A Storybook Garden

I didn't know it then, but my garden journals not only trace the history of the garden--they're also an intimate portrait of my family growing up together.

There’s an indispensable tool used for creating a garden that you’ll want to keep forever. It won’t be found hanging in a shed, and it doesn’t need oiling or sharpening, but it can make all the difference between a good season and a great one. It’s a garden journal, and even though it will help you keep your garden in order, there’s a much more important reason to record your thoughts.

 I’ve been keeping one since 1989, and it has taken many forms. The first one was just a thin, simulated-leather date planner with tiny 2-inch-square areas to write in and one column on each page for a monthly summary. I upgraded the next year to a wonderful garden journal from Rodale that has since been discontinued. It had lots of room to write, included tips, inspiring quotes, fun illustrations and even a page of graph paper to plan the next year’s garden.

As I look at my first couple of journals, I’m reminded that I actually measured my garden and tried to get my drawing to exact scale. I can only laugh now, as just a sketch of what’s going where would have sufficed; youth is wasted on the young, isn’t it?

But spending much of the winter planning is one of the true joys of gardening, and a journal helps you to remember where the tulips are planted and how many crocuses came up last spring. After the Rodale journal was no longer available, I had to find something else to write in. I’ve used everything from a school composition book to something called a personal journal that asks "What did you do to brighten someone else’s life today?" It’s actually kind of nice because when I fill out that entry, I think about what I’ll do tomorrow to help someone get through the day. I like the fact that there are no dates, and the journal can last for years depending on how often I use it.

Old journals also make the last few weeks of winter bearable. They are filled with old seed packets, letters from other gardeners, receipts from nurseries and more.  The spring entries are always overly enthusiastic, filled with grandiose plans and lists of new varieties to try. Cabin fever has obviously taken its toll, and the thought of getting outside is infectious and reflected in the writing.

 It’s funny to look back now and read the entries in those early journals. I worried whether my seeds would sprout or if it was too cold to set out broccoli plants. I was like a new parent who didn’t know anything about anything; in fact, I was a new parent who didn’t know anything about anything. My oldest son was 5, and the youngest was 3. And even though I didn’t know it then, these garden journals not only trace the history of the garden, they’re also an intimate portrait of a family growing up together. The story of my garden and of my family are an intertwining journey of discovery.

 I hadn’t looked at my journals in a long time, but I was searching for the specific variety of a fruit tree I had planted. During one of life’s wonderful coincidences, my wife, Cindy, was looking through all our old photos in an attempt to put something together for her parents’ 50th anniversary (the next day). During her prolonged and sometimes frantic search, I was enthralled by reading in the journal about the life I was living a long time ago, one chronicled in chicken scratch but compelling because of the subject matter. I slowly turned each page, trying to remember some of the plants and a few of the situations. My wife brought over some pictures of the kids in the garden, and I was able to match them up with some entries. I realized that this was more than a garden journal-it was my diary. Bad days at work, battling the flu, vacation notes filled the pages,  but the most precious entries were the short vignettes about the little moments of life with my wife and children.

 "January 26, 1991-Been watching a rabbit every night by moonlight under the bird feeder. This was the first night Matt was able to see him. We turned out all the lights, and Matt watched with amazement as the rabbit ate corn and stood up looking around."

 Reading that sent me back into time with a vision of the look on his face as that rabbit danced in the snow. I also completely forgot that I called my older son Timmy when he was young. How is that possible? Was it that long ago? By looking through the journals, I could come close to finding when we started calling him Tim. These mini-milestones just happen, like when your kids start calling you Dad instead of Daddy. A moment that we never even notice in the blur of life becomes another tiny change in the evolution of a family.

 "February 2, 1993: Timmy bought me a book on stars at school."

 "February 21, 1993: First sledding of the year. Saw three deer, Cindy and Tim noticed them first."

 It was odd to flip through so many pages and to see a year unfold in just a few moments. Sometimes there would be weeks or months without an entry, and that’s when my heart would sink because I wished I had written more. But looking back is always easier than looking forward. Back then I didn’t understand that the stories about my children, my wife and our time together would be the most precious and important things I would record. The days slipped by too quickly.

 I hope my journals become a legacy for my children to remember how our little garden helped us become a family. PM

 Doug Oster is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s "Backyard Gardener" and co-author of the best-selling book Grow Organic and A Gardener’s Journal.  He co-hosts the popular radio show "The Organic Gardeners" every Sunday morning on KDKA 1020AM. For more information about growing green, log on to theorganicgardeners.com


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