Gardeners seeking a different kind of growing experience might try keeping a journal. It's a great way to get a better picture of what's happening in your yard.
"To effectively journal is to learn the art of observation," said Elizabeth Haegele, a horticulturist who teaches nature journaling at the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, Pa. "It's a tool for learning patience and using time. You come away with impressions you wouldn't necessarily get if you took up a camera."
Journals can be as varied as the landscape. Some hold personal observations. Others detail plants and insects. Many resemble a ship's log, noting such things as the dates of the last killing frost or the seasonal return of a favorite bird species.
"You don't have to live on a farm or a cabin in the woods. You can find nature wherever you are," Haegele said. "Write about an eclipse. Colorful butterflies. There are plenty of things you can see just by looking out your window."
Journal styles vary, but often include:
• The four-part Grinnell system. That includes observations made while in the field, more detailed accounts written later, an index of found species and then a combination of all that material, including plant and wildlife samples. "That makes for a complex, complicated journal," Haegele said. "It's work but it's great fun. If you're trying to learn plants, that's a good way to go about it."
• Phenology, or studying the life cycles of plants and animals. "Some people simply use a calendar to describe what's going on around them," Haegele said. "It could be an entry about when the creek freezes or the flowers bloom. It can show how things might be evolving. It plays an important part in the total picture."
• Specific locations. "When I was a kid, I blocked off a 3-foot-by-3-foot section and observed it over time," she said. "It taught me things about soil, leaf composition and birds in the area. It provided a full natural history picture of my neighborhood."
• Chronology. "Include something about your day, your month. Add personal accounts and anecdotes. Mix words with pictures. Make it a scrapbook for jogging your memory," Haegele said.
The journal itself can range from an inexpensive D-ring binder to a notepad, sketchbook or clothbound book. Add pages with pockets for storing seed packets, garden plans, sales receipts or dried flowers.
Also, you can go on the computer to find Web-based organizers or gardening software. One is PlantJotter.com, which includes a database of more than 2,200 plants, a maintenance calendar, file space for integrating reference material and photos, and links to other garden resources.
"I was a gardener looking for a way to leverage the available technology for keeping organized records online," said PlantJotter founder Barb Hegman, from Minneapolis. "I did a survey of 2,000 Minnesota master gardeners and their journaling habits, and that told me they were looking for the same thing."