Trial and Error in Slow Motion

2joe3Gardening is trial and error in slow motion. That’s one of the reasons it takes a lifetime or two to master.  Planting guides, books, and websites can all help (in fact, there’s a list of a few we particularly like at the end of this post) but at the end of the day each garden has a microclimate all its own: different landforms, different soil, different wind, different bugs, different temperatures and rainfall totals.  And then there’s the biggest factor: you.   How often you’re in the garden and what time of day, how and when you like to fertilize, what choices you make for pest management and planting and harvesting schedules- it all makes a difference to your outcome.  Add to that the fact that soil and seeds and plants move at a pace that makes the ubiquitous garden snail look like a sprinting champ and you see why recordkeeping is so important in the garden- because you usually can’t know if something is working or failing for months or even years.

Sometimes it feels like I’m just figuring out the same puzzles again and again. Here’s a conversation I have with myself annually around March:


“Now why did I decide not to grow tomatoes ever again? Because I don’t love to eat them? No that’s not it”

I plant 20 tomato plants. Then, in July…

“Oh yeah! Because they’re huge and sprawly and by July they’re covered in horrible leaf footed bugs.”


Even my notes don’t always save me:


“300 onions ?! That can’t be right. That seems insane.”

I plant 100 onions and have sold and eaten all of them within a month of harvest….

“Dang it, ok, make a note, next time at least 350 onions!”


We plan, we sweat, we remember, we forget. We keep records to track what’s happening over time and, hopefully, avoid the traps we’ve discovered in the past. I (attempt to) keep three discrete types of records for my garden:

  1. A map of what is planted where and date planted each season. This is especially helpful when I’m planting seeds, so I remember how long ago they went in and know whether to re-seed. This map also often sports a list of what produced well, what weird things happened, and what failed.
  2. A running list of what pest control, amendments and other helpful practices I attempt in the garden and when they take place.
  3. A ledger of money spent and money earned from my garden. Since I sell lots of what I grow, this helps me to see if I’m breaking even or even making money on the garden. I try to also include what we eat from the garden, since that’s a big money saver, but I haven’t yet been diligent enough on that score to have what feels like a reliable record.

There are online tools, apps and software programs to help with all this.  I haven’t tried any of it.  I make spreadsheets.  My planting map is rudimentary.  It looks like this:plantingmap

Even with my somewhat clunky tools, with each season that passes I get a better, more complete picture of how well my garden is doing over time and what I can do to help it keep improving.

What records do you keep? How do you keep them?

Here are the two resources I use most:

Vegetable Planting Calendar for Travis County

Garden Guide for Austin and Vicinity