Collecting And Deciphering Garden Data


It’s time to take stock.The soil and air are cooling, the grass growth is slowing down, the leaves are beginning to fall and it’s a perfect time to take an hour or two to walk around your property and take notes. Some will take mental notes and some will write them in a garden diary, but the main thing is to note went wrong, what went right and what needs to be done next year.

For nearly a decade I would put a page in a large looseleaf binder each time I bought a new perennial, tree or shrub. The top of the page would have the scientific name and common name. I’d also try, sometimes successfully, to note the size of the plant or pot it came in and where I had bought it, then I’d attach the label from the pot to the page with tape.

Over the years, I’d keep notes on the page on the history of the plant. I’d have a flowering history, insect- and disease notes, propagation notes and any other information that I thought might be relevant and helpful for the future.

I always thought this was a task that would be perfect for a computer and a database. Enter the information once and it’s saved forever. Enter a plant name, flower color or flowering date and zippo, the database shows the plant on the screen.

I researched, I asked friends, I even tried to coerce my geek son to set up the database but to no avail. My looseleaf binder, in the meantime, got thicker and thicker—to the point where it was 5 inches thick and just too unwieldy to take out into the garden.

Then along came the iPad. I figured, “great, now I have the device I can take out into the garden for data input. It’s small, light and I can even take it to garden centers so if I see a plant I want to buy I can simply whip out the iPad, call up the database, enter the plant name and the database will tell me if I’ve bought the plant before and if it’s still in my garden. Maybe even a picture as well.”

Great, but still no database. And my collection of nearly 500 various plants continued to grow. Some would thrive, some would multiply, and some would disappear. But which?

Then last year I discovered a database called Bento. It seemed to be able to do exactly what I needed and someone had even designed a garden inventory template that would be the basis of my own inventory program.

Fifty bucks later I was up and running and I could access all my data on my computer, iPad and iPhone. I was in plant database heaven. I spent a few days setting up the database and testing it, then I began to transfer my written information from my binder onto the computer. Life was good and I had fantasies of going into garden centers next spring with my iPad or iPhone and never again buying a plant that I already had, wouldn’t grow in my garden or that I needed a dozen more of.

But things got busy in the garden and at some point last spring it became more important to plant than do data input. As new plants arrived they’d go into the database, but after about 100 entries I had to set the project aside and get other work done.

Then the dirt hit the fan.

I read an article in July that said Bento was to be no more. It said that the company would stop selling it and cease all support in 2014.

I haven’t decided yet what to do. My thick looseleaf binder sits on the dining room table waiting for data transfer. Bento remains on my computer begging for input. I’m in dilemma-land.

Other databases have offered to fill the void but aren’t as elegant as Bento. My wife has convinced me to export all my data to an Excel spreadsheet just in case. Oh, what’s a horticulturist to do?

Well, there are other methods to my madness. I don’t sketch well but I do take pictures. So as I walk the property and I see a spot in the garden that needs something, I take a picture of the area in question. I then print the picture on plain paper and write my notes on the printout.

I’ll take the printed picture back out to the garden and note the plant names of the plants that I want to move, add to or delete. I write the notes on the picture or put numbers on the picture that are a keyed to notes I’ll write on another piece of paper. Come late winter or early spring I’ll have a written list based on these pictures of the plants I need to order.

When the new plants arrive in the spring, or when I hit the garden centers to buy them, I won’t have a clue by looking at the nearly bare garden where these plants go. Ah, but the reference picture that I’d taken months earlier will be my handy reference that shows me exactly what I wanted to do and where. Of course if I lose the printout with the notes on it (which has happened), I’m totally lost.

So then there’s plan B. This routine involves plastic flags that I place in the garden with notes on them. The flags come in a range of colors on stiff wire stakes so you can place the flag in the garden and it remains there until you remove it.

For those who don’t want the flags to be obvious, there are clear ones. For others, there are colors. Green flags tend to get lost. Clear flags tend to be invisible. So in my garden you always see a selection of pink, red and yellow flags.

As the flags are plastic (and come in two flag sizes) you can write notes on the flags with fine-tip permanent markers.

You can buy these flags at just about any hardware store or garden center. I’ve found that they are really helpful when you have something like a planting of lilies that you want to move from one part of the garden to the other. It’s hard to find the lilies once their foliage has died back and yet that’s the time when you want to dig and move them, like now. So back in July I put three small pink flags around the lily planting spot and wrote on them “dig and move in October.”

Of course this method won’t work for those of you that always need your garden neat and tidy, and I have to admit that seeing pink flags dotting my perennial beds can be a bit distracting but it works for me. Of course there’s always the problem of finding a flag that’s blank. No note at all.

Does it mark a spot? What does it mean? What was I thinking? Oh well, guess I’ll just leave it there and see what pops up.

Keep growing.

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