet to find the structure that vibes with my needs. I’m not purely a vegetable gardener, so need more than a planner. I don’t write every week, so I feel like a calendar-based one leaves a lot of unused paper.

For now, I write an annual Word document each year. It’s not tactile but takes less paper, and the key that puts this method over the top is: that it’s searchable. Can’t remember the name of the Baptisia? Search ‘baptisia” in my Mac finder, and scroll through the yearly documents using [command-f] until I find it. If you have an MS system, I imagine it has a similar function.

Special projects get their documents, like “Seeds to Buy” (wishlist for the year), “Seeds Master List” (what’s planted vs. remaining, so I know not to buy seven packets of Poppy ‘Amazing Gray’ again), Dahlias, Tomatoes, Flowering Bulb Lawn and Fall Bulbs.

I also have a “master plant list” Excel document, but, while searchable it’s unwieldy and hard to read. Having started it about twelve years ago, I have scores of plants (bare-root plants, bulbs, and dahlias) still listed that disintegrated before I figured out where the most well-drained spots were in our yard. Their names stand because a) hope springs eternal and b) laziness.


But then there is the need to locate where you’ve put the plant, now that you know what it’s called, meaning maps. This is simple if you only plant the same three raised beds or window boxes every year, you can just draw some boxes on paper or the computer, or you can use a planning app – these are usually for vegetables, but not always. In my garden, I have multiple freeform beds as well as raised beds and containers that change regularly.

Even in my computer journal, it seems inefficient to write descriptions of the location, like “planted between Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and Hellebore ‘Ice n’ Roses Rose’, in the center of the NW-facing bed along the fence.” As a visual person, I find it invaluable to see what’s happening – and how much room might be left.

My dream is to have a master plan diagram for each section of my garden, that I can just edit with a few keystrokes. Dahlia [erase] (rotted) Pacific Coast Iris [insert]. I have tried in Word using bubbles (that lasted a couple of hours before I threw my hands up), and have yet to find the right program for a non-landscape designer, so I have made single-page maps on graph paper. I’ve lost these at least twice, so my organization system needs help!