By Julia Frisbie
posted April 8, 2021
Our garden journals deserve more attention, not just as logs of previous activity, but as climate resilience tools.
As last frosts come earlier, first frosts come later, and seasonal drought intensifies, we’ll either adapt the way we grow food, abdicate this responsibility to the private sector, or go hungry. Even with careful study and observation, our climate is changing faster than our information. What will we do as traditional planting dates become less useful? My garden is my antidote to climate despair, and it gives me a sense of resilience… but that feeling is misplaced if I am not actively adapting my practices to our changing climate.
The wild plants around us are adapting, too, and they’re doing it based on better information. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes waiting for the sap to rise during a New England winter: “The fact is, Maples have a far more sophisticated system for detecting spring than we do. There are photosensors by the hundreds in every single bud, packed with light-absorbing pigments called phytochromes. Their job is to take the measure of light every day… We who lack such sophisticated sensors look for other signs. When hollows appear in the snow around the tree bases, I start to think it’s tapping time,” (Braiding Sweetgrass, page 65).
What if, instead of logging our garden activity by date, we logged it by phenological cues? Like, “Big uptick in birdsong, robins everywhere. Transplanted sweet peas.” Or, “Wild blackberry buds with southern exposure opening. Pre-soaked and sowed corn.” Dates are fine to log, too, as long as we’re aware that they’ll be less and less useful as climate chaos intensifies. But you can bet that the buffleheads and snow geese will still come and go, and the wild heuchera at ship harbor will bloom right on time.
Actually, maybe you can’t bet on it. Not all of our wild neighbors will make it. So let’s record phenological cues that are richly layered, not relying on any single species but reflecting snapshots of an ecosystem in motion. Let’s get curious every time we walk outside– whether it’s for a hike in the forestlands, or a drive to Safeway– about what’s happening with our more-than-human neighbors.
If you’ve never kept a garden journal before, I’d encourage you to set it up in whatever way will make it a pleasure, not a chore, to write in. I like to use small notebooks with blank, graph, or dot paper so that I have the option of drawing. The thing I draw most often are maps to show where each type of vegetable or flower was planted. Looking back on my maps helps me decide on crop rotations for the following seasons. I number the pages of my garden journal as I fill them, and gradually fill out a bullet-journal-style index on the first page to help me find things later.
There are big gaps in my journals, and I try to forgive myself for that. I’m not a machine, and my own body goes through cycles and seasons just like our plant neighbors do. When I can, I try to put in a “retrospective” page to capture important events from the gap, but it’s not a must-do. Whatever I get written down is a gift to my future self (seriously, I refer to entries from past years often) and also, hopefully, to whoever will tend this soil after I’m gone.
You can see in these photos that I’ve also experimented with de-colonizing my timekeeping, logging by moons instead of months. I had a hard time letting go of dates. So now I live with one foot in each world, recording both side-by-side.
Inspired by her Anishnaabe heritage, my seed-saving mentor Rowen White keeps a garden journal as part of her commitment to be a good ancestor: “I only wish I could read the garden journal of one of my ancestors, whose love of the earth still runs like wild rivers in my veins… I make a commitment to jot down my garden reflections in hope that some future descendent might glean some inspiration and hope from my ramblings and adventures with the earth.”
You don’t have to be genetically related to someone to be a good ancestor. You can leave a legacy of wisdom and reverent curiosity to whoever tends the same patch of soil after you. Make a plan for your journal, or at least a copy of its most relevant parts, to stay connected with this place. Excerpts from mine will stay with the house, and with any interested neighbors, long after I’m gone.
Julia Frisbie has been gardening in Coast Salish territory for six growing seasons, and is thankful to learn from plants, animals, and people who have been here much longer. She’s grateful to her mom, Anne Kayser, for cultivating her curiosity, and also to Robin Wall Kimmerer for writing the book Braiding Sweetgrass, which transformed her relationship with the more-than-human world. Follow Julia’s micro-farm on Facebook, Instagram, and/or TikTok.