NEW MARKET, Va. -- Odds are many of the best garden writers go unpublished. They're backyard diarists, lavender lyricists, row crop record-keepers, poets among the palms. That's yourself, perhaps private, but with a passion for plants germinating into powerful prose.
Garden journals don't represent a new body of literature. Medieval herbalists used journals to describe the effects and counter-effects of medicinal plants. Victorian gardeners laced their musings with pressed flowers, a variety of scents or sketches -- sometimes all three.
One of the most noteworthy journal keepers was Meriwether Lewis, who jotted down thousands of entries about botany, the sciences, astronomy, cartography, natural history and day-by-day events during his expedition's Voyage of Discovery from 1804 to 1806. He was following the orders of President Jefferson, who wanted observations about the soil, animal life and plants -- particularly plants not known in the East.
"Few explorers who saw and did so much that was absolutely new have written of their deeds with such quiet absence of boastfulness, and have drawn their descriptions with such complete freedom from exaggeration," Teddy Roosevelt, something of an explorer and naturalist himself, said in Stephen Ambrose's "Undaunted Courage."
Lewis learned his botany from Jefferson, but had a writing style all his own. Here's a journal passage from July 17, 1805, about sunflowers:
"The sunflower is in bloom. The Indians of the Missouri particularly those who do not cultivate maze make great uce (sic) of the seed of this plant for bread, or use it in thickening their soope or add a sufficient quantity of marrow grease to reduce it to the consistency of common dough and eate it in that manner. The last composition I think much best and have eat it in that state heartily and think it is a palatable dish."
Literature or logs, journals can be as diverse as the bulbs in your flower garden.
"Many people start by describing seasonal checkpoints, but eventually delve deeper almost into a philosophy about growing as a human being," says Debbie Garman, publicity manager for Timber Press in Portland, Ore.
She cited E.A. Bowles and Grant Stewart Thompson as the deans of gardening reflection. Reviewers credit them with being as accomplished with their pens as with their spades. Both Britons advanced garden journal writing to readable new highs.
However you write, whatever your goals, make the journal your own. Be anecdotal. Be reflective. Be thorough.
Record your failures along with your successes. Log what you've learned along the way.
If you're more literal than lyrical, you might separate the seasons by noting the planting dates, germinating dates, transplanting dates, first harvest dates and something about your yields or production.
Include the weather and something about the microclimate. Report the date of the last freeze, precipitation amounts and how much mid-afternoon shade moves across the garden.
A garden journal is a year-round project, but things probably will pick up in early spring as you begin diagramming your dreams. Note the garden catalogs from which you order, especially if they're new to your mailbox.
Keep your journals in three-ring notebooks, or something easy to flip while wearing gloves. Add plastic sleeves to protect against weather and wear and tear as you carry the journal on your daily rounds. Add some empty seed packets, pressed blooms, before-and-after pictures and jottings about a particular plant variety. Or consider using an attractive cover within which to record your thoughts in reflective moments away from the garden.
Published or no, what may begin as a tool for celebrating each season could grow, in the end, into a book for the ages.
"Garden journals have been an invaluable source of information both about what was commonly grown in any particular period but also give marvelous insight into the lives and times of the garden's owners," says Michael Weishan, publisher of the magazine Traditional Gardening.