I am not the most organized person in the world. I probably qualify as one of those mad scientist types with all my on-going projects, notes, books, and more cluttering up all my workspaces.
Despite the general chaos that surrounds me, there's one place where I am totally organized. That's in my garden when it comes to tracking what I plant, when, and where.
When you first start a garden and grow a row of peas, a patch of come and cut lettuce, and salad cucumbers, it's easy to be organized. As your skills and your garden varieties grow in number, it gets a lot harder to keep things straight.
Keeping track of multiple varieties of peas, beans, endless cool and hot season greens, summer squash, winter squash, cucumbers, melons, cabbage, broccoli, herbs and more, can get complicated. Which is why every gardener growing beyond the basics, needs to follow these three steps for good garden organization.
The Key to Garden Organization
First, you need a key to your garden. Now, I don't mean you need to lock it up at night or anything. I am talking about making a sketch of your garden and then using a key to unlock your planting varieties and keep track of your crop rotation history.
Step 1: Sketch and Number Garden Beds
My preferred method of doing this is to keep a sketch of my garden beds. Then, I number each garden bed starting at 1 through however many I have. After that, I make a separate list of my planting varieties and dates of planting using the bed number to keep things in order.
In my case, my beds are 3 feet wide rows, that run for 40 feet. For staple crops like sweet potatoes, I may plant the entire row with one crop. Generally, I will usually plant between 3 to 6 different kinds of vegetables in a row. So, even though my bed is just one long, wide row – for labeling purposes – I give each planting section a different number.
Step 2: Make a Key
Then, I keep a notebook where I write down what I planted in each numbered bed. I use a 5-year crop rotation plan. So, I keep notes in 5-year increments.
When I start a new notebook, I leave myself a couple of pages for each numbered bed. That way I can keep notes about planting, performance, fertilization, cover crops, etc. for the next five years. That makes it easy to double check and make sure I don't plant the same families in each bed more than once every five years.
I write my planting history including varieties, planting dates, and notes related to plant performance, pests, abnormalities, and harvest times on the right side of the notebook. Then I keep notes on the kinds of fertilizer and soil amendments I used on the left side. If I take soil tests, I also record test result highlights on the left.
You can certainly do this on a computer too. But, I like to take my notebook to the garden and fill it in as I plant, so that works best for me.
Step 3: Label Your Beds
Now that you have your map and key, the next step is to label the beds in the garden. Technically, once you have your key, you don't really have to mark your garden beds. However, doing so makes it a lot easier to check up on seedlings and plant progress without having to drag out your notebook or computer every time you do some gardening.
Plant Labels as a Garden Tool
Using plant labels as a garden tool has numerous advantages. On the labels, I like to include the name of the vegetable, the variety planted, and the date planted. This helps me weed, identify plant needs, and stay connected to my garden.
1. Early Weed Identification
Vegetable seedlings are distinguishable from weeds even when they first break ground. For example, cole family crops like cabbage and turnips tend to have two cotyledons that look like cut in half, four leaf clovers.
The seedlings look nothing like grass, and they emerge larger in size than most other broadleaf weeds. Knowing what vegetable type is supposed to grow in each bed, and what seedlings for those plants are supposed to look like, means you can start weeding with confidence early.
When you experiment with a new heirloom plant for the first time, you may not know what it will look like when it germinates. Identifying the spot where you planted it with a plant label, will prevent you from confusing it with a weed when it breaks ground.
2. Germination and Growth Tracking
Using the date of planting helps you quickly identify when something has gone wrong. If you plant mustard seeds and they aren't up within a week of planting, likely birds ate your seeds. Or, you had bad seeds, or it got too warm for germination.
Alternately, grass-like leaves coming up in your carrot beds after just a day or two are more likely to be grass than carrots even though they look similar to start. Carrots take more like 14-21 days from planting to germinate.
Also, if you know how fast plants are supposed to grow, then a glance at planting dates can help you determine if your plants are on track for good production. As an example, for fast-growing plants like French Breakfast radish, if they don't start to bulb up a couple of weeks after planting, I know my bed is short on some kind of mineral or water.
Using labels to help you monitor plant growth is one of the easiest ways to spot problems in your beds and solve them quickly.
3. Not-So-Plain Garden Variety
Showing the plant variety on labels is important to me because it makes gardening more personal. Like knowing someone's name instead of just calling them the “mail carrier” or “the UPS guy,” knowing your varieties makes plants more than just food. That name tells a lot about the history of the plant, particularly with heirloom varieties.
Plant Markers for Functionality
Depending on the type of garden you are growing, the plant labels you make can be quick and easy for tracking purposes only. Here are a few ideas for simple, functional plant labels.
1. Ice Cream Sticks
Use inexpensive craft store ice cream sticks to write your vegetable information in permanent marker. These are cheap and compostable. Paint sticks also work well for this purpose.
2. Plastic Forks
Using plastic forks and a permanent marker is equally easy. This is a great way to reuse all those post-cookout or holiday party plastic ware that would otherwise hit the landfill.
Write your plant information on a clothespin using a fine tip marker. Then, clip it to a branch or chopstick for an easy plant label. You can always return these to the laundry line after use too. Just rinse them off first!
Plant Markers for Decoration
Beyond just being functional, labels can also be highly decorative. If you are growing a potager (an ornamental vegetable garden) raising the bar on your labels can make your beds more beautiful and add charm, particularly while plants are young.
For decorative purposes, your labels should match the theme of your garden. Rustic labels do well in country gardens. Fancy painted labels are great for cottage gardens.
Here are some beautiful label ideas to inspire you to take your label-making to the next level.
1. Right From the Woods
These stakes are super simple to make. Some softwood branches, a good vegetable peeler, and a permanent marker are all it takes to add a little rustic flair. I recommend using a large-tipped marker for the vegetable type, then use a small-tipped marker to include your variety and planting date.
2. Sweet Like Soda
These are absolutely perfect for the Shabby Chic or French-style garden. I can't believe this plant marker is just a stamped soda can with a scroll saw frame stuck to a skewer. So clever!
3. The Classy Cork and Fork Combo
I use corks as plant markers a lot. Usually, I just put them on free chopsticks that friends who eat out collect for me. However, if you want to dress up your cork label, add in a fork, and a bit of twine. Suddenly, simple corks become five-star plant markers.
4. The Coffee Lover
Don't know what to do with all those coffee lids you feel guilty about getting every day? Put them to good use in your garden. Black covers with white writing emulate a farmer's market chalkboard feel. But other colors could be put into play to add color and pop to an eclectic garden.
5. Glassy and Classy
If you have wine corks, I bet you have bottles too. Put those empty bottles, and a little paint, to creative use in the garden. This chalkboard look is just the beginning of what you can do with some glass paint and a few minutes of free time.
6. Lollipop Lid Lifters
Want to lift the lid on leftover canning supplies? Turn your used tops into lollipop-like plant markers. This one is great for kids' gardens too!
These are my personal favorites. I love the simple style and the height. I am going to try them in my garden using slightly larger placards so I can include my plant variety names for visitors to read.
Even if you are disorganized in the rest of your life, keeping track of your plantings using a garden map and key, and identifying your plants with functional or fabulous plant labels can make gardening a whole lot easier.
With just a little extra effort and creativity, boring old plant labels can become works of art that add interest as seedlings start growing. Why not let your creativity soar and help your garden skills grow with some good organization?